Published February 15th, 2021 - written by: Judith Altrogge, Omar N. Cham and Franzisca Zanker

with research assistance from Rafael Hernández Westpfahl, last updated in February 2021

Basic data and short characterization

The Gambia is a small country in western Africa, and with the exception of a small coastline, completely enclosed by Senegal. It has a long history of migration and mobility, not least due to its geographical position, its small size and the various ethnic groups that live there. Economically, it largely depends on tourism as well as remittances from Gambian migrants. Politically, the country was ruled under a repressive dictatorship for 22 years until early 2017. Under the new President of a democratizing coalition government, Adama Barrow, freedom of speech and press freedom quickly re-established. In January 2020, Barrow extended his presidency beyond the 3-year interim period initially agreed upon, triggering protests and increasing attacks on press freedom. Upcoming elections in 2021 are likely to be hotly contested. Between 2014 and 2017, Gambians made up one of the highest numbers of arrivals in Europe, with thousands travelling the Central Mediterranean route towards Europe, generally referred to as the ‘backway’, trying to escape the repressive regime and with hopes for a better future.

Economy and government

After independence in 1965, President Dawda Jawara ruled the Gambia for 32 years. A military coup in 1994 set an end to what had been a relatively stable period of Gambia’s ‘first Republic’, with army lieutenant Yaya Jammeh seizing power. Despite initial popularity, Jammeh became increasingly repressive and despotic, especially after an attempted coup in 2014. He co-opted major businesses, with the economic sector suffering significantly.

In December 2016, an opposition coalition led by Adama Barrow won presidential elections, taking Gambians and the international community by surprise. It took the threat of regional troops from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to enforce the elections militarily – a striking move in the name of democracy, which made Jammeh finally step down in January 2017, after 40 days of political impasse. The government that stepped in inherited a bankrupt state, high unemployment rates – especially among the youth – and a dysfunctional labour market and educational sector. Moreover, the security sector is overblown and highly politicised. The new government set out to completely restructure Gambian politics in accordance with human rights, democracy and good governance practices. In early 2020, Barrow extended his presidency beyond the 3-year interim period initially agreed upon, with increasing attacks on press freedom and protests.[1] Many reforms have stalled since then, with the exception of two projects at the heart of the transitional period: the ‘Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission’ (TRRC) and the ‘Constitution Review Commission’ (CRC). Both Commissions held various citizen consultation sessions including ‘diaspora tours’ abroad. The TRRC investigates human rights violations of the former regime; the public hearings are widely followed by the Gambian population as a means to come to terms with the past. With a slight delay due to covid-19 restrictions, the hearings are ongoing. The Commission is expected to submit its final report in July 2021. The CRC developed a new constitution that is supposed to strengthen democracy and rule of law for the political future of the country. The draft of the constitution was however rejected by the National Assembly in September 2020, before it even came to a referendum. Lawmakers close to the Barrow government rejected it, with critics speculating this was not least due to the retroactive term limit in the draft. There is uncertainty how the process will continue. Mediation efforts to revive the draft constitution led by the former President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, are ongoing with the aim of building a national consensus through a multi-stakeholder approach.

In December 2020, the Gambian government launched its first National Migration Policy, which is supposed to serve as a guiding framework for future national migration governance. The policy addresses various key migration dimensions such as internal migration, labor migration, diaspora migration, and return migration. It was developed with strong support of the IOM. Until the launch of the new policy, there was no comprehensive action on migration, with the exception of a diaspora policy, which had been developed after the governmental change through the support of a diaspora-led technical cooperation programme called Migration and Sustainable Development in the Gambia (MSDG).

Economically, one of the most important sectors in the country is tourism, developing since the 1970s. Mainly targeted at Europeans, it strengthens ties across continents, the interaction with tourists adding to the pull of western countries and creating inter-continental personal bonds and movements. The impacts of the global pandemic on the tourism sector are likely to be catastrophic. The more labour-intensive sector, however, is the country’s agriculture, characterized by small-scale subsistence and some crop farming with relatively low productivity. The meagre economic standards of farmer families, mainly living in the rural interiors of the country, do not provide many alternative forms of living and stand in contrast to the urban coastal area, let alone European migration destinations.

Remittances sent back from Gambians living abroad play a pivotal role in the country’s economy, making up a remarkable share of estimated 14.9% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2020. This is the third highest share on the continent, and much higher than the share of Foreign Direct Investments, for example.[2] Many of these remittances also come from migrants who have entered the EU irregularly, especially Spain.

Migration movements

There are broadly three types of migration movements in the Gambia, namely emigration, immigration including refugees to the Gambia as well as internal migration.


A significant number of the Gambian population live abroad – with estimates of 5% to 7% of the population. There is a long tradition of Gambians going abroad to study or work, at first mainly to countries of the Commonwealth including the UK, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Ghana, and extended to the USA in the late 1980s. Today, big diaspora communities exist in places like Bristol or Chicago. Though not limited to a certain skill level, emigration was for a long time a prerequisite for tertiary education, with the only university founded in 1999. Until today, there is a strong pull of tertiary-educated to study and live abroad.

The numbers of Gambians travelling to Europe with a Schengen visa are very low. In 2018 and 2019 respectively, only 177 and 124 Gambians received resident permits for education reasons, mainly to Great Britain, and merely 335 and 358 individuals were granted entry on the basis of jobs, mainly to Spain.

The diaspora community has close networks back in the Gambia and has become a politically important community. Diaspora engagement can therefore create effective channels to utilise the energy and interest of the diaspora to invest in the country – both in the private sector and in reforming the public sector.[3]

In the 2010’s, the number of Gambians entering Europe without a Schengen visa at the Mediterranean seashores had drastically increased and has shadowed the general understanding of what migration in present-time Gambia is. Accordingly, the Gambia Bureau of Statistics states that 38,500 Gambians left the Gambia by ‘irregular’ means between 2013 and 2017.[4] They do not emigrate irregularly to start with, as they cross ECOWAS borders in a regular manner up to Libya, Algeria or Morocco. Citizens of the 15 ECOWAS member states are allowed to travel freely in the area with identity documents.

Many of the Gambians who decide to migrate via land-sea routes are young men in search of better economic opportunities. This is because ‘Men shoulder the financial obligations for their parents and households, and since households are in a chronic need of cash for basic consumption items, men are expected to go and find it.’[5] They are nurtured through the positive impact of personal remittances on household living standards, visible everywhere in the country. Though societal ideals to migrate persist, by far not all families give their approval to taking the ‘backway’. Especially since a growing awareness of the dangers of land travel, migrants also leave on their own accord, sometimes even stealing from their family or employers to fund their travels. Families are often indebting themselves to finance their child's trip, increasing the pressure for them to succeed, and the potential stigmatisation and social exclusion after a failed migration attempt.[6] The cultural obligations are founded in socio-economic political reality. Youth unemployment, for example, currently stands at 41.5%.

Many of those who leave do so ‘irregularly’ because they do not have access to legal alternatives. They claim asylum upon their arrival in efforts to obtain a legal status, while often not fully aware of the political and legal implications the status brings with it. Gambian asylum claims to EU countries grew from 1,515 claims in 2012 to 16,030 claims in 2016, going down again to 2,740 in 2020. Italy and Germany receive by far the highest application numbers. The recognition rate is fairly low. It was at 4% among first-time applications across the EU in 2017. The share of positive decisions is however higher among second and higher application instances for Gambian nationals. For example, the overall protection rate for Gambian asylum seekers has thus recently increased (see table). This indicates that the general fluctuation does not correspond with the political change in the country.

Reporting year Overall protection rate Germany

2014 — 2%

2015 — 2.7%

2016 — 6.5%

2017 — 4.7%

2018 — 6.3%

2019 — 4.7%

2020 — 7%

Once the new Gambian government came in power, it has become less likely for asylum seekers to receive protection on the basis of political persecution. Some other reasons for claiming asylum continue to play a role. For one, violence towards women, especially through female genital mutilation, is widespread and socially accepted in the Gambia. Moreover, LGBTQ+ Gambians continue to fear persecution, especially from non-state actors. They face such a strong social stigma and harassment that it prohibits them to live their sexual identity in both private and public, and gives reason to flee when they are detected. Though the new government has distanced itself from the Jammeh-era homophobic rhetoric, some of the most severe laws against homosexuality remain and look unlikely to be repealed anytime soon.[7]

Gambians do not only seek asylum in Europe but also in neighbouring countries, albeit no reliable statistics exist. In addition to more long-term refugees, for example on the basis of sexual orientation, around 45,000 persons had fled the Gambia to neighbouring Senegal during the transition of presidency between Jammeh and Barrow, returning several days later.

Apart from those leaving the country, there have been substantial numbers of migrants returning to the country in recent years. Most of the officially counted returns were evacuations from transit countries towards Europe following the increasingly dire situation in Libya from 2017 onwards, facilitated by the IOM. Between 2017 and 2019, a total of 5,002 migrants were returned to the Gambia from Libya (2,992), Niger (1,392) and other countries along the key migration routes in Africa and Europe (618). Returns from Europe are a lot lower in comparison to return from transit, yet also increasing since the governmental change. Between 2017 and end of 2019, a total of 1,220 have or were returned from a Schengen country following an order to leave. Due to the blurriness of the concepts, these figures do not only include deportations but also ‘voluntary’ returns, depending on how destination countries report to EUROSTAT.


Though the Gambia became a net emigration country in the late 1990s, historically it used to be a net receiver of migration. According to the UN, an estimated 215,406 people (9.4% of the population) living in the Gambia in mid-2019 were born elsewhere. Though this has decreased from an even higher 14.9% in 2000, The Gambia maintains one of the highest shares of immigrants per capita in the ECOWAS region. The top origin countries are neighbouring Senegal, making up around half of the immigrated, followed by Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania and Sierra Leone. Thus, more immigrants live in the Gambia than Gambian migrants living abroad. Additionally, circular temporary migration tied to seasonal labour is common in the Gambia like throughout the rest of West Africa. Beyond regional neighbours, other immigrant communities include in particular a long-standing Lebanese diaspora (many of whom are Gambian citizens).


During the 1990s, refugees fleeing from civil war in Liberia (around 2,000) and Sierra Leone (around 7,000) sought protection in the Gambia, representing a considerable share of the immigration rate. This relative influx of refugees reversed over time. Today, both rural and urban refugees remain in the country – each with their own sets of challenges. By the end of 2019, the UNHCR registered a total of 4,308 refugees in the Gambia, including 3,943 from Senegal.

Internal migration

Internal migration in the Gambia mainly takes place from the rural eastern provinces to the urbanised coastal areas in the West. With over 60% of the population living in urban areas, urbanisation already is higher than in all other West African countries. Although comprehensive and reliable data on rural-urban movements are not known to the authors, the ‘rural exodus’ is increasingly identified as a challenge in the Gambia.[8] The poorer eastern provinces with limited educational and economic infrastructure provide the agricultural backbone of the country, increasingly facing challenges of productivity including rising labour shortage. A non-representative survey among 150 internal rural-to-urban migrants conducted by the IOM has revealed that around 60% of them planned to remain in the urban domestic destination, while 40% planned onward travel.


The quickly risen numbers of Gambians arriving at European seashores have greatly reduced in recent years again, with only 160 arrivals counted in 2019. This is likely linked to less people leaving under the new government, but also higher awareness about the futile situation in Libya and tightening borders to North Africa. Given the widespread knowledge on the high costs of the ‘backway’, there is a growing discourse around opportunities of ‘making it in the Gambia’, pushed by a governmental paradigm of ‘youth empowerment’ and externally funded projects reaching out to young Gambians.

EU projects

The European Union (EU) is the largest financial supporter to the Gambian government, with ongoing contracts worth almost €350 million covering a wide range of areas. The financial commitment seems particularly high considering that the Gambia is not one of the EU’s priority countries under the new EU Partnership Framework. However, the EU decided to further encourage the ‘historic democratic transition’ of the governmental change. Accordingly, their priorities lie in ‘supporting democratic transition, building on strong democratic institutions, the respect of human rights and the rule of law, and sustainable and shared economic growth’. In line with that, the greatest share of financial support goes into ‘governance, security and rule of law’. A considerable amount is disbursed as direct budget support.

Around 10% of the contracted assistance is directed towards tackling irregular migration, financed through the European Union Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF). The primary focus of the three EUTF projects present in the country lies on creating more economic opportunities for young people. ‘Youth empowerment’ includes job-oriented skills, entrepreneurship training, and self-employment support as well as job creation in the private sector. The ‘Youth Empowerment Project’ (YEP) was launched in February 2017 as the first EUTF programme. In April 2019, EUTF activities were officially expanded by a cluster of projects subsumed under the umbrella initiative ‘Tekki Fii – You can make it in the Gambia’, to which YEP also belongs. The new projects are implemented by international development agencies from Germany (GIZ-IS), Belgium (Enabel) and Portugal (Instituto Marquês de Valle Flôr). The ‘Tekki Fii’ projects total €32 million, with YEP funded with €11 million originally, topped up by a further €2 million, and the rest worth an overall additional €19 million over the course of three years.

Photo: Judith Altrogge

The third EUTF project focuses on returning and reintegrating returnees and is implemented by the IOM. Initiated in 2017, the returns quickly outnumbered the project targets. Through the EU-IOM ‘Joint Initiative on Migrant Protection and Reintegration’, many more were returned from Northern Africa, especially Libya and Niger. Besides the return flights, the project offers extended reception activities, such as health check-ups and information on support opportunities after landing. The subsequent reintegration component offers in-kind assistance, for which migrants can apply for if interested. Between the beginning of 2017 and the end of 2019, the programme realized a total of 5,002 migrants’ returns to the Gambia from Libya (2,992), Niger (1,392) and other countries along the key migration routes in Africa and Europe (618).

Photo: Judith Altrogge

Return has also been a critical subject of negotiations and agreements between the Gambian government and the EU. After increasing demands for cooperation from European countries, the Gambian government signed a non-binding ‘good practice’ agreement with the EU on preferable conditions of forced return from EU member states in May 2018. After a few months of increased frequency and quantity of forced return operations from November 2018 onwards, the Gambian government declared a moratorium on deportations from the EU in March 2019, which temporarily stopped most forceful return. Major points of contention during this period were capacities for reintegration, distrust and rumours surrounding returns and communication problems between different Gambian departments and authorities. Though the moratorium was lifted by the end of 2019, chartered return flights did not take up pace, not least also due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The outcome of recent negotiations with the EU is not public. The EU’s new Schengen visa code, adopted in February 2020, contains potential use for sanctioning for third countries which do not cooperate on return matters. The code could be used to put more pressure on the Gambian government. Parallel to the negotiations on the EU level, Gambian officials exchange on a bilateral level with their counterparts in European countries in search of solutions, such as with Germany and Switzerland. At a member state level, deportations from Germany, which rose quickest after the governmental change, have become particularly highly contested, both at the political level, among civil society actors and in the Gambian media.[9]

Switzerland follows a different approach to cooperate on migration and return cooperation with the Gambian government. In January 2021, Switzerland signed a new migration agreement with the Gambia, that also covers returns. The agreement includes (unspecified) local project implementation support and practical considerations such as on the issuance of identity documents.

Initiatives on border management are rare in the Gambia. An EU-Spanish funded project, Blue-Sahel, carried out in various West African coastal countries since 2017, has led to intensified patrols of coastal areas by the Gambia Immigration Department. While the initial project period ended in 2020, it is likely that it has been extended, albeit no verification exists. The BLUE-Sahel project is a follow-up project on Seahorse and West Sahel, which had started in 2012. An IOM pilot project funded by the Government of Japan, which ended in 2019, fostered cross-border cooperation at a border post in Farafenni, where due to a new Senegambia Bridge crossing the river Gambia, mobility is increasing. An extension is planned.

What role do NGOs play?

Due to the longstanding repressive regime of Yahya Jammeh, Gambian civil society has had little time to develop. Nonetheless, a few actors should be mentioned. With the strong political and economic focus on youth empowerment (see above), the National Youth Council (NYC) as primary representative body of the young generation in the Gambia has developed a central role in youth-related policy-making and project implementation. The NYC is a semi-public agency mandated to mobilise, coordinate and supervise youth organisations, implement national youth programmes and advise government on youth matters. The Council has a unique role between national politics, civil society representation and partner to international projects.

Returnees themselves have joined in activist groups with a certain political impact. ‘Youth Against Irregular Migration’ (YAIM) was founded to build a country-wide movement based on awareness raising against (irregular) migration. The ‘Gambian Returnees from the Backway’ (GRB) joined in order for their members to have better reintegration prospects and established a farming project for their members based on the members’ individual IOM reintegration support. Since 2018, the ‘Network of Girls Against Human Trafficking’ offers self-support and representation for female labour migrants that have returned from Arab Gulf States where they had become victims of human trafficking in search for work in the domestic sector.

Two NGOs that also implement some migration-related activities with the support of their international counterparts are Activista The Gambia and the Caritas representation ‘Catholic Development Office’ (CaDO). Activista is ActionAid’s youth branch and has cooperated with the IOM on awareness raising against irregular migration. CaDO is the implementing partner of the ERRIN project (European Return and Reintegration Network), the EU’s joint return and reintegration programme, and accompanies ‘voluntarily’ returned migrants reintegration plans.

The Gambia Press Union, representing media workers in the Gambia, has taken an active role in reclaiming press freedom since the change in government. It critically observes the developments since the protests against Barrow’s term extension, seeing the reestablished freedoms endangered. Together with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), it led discussions with the government on the shutting down of two radio stations and arrest of journalists after their involvement in public demonstrations against Barrow’s term extension. When the radio stations were reopened and criminal charges against the journalists dropped, the president of the GPU stated that this was “good, but our position is we need more than that. The idea is not just to close the radio stations and reopen them. The idea is to send a signal to whoever abused these powers which they never had, never to do it again.”

Economic interests? Who benefits?

The financial support to the government by international donors has increased tremendously after the fall of dictatorship. Governmental proclamations rhetorically put people’s interests first, thus many expected a wide-spread profit from the new programmes and governance reform processes. In light of a general distrust towards the political sector, many Gambians are suspicious of political elites enriching themselves through international funds. The politically controversial issue of return is also linked to corruption allegations in public discourse. These allegations ascertain that politicians are personally profiting in exchange of signing repatriation agreements. So far, there is no proof for these accusations.

Who loses? In what way?

Due to the high political attention on Europe-directed irregular migration, other migration-related topics remain underexposed. One example of this is the issue of human trafficking of young Gambian women for domestic work to Arab Gulf States. Claims by the ‘Network of Girls Against Human Trafficking’ to receive reintegration assistance comparable to that of migrants returned from Europe-bound transit countries has not brought forward any functional support. A second example of concern is the limited attention that is given to negotiations about regular migration, not only to Europe but also within the region and within the continent.

What resistance is there?

There have been protests against the cooperation on migration and return politics. These occurred primarily in spring 2019 just before the Gambian government first announced the moratorium. The public outcry peaked in consequence to a specific return operation on 25 February 2019 from Germany. Gambian authorities were allegedly not informed well enough in advance and it was therefore first refused entry but later accepted. Public protests followed.

Photo: Judith Altrogge

More generally, opposition against the Barrow government has increased. Much critique is based on allegations of continued undemocratic governance. Already in May 2019, Amnesty International noted persistent misuse of power by security forces and the police of the new government, including arbitrary arrests and detentions and even deadly shootings of protesters, as well as violations of the right to freedom of expression. Coming to the end of Barrow’s initial three-year term, the Three Years Jotna movement (‘Three Years is Enough’ in Wolof), protested against the extension of his legislature. Their protests included a demonstration demanding the president's resignation. With up to 10,000 Gambians participating, according to unconfirmed sources, it might have been one of the largest demonstrations in Gambia's history. The movement’s activities were brought to a halt through the arrest of the movement’s leadership and 137 protestors, including journalists, along with the temporary shutting down of two radio stations.[10] After being discharged, the movement’s leadership was re-arrested in February 2021. Presently, the current government and its opponents are campaigning for the upcoming elections in December 2021.

Migration statistics (table)

In the following are a number of relevant migration statistics for the Gambia for the most recent years.

The figures should be read as illustrative and treated with caution. Different ways to measure migration or to count migrants make a detailed analysis necessary to avoid misinterpretation. Numbers might be based on estimates, and numbers vary – sometimes drastically – between different databases. In the ECOWAS region, the capacities to record emigrants or transit migrants are also particularly low. For example, the Gambian Bureau of Statistics is severely underfunded – a census that was carried out in 2013 was only published in full length in 2017.

Migration type Details Number


Numbers of Gambians living abroad 2019: 118.500[58] Percentage of Gambian population 5.15% (though other estimates go up to 9%) Numbers of irregular arrivals in Europe 2019: 160

2018: 3,802

2017: 8,840

2016: 12,930[59]

Number of Gambian first time asylum applicants in Europe 2019: 2,930

2018: 4,180

2017: 12,400

2016: 15,510[60]

Remittances In USD 2019: 275 million

2020 est.: 261 million

(World Bank)[61]

Percentage of GDP 2019: 15.5%[62]

2020 est.: 14.9%

Immigration Number of immigrants in the Gambia 2019: 215,400[63] Refugees Number of Refugees in the Gambia 2019: 4,308[64]

Find the previous version of this report for the year 2020 here.


[58] UN DESA (2020): Trends in International Migrant Stock: 2019 Revision. 24.02.2021.

[59] UNHCR (2020): “Arrival, dead and missing and population data - Europe refugee and migrant response.” 24.02.2021.

[60] EUROSTAT (2020): “Asylum and first time asylum applicants by citizenship, age and sex Annual aggregated data (rounded)” 24.02.2021.

[61] World Bank (2020): Migration and Remittances Data. Annual Remittances Data (updated as of Apr. 2020) Inflows. 08.05.20.

[62] World Bank (2020): Migration and Remittances Data. Annual Remittances Data (updated as of Apr. 2020) Inflows. 08.05.20

[63] UN DESA (2020): Trends in International Migrant Stock: 2019 Revision. 08.05.20. 24.02.2021.

[64] UNHCR (2020): Operation Portal, Refugees Situation. Gambia. 24.02.2021.


  1. Amnesty International (2020): Gambia: Mass arrests risk fuelling tensions See also: Foroyaa (2019): ECOMIG is a stabilising force in The Gambia – Foreign Minister Tangara 24.02.2021.

  2. Zanker, Altrogge, Arhin-Sam, Jegen (2019): Challenges in EU-African Migration Cooperation: West African Perspectives on Forced Return. 24.02.2021.

  3. Zanker & Altrogge (2019): The Political Influence of Return: From Diaspora to Libyan Transit Returnees’. In International Migration 57(4), 167-180. 24.02.2021.

  4. GBOS (2018): The Gambia Labour Force Survey (GLFS 2018) Analytical Report 24.02.2021.

  5. Gaibazzi, Paolo (2015): Bush Bound: Young Men and Rural Permanence in Migrant West Africa (p. 94).

  6. IOM (2020): Returned migrants’ debts and their impacts on reintegration in the Gambia. IOM, the Gambia. 24.02.2021.

  7. Mendos, Lucas Ramon (2019): ILGA State-Sponsored Homophobia Report 2019. 24.02.2021.

  8. Studies referring to rural-urban migration include ActionAid (2019): ‘Back Way’ to Europe: How can The Gambia better address migration and its development challenges?”. and a study by IOM (2020): “The Gambia – Mobility Assessment on Internal Migration”. 24.02.2021.

  9. Social scientist and activist Aino Korvensyrjä explains some of these struggles at the case of a chartered deportation flight from Germany in November 2020 for Migration Control. Concretely, she sees the German authorities legitimising deportations by characterizing criminal offenders as non-integrateable, and thereby dividing the migrant community and weakening activism against deportation: 24.02.2021.

  10. The Guardian (2020): Outcry over crackdown in the Gambia as president refuses to quit. Amnesty attacks heavy-handed response to protests as Adama Barrow clings to power. 24.02.2021.

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