Popular resistance to the deportation of Gambians from Germany: What is happening and the way forward
August 21st, 2023 - written by: Rossella Marino and Mustapha Sallah
Header image taken from 360pluz News Company - Concerned Gambian Youth Network visiting the Vice President of The Gambia
Deportation: a chronic predicament
The forcible removal of illegalised migrants is always a sensitive fact for the individuals and the communities involved. It is even more so when grassroots demonstrations and a limited degree of governmental opposition could not manage to stop this harmful practice. Indeed, after the relative deceleration connected to the impossibility of travelling due to Covid-19, the European Union (EU) has resumed its deportation of undocumented migrants and rejected asylum-seekers to their countries of origin. Among EU Member States, Germany has been at the forefront of deportations of illegalised individuals to West Africa and in particular The Gambia. Smallest country on mainland Africa, The Gambia has long been one of the most prominent hubs of emigration on the continent. Germany is a preferred destination for Gambians because of its better economic opportunities compared to other European countries. This preference has turned into a substantial presence of Gambian nationals in Germany, which German authorities have met with recurrent deportation waves. A moratorium on deportations from the EU that Gambian President Adama Barrow – the successor of autocrat Yahya Jammeh – introduced in 2019, was followed by the European bloc’s visa-related sanctions. This eventually caused the government of The Gambia to re-allow forcible removals. This move is, unsurprisingly, producing dissatisfaction among Gambian residents as well as indignation and fear among the diaspora, both amplified and interconnected through a wider utilisation of social media than in the past. The grassroots mobilisation of Gambians and international supporters across borders, accompanied by the unresponsiveness of both Gambian and European authorities, begs the question of which strategy to adopt as a solution to the deportation predicament.
Germany’s “repatriation offensive” in numbers
In 2021, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz became the head of a governmental coalition including his Social Democratic Party, the Greens, and the liberal Free Democratic Party. Those expecting this relative leftward turn to produce more progressive stances in relation to migration, were soon disappointed. To start with, the German government has continued to reproduce a securitising discourse on migration, connecting the need to boost deportations to a knife attack occurring in early 2023. Pledging to launch a “repatriation offensive” which would target alleged criminals and terrorists, the government legitimised a sweeping wave of removals to narrow the gap between people who are ordered to return and those who actually do. What causes this gap to exist, beyond the resistance staged by affected individuals and groups themselves, is mainly the impossibility to identify certain citizens because of their home countries not cooperating in their readmission. These persons will normally be issued what is called “Duldung”, or a tolerated status in Germany. The Duldung is a peculiar legal construction, as it allows some precarised asylum seekers to be employed while technically remaining deportable. Around 300 thousand illegalised migrants are directly threatened by deportation, 250 thousand of them falling under the Duldung scope. Gambians constitute the largest nationality out of this group in the German region of Baden-Württemberg. Deportation Alarm indicates that, this year, deportation flights to the West African country have been occurring since February, with a total of 75 Gambians being deported up to mid-June. First-hand information from the German government brings this figure up to 94 deportees. Other countries in the sub-region, including Senegal and Nigeria, have been receiving deportees in 2023. More flights are scheduled for the upcoming months, as the German government is determined to reverse the trend according to which only one in three supposed deportations actually take place. Deporting more individuals is part and parcel of a bigger attempt to stem unwanted migration, alongside preventive accords with migrant-sending countries and swifter border operations.
Far from being an exclusively German concern, such an attempt is underway at the European level. EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson lamented too low a “return rate”, connecting it to an erosion of trust in the EU’s asylum system and a need for legal and orderly migration, in March 2023. On 8 June 2023, the EU’s Home Affairs Council reached an agreement on the reform of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS), placing a disproportionate responsibility over migrants’ reception on to frontier EU Member States in its current form. Rather than increasing and better sharing these responsibilities vis-à-vis the newcomers, the EU decision-makers have again made them the object of direr scenarios. Among the most disturbing points of the plan, the negotiators have agreed on further externalising migration control on to third states; upscaling border procedures and therefore detention, with a view to returning unwanted individuals directly; and exchanging responsibility over arrivals for financial payments. If finally embraced, this will erode asylum protection further and most likely result in additional push-backs. A recent shipwreck in the Mediterranean, causing the ascertained death of 78 people and the dispersion of hundreds more, possibly connected to a push-back attempt by Greek authorities, is a burning reminder of the intolerable existential danger that these practices constitute.
From the PR of the Concerned Gambian Youth Network
Transnational resistance from the grassroots
Deportation waves are usually met with resistance: the current one is no exception. In the German city of Stuttgart, Gambians and locals protested the ongoing deportations during a demonstration organised by the Gambia Refugee Association Europe Branch in May 2023. TikTok images from the happening show protesters carrying Gambian flags, holding no-to-deportation banners and chanting for freedom of movement. Diaspora activists have been releasing critical statements on the forcible removals. Yahya Moro Yapha, previously a Gambian Diaspora mentor at Migrant Media Network (MMN), used Facebook to warn Gambians of targeted police checks in certain areas of Berlin. He cautioned that this was related to Gambian officials’ nationality-verification visit to the German capital. Yahya Sonko from the Refugee Council of Baden-Württemberg for Gambia called for the disproportionate police measures taken in the context of deportations to be investigated by The Gambia’s National Human Rights Commission. TikTokers like the Gambian @fatoujawneh and @bossladymadamkarra4 as well as the German @sunny_sunshines_platform routinely address the deportation issue with emotional and widely followed livestreaming and videos which connect concerned viewers across borders.
The transnational discussions facilitated by the interaction on social media and messaging apps have brought together the aforementioned activists, TikTok sensations and regular people in heterogenous grassroots movements, such as the one initially known as “No to Deportation” and now calling itself “Concerned Gambian Youth Network”. The creation of this group points to the synergies that concern for an issue such as the threat of deportation can create between different profiles. The Concerned Gambian Youth Network is in the process of constituting itself as an official organisation in The Gambia. Furthermore, it is trying to organising a demonstration in the country for which they have unsuccessfully asked official authorisation. After complaining about this incident on tv and addressing letters to various authorities, the Gambian Vice President hosted them to hear their concerns. During this meeting, the Vice President reportedly told the members not to be able to stop the deportations, but that minimisation and mitigation strategies would be put in place. The group potentially has a large following because of the mediatic exposure of part of its members, but being able to carry out demonstrations outside of the digital sphere would surely expand it. A few weeks after the meeting with the Vice President, a representative from the group met the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The latter’s remarks did not substantially differ from those of his governmental colleague. The Minister stressed not to be able to stop deportations per se, that getting asylum for Gambians has become much harder after the demise of Jammeh’s regime, and that the travelling of officials like him has been severely affected by the EU’s sanctions. He nevertheless vowed to work on reintegration and announced to be planning a visit to Germany for the fall.
A representative of the collective Youth Against Irregular Migration (YAIM) was present in the meeting with the Minister of Foreign Affairs. YAIM is an association of migrants who have not been forcibly returned to The Gambia but took part in what is known as assisted voluntary return. YAIM has contributed to the debate by addressing the deportation issue during its regular Friday radio programme, receiving calls from the audience manifesting their disappointment at the government for allowing these forcible removals to take place. Solidarity initiatives have proliferated on the rest of the African continent. For instance, the activist network Boza Fii advocated against a deportation flight from Germany, which, regrettably, took place regardless. Deportees were handcuffed during the flight; one even had his feet tied too. Upon their arrival in Senegal, Boza Fii helped them find accommodation, in the nearly total absence of institutional presence and support. The organisation has released the testimonies of some of these deportees, all apprehended with little or without any prior notification, despite, in certain cases, having legally resided in Germany for long or suffering from health conditions.
The Gambian government’s (in)action between popular pressure and European plans
Beyond the suddenness and violence of these deportations, what protesters complain about are mainly two concerns linked to them. First, the injustice of being forcibly removed from a place that migrants reach thanks to the financial and logistical effort of their families and communities as well as through the facing of a deadly and traumatic journey for which the victims hardly receive any restoration. Second, the over-reliance of such families and communities on the remittances of migrants abroad. In The Gambia, when adding an estimation of informal remittances to formal ones, one gets a potential amount as high as half of national GDP (UNCDF 2023). Deportations, therefore, constitute an existential threat for the thousands of Gambians who rely on often exploited and mistreated relatives and friends working abroad, amidst a neoliberal globalisation imbued in neocolonialism which has endangered local livelihoods and environments.
In this situation, the first and main target of Gambian criticism is the government for its inaction and even complicity in the survival-threatening deportation of its citizens. Activist Yahya Sonko has explained that a controversial “Good Practice” agreement signed by The Gambia and the EU is at the basis of deportations to the former since 2018. However, popular pressure in the run-up to national elections – including demonstrations carried out by the already-mentioned Gambian Refugee Association Europe Branch – brought Barrow’s government to introduce a moratorium on deportations the following year. To persuade Barrow to reverse the moratorium, the EU has since imposed several sanctions on the Gambian government and its population. The sanctions restrict the access to visas of Gambian officials and regular citizens. These appear counter-intuitive, if one wants to believe that the EU’s ultimate goal is actually to stimulate regular instead of undocumented migration. Consequently, deportations were resumed in late 2020. The Gambian government failed to communicate clearly about this to its citizens, who are since then demanding more transparency on the matter. This seems necessary as European governments do not shy away from proposing unfair deals to African states. The affected publics should at least have a say in such agreements.
Rumours are spreading, for instance, about a proposal by Germany that would entail permanent residence for certain Gambians already in the country, but automatic deportations for all irregular arrivals, as immigration would be exclusively based on the pre-determined labour needs of the European country. The specific details of the project remain very vague, but it is easy to see where this kind of approach actually aims at. While sounding advantageous at first, this deal would completely subordinate mobility from The Gambia to whether Germany needs workers, in which area and when. This will obviously not always match Gambians’ own concerns and aspirations in a global context of coloniality-related inequality and uncertainty. This rationale echoes that of the Duldung status as an exploitative and precarious integration of deportable individuals into Germany’s labour market. The Gambian government needs to address its citizens’ concerns not only to avoid losing popular support, but also to halt the rapidly spreading and seriously preoccupying invocations of The Gambia’s previous dictator Yahya Jammeh found in mundane conversations both on- and offline. The spreading of a pro-Jammeh discourse among some Gambians is due to their belief that the autocrat used to be harder with European demands. Deportations were in fact occurring during Jammeh’s time as well, even producing reactions by the deportees as desperate as them ravaging the airport and harming themselves. However, the absence of digital tools and the undemocratic context at the time made it arguably harder for the information to reach all sectors of society, what is happening now instead.
Addressing deportation in the short- and long-term
While popular indignation is widespread and represents a highly welcome signal of resistance, not all struggles are the same. There are indeed two main paths of discussion around what to do and demand regarding the current deportations. These two may nevertheless coexist in ongoing debates on the topic. On the one hand, there is work towards a long-term solution to the issue of undocumented migrants’ forcible removal, with petitioners calling for the end of this harmful practice, demanding freedom of movement for all. On the other hand, many actors focus on short-term solutions, including guaranteeing adequate support for the deportees and those awaiting deportation both at the medical and financial level. Short-term solutions are vital to reduce the distress of deported individuals and their families, yet there is a risk that they become the only focus of attention, distracting from addressing the root causes of the problem. International organisations in The Gambia seem to be pushing towards this direction.
The German development agency GIZ, for instance, reached out to some associations of assisted returnees to offer them a training against depression and suicidal behaviour, with a focus on psychiatry. One of these associations rejected the invitation, mentioning the fact that psychological distress in deportees is caused by the political and physical violence which they are subjected to. This, rather than palliative solutions, should be worked on as the condition’s root cause. Furthermore, the association criticised GIZ for the lack of cultural sensitivity in the proposition of a psychiatric approach over the spiritual way in which Gambians commonly approach distress. Assisted returnees have been involved, although without the use of physical coercion entailed by deportation, in another, unsettling form of what critical research has termed ‘state-induced return’ (Koch 2014). The attempt to involve these very assisted returnees to support distressed deportees in a Eurocentric way is indicative of the depoliticising and neo-colonising approach of organisations such as GIZ.
It appears important, therefore, for local non-state actors – whether it is the associations of assisted returnees that can be now found from Banjul to Basse or the heterogenous groups of transnationally connected concerned Gambians – to identify and reject such diversion attempts, while coming together to organise both short-term support for the deportees and long-term resistance to deportation. This process would entail continuing on the path of requesting more accountability from national authorities, but would also require working towards broader political achievements. Among them, it is essential to oppose the mobility injustice underpinning the unfettered movement of tourists and expats from the Global North to The Gambia. It is equally crucial to expose the waste of public resources involved in the EU-sponsored programmes allegedly addressing the root causes of irregular migration, but ultimately intensifying Gambian financial and epistemological dependence upon Europe.
Koch, A. (2014): The Politics and Discourse of Migrant Return: The Role of UNHCR and IOM in the Governance of Return. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 40 (6):905–923.