Monday, June 15, 2015

The Backway

Africa has never seen so many young men voluntarily heading for Europe. The number of migrants crossing by sea to Italy, a top entry point, nearly quadrupled from 2013 to 2014, reaching about 170,100. Sub-Saharan Africans made up a growing percentage of the total, with around 64,600 arriving last year. This year, the figure is expected to be even higher. Gambia, one of Africa’s smallest nations, is a big contributor to that flow. “The Western Route,” experts call the web of migrant trails from Gambia, Senegal and Mali that now lead to North Africa. But Gambians have a different name for the dangerous path to Europe: The Backway.

A growing number of Gambians are literate, but with “little chance at employment that matches their skills, just like China by the 1960s and India by the 1970s,” said Joel Millman, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration. “So they do the rational thing and they leave.”

Twenty percent of Gambia’s gross domestic product now comes from remittances, according to the World Bank, one of the highest percentages in Africa. The first major wave of Gambians left villages in the 1990s, mostly for Spain. By 2010, there were 65,000 Gambians abroad, around 4 percent of the population.

Longtime dictator, President Yahya Jammeh, has preached a life of subsistence. He has created a bizarre mythology around himself as a man who could cure AIDS and threatened to personally slit the throats of gay men. He has brushed off the thousands of young men fleeing his country as failures and bad Muslims. “The only people who can make any money in The Gambia are those very close to the president. If not, you’re making $100 a month, if that,” said C. Omar Kebbeh, an economist and expert in Gambian migration, now at the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

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