“If I go back to Gambia – I’ll be either a dead man or placed in prison”

Precisely three weeks ago, at the margins of the United Nations General Assembly, Gambia and Malta signed a repatriation agreement affecting 80 Gambian migrants. The Gambians, who will be repatriated had their requests for asylum rejected by the Maltese authorities. A timeframe for the repatriation has not been announced yet.

The bilateral agreement, that was signed between the Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and Gambian Foreign Affairs Minister Bala Garba in New York, is the main reason why I am meeting with Lamin (name changed) – an 18-year-old Gambian, who came to Malta one year ago. He agreed to tell me about his journey and current situation after the repatriation agreement became public.

We are sitting in the heart of Valletta, Malta’s capital and UNESCO’s World Heritage Site, next to the bus terminal, which is a common meeting place for many of Malta’s migrants. Lamin looks concerned. “I’m not a happy man anymore, today I’m here, but in three weeks – I don’t know.” He came to Malta one year ago, early-October on a big boat together with 128 other people including Gambians, Eritreans, Somalis, after four days on the sea, being rescued by the US Navy and then transferred to the boat of the Maltese Coast Guard.

However, the four-day sea journey is only a minor a detail in Lamin’s long journey to Europe. He left his home country 21st September 2012 after a long period of consideration as he simply couldn’t see future in his home country and decided to leave. It took him one year to reach Tripoli and the shores of Mediterranean as he was kidnapped by rebels on the border of Libya and spent spring and summer 2013 there before he managed to escape and continue his journey through war-torn country to Tripoli and Malta.

“Nobody mentions Presidents name”

Gambia, one of Africa’s smallest countries, is not mentioned very often in media and compared to many other West African countries it has enjoyed long spells of stability. However, the reason for the facile stability is the iron-fisted rule of the Gambian President Yahya Jammeh who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1994 and has been ruling the country ever since.

Stability has not translated into prosperity. Country’s economy is very one-sided and based mainly on peanut exports, freedom of speech is strictly limited and corruption widespread. All of these reasons influenced Lamin’s decision to flee the country, as he could not stand the situation anymore. “Nobody mentions the president’s name, if people do it, you do it only in closed rooms and with very good friends”, he explains.

Especially the political situation makes him feel restless: “My uncle was involved in politics and they [the Gambian Police] put him into prison three months ago – they even arrested my grandmother for a while because of my uncle”. Lamin’s other uncle has been living in the US for two years as he managed to flee shortly after Lamin left the country and his mother and sister are currently living in Senegal. His father died when he was a small child. “If one of the family members ends up to the blacklist of President Jammeh’s regime, they will start monitoring your whole family.”

Waiting for final decision

After coming to Malta, Lamin was detained for one month before he was transferred to Hal-Far, an open center located next to the airport. The center consists of containers with separate sections for men, women and children. In an open center, unlike in closed ones, where he was kept in his first month, Lamin could come and go as he wanted as long as he signed his presence on a weekly basis.

After submitting asylum application in early-October, he received the decision in late-January after four months of waiting – it was rejection. Lamin was confused and decided to appeal, “I hired a private lawyer, I would have a right for free lawyer, but I don’t trust that system”.

He doesn’t understand the reasons for his rejection and sees that the asylum application process has limitations especially when guaranteeing the protection of private information provided in the process, “They wanted to use a translator in the interview, I asked why I was not allowed to speak English, I can translate myself – they said no. I did not trust the translator as he could tell my story forward after the interview.” According to Lamin, Gambians like other migrant groups come from a similar background, have close-knit communities and most of the people know each other. “I was scared in the interview, I don’t want that everybody knows my story as it can affect my situation and security here. However, I told it to make my situation better.”

After submitting his appeal Lamin has not received further information on his situation. He moved out from Hal-Far during spring, currently holds two jobs at the same time to maintain his living and would like to stay in Malta. As he hasn’t received his second rejection yet, Lamin is not currently in the frontline of persons who will be repatriated as his asylum case is not closed yet.

In reality, the situation can change quickly and Lamin is not very optimistic about the outcome of the process as nobody of his friends who have appealed has received a positive decision. However, it is the uncertainty of his future that bothers Lamin most, “If they decide to send me back, I don’t know what to do. They [Gambian police] monitor my family. If they send me back – I’ll be either a dead man or placed in prison.”

– Anssi