With extensive floodplains, acres of crops, hundreds of breeding cattle and vibrant village markets, The Gambia’s Upper River Region has grown to be a hub for cross-border movement — an important transit point for merchandise between The Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Guinea and the rest of West Africa. Hosting a population of over 239,000, it is the farthest region from the capital, Banjul, with many communities having stronger social, cultural and economic ties to their neighbors in next-door Senegal.

And yet, between 2015 and 2017, the region — along with Gambia as a whole — witnessed high numbers of young people attempting to reach Europe. As such, the Upper River Region has been regarded as one of the main vantage points to start what is known colloquially as the “backway” journey to Libya and across the Mediterranean Sea. But not everyone who leaves stays gone.

Since 2017, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has assisted over 5,200 stranded Gambians who have been assisted with voluntary return to their communities, often with support from the European Union’s Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. Around 10 percent have returned to the Upper River Region, with over 360 receiving reintegration assistance to rebuild their lives.

Many have returned to farming. Others have started businesses. Readjustment rarely is easy, especially for those who must deal with the stigma of failure with their return.

In 2020, a global pandemic has not spared The Gambia. Even so, returnees in the region are not giving up. Despite months-long restrictions on cross-border movement and commercial activity that impact their socio-economic reintegration, they intend to persevere.

Together with their communities, they are adjusting to a new landscape, pursuing new ambitions, seeking new means of subsistence and preparing to resume their initial business plans for when better times return.

Jewru Dem was hit hard by COVID-19. He had hoped to establish himself in animal husbandry after a two years’ journey between The Gambia and Libya, but returned to find his father sick, thus assumed responsibility over the family business.

With the closure of lumos — weekly open markets, where people in the past could cross borders and engage in trade — profits are harder to turn. Aside from a few big sales during the Eid period, Jewru is taking this opportunity to focus on his cattle, breeding them well in order to sell the livestock when restrictions lift.

Despite the decrease in animal husbandry’s profitability during the pandemic, Jewru could not think of anything else he would rather be doing. “This is the work I’ve always done since I was a child,” he affirmed. “Even now, I would not fit into a different business. Because I have my cattle to take care of."

Jewru continues to work on his family’s animal husbandry business during the pandemic. © IOM 2020 / Assan Jobe

The closure of markets has also impacted returnees working in commercial transport. Returning to The Gambia after two failed attempts to cross to Europe. Before opening his own motorcycle business, Yerro Krubally joined his brother in transporting goods from Basse (capital of the Upper River Region) to surrounding villages in Senegal.

Now, with less demand for transport and growing competition among three-wheeled cargo haulers, making a living on his own is much harder.

Yet Yerro remains persistent through this difficult period. Owing to his experience and established network of clients, Yerro believes he can compete with others in search of new opportunities, such as delivering gallons of fuel from petrol stations to nearby farms and driving the goods of customers across the Gambia River.

“Before the pandemic, I was used to seeing Yerro carrying mostly light luggage and materials,” recalls Yusupha, a member of the International Organization for Migration (IOM)’s team of caseworkers who

support the reintegration of returnees. “Nowadays he carries heavier things on his tricycle, which is how he can sustain his business until things return to normal.

Yerro transports heavier material now, to increase his profit during the pandemic. © IOM 2020 /Lamin Sanyang

Other returnees have temporarily put their plans on hold to focus on other things. Alieu Jarra and Rubie Sey, after participating in a pilot soapmaking training, have started producing soap in their own communities and making a profit from their sales. This highlights potential opportunities for returnees during the pandemic.

“The demand for the soap we are producing here in Changai Torro is high. It is affordable, strong and very hygienic. We will try to expand our markets to other neighboring villages,” said Alieu.

Meanwhile, Sainey Fatty, who hopes to expand his tailoring business when restrictions loosen and become one of the top young entrepreneurs in Basse, has decided mostly to stay at home for now, conscious of the gravity of COVID-19 and the importance of respecting distancing measures.

Sainey views this as a blessing in disguise, making up for so much time lost during his backway journey to be with his family as much as possible. “It is good to reconnect with my family, because I rarely spoke with others after returning. I am glad that people in my community are supporting me now,” he says, as he strives to strike a balance between staying home and working with his clients.

Since the onset of the outbreak, Sainey has mostly opted to stay at home. © IOM 2020 / Assan Jobe

With the pandemic and corresponding restrictions evolving so rapidly, closely monitoring the status of returnees has grown more crucial.

In July 2019, IOM opened its Sub-Office in Basse — its first in The Gambia. “The Sub-Office has made life easier for returnees in this part of the country,” states Yusupha. “They no longer have to travel to IOM’s main office in Banjul, 360 kilometers away, to receive assistance. Everything is now processed and finalized within a very short period here in the sub-office.”

With greater proximity, Yusupha is able to closely monitor the progress of returnees once they come back, providing mentoring and guidance tailored to individual returnees as they navigate the twists and turns of commerce during a pandemic.

The only challenge, Yusupha expresses, is the limit on physical interactions that has led to work-from-home arrangements as much as possible. “It has been challenging to communicate with returnees mostly by phone, but when we have to meet them in person, we are sure to adhere to all the precautionary measures,” he states, viewing this as simply a hurdle to overcome as part of his work to ensure returnees can recover quickly after the pandemic.

Yusupha assists returnees as part of an ongoing cash-for-work soapmaking initiative. © IOM 2020 / Lamin Sanyan

With the end of the pandemic nowhere near in sight, returnees in the region are reassessing their next steps, thinking of new ways to adapt or of new ambitions to pursue.

Jewru, who remains passionate about pursuing animal husbandry, now presents a challenge to the youth of the region, increasingly jaded by the impact of the pandemic. “I would encourage young people to venture into animal husbandry. If you have a passion for it, you can make it work.”

Since 2017, over 5,200 Gambians received return and reintegration assistance through the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration. The Joint Initiative is the first comprehensive programme to save lives and protect and assist migrants along key migration routes in Africa. The project supports the reintegration process of returning migrants through an integrated approach, which addresses economic, social, and psychological dimensions and fosters the inclusion of communities in the process.


This story was written by Alessandro Lira and Assan Jobe of IOM’s communications team in The Gambia

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