Banjul – When Sarjo* left The Gambia for Senegal in late year 2001, she set out with the intention of a friendly visit — little did she know that she will find herself in the claws of her trafficker.
“I left The Gambia with immense excitement. I thought I was visiting a very good friend of mine in Dakar, the Senegalese capital. At the time, having heard numerous tales about the city — its beauty and cosmopolitan nature, I was looking forward to the experience,” she says.
She recalled the extravagant lifestyle her friend was living and how she wanted to live it: “My friend was living a very flamboyant life. She always travelled and had a lot of money. I got enticed and wanted to be like her.”
Sarjo also observed that her friend’s house was always busy with individuals from different West African countries. She couldn’t initially know why the house was always like that. “Day and night, the house was always very busy, but initially, I had no idea about their purpose for being there. It was only later that I came to realize that they were coming to buy drugs,” she recollects.
In her desperation to live the life of her friend and also send some money back for the upkeep of her two girls and a boy she left with relatives in The Gambia, her friend introduced her to a man of West African origin.
“You want to live a beautiful life and always have lots of money, this guy can help you,” she recalls her friend telling her.
Sarjo got into a relationship with the man, and he will soon offer her an opportunity to travel out of Africa for a certain “business transaction”, through which she was promised, “to make a lot of money.” Her boyfriend turned out to be her trafficker. He made all arrangements and transactions for her visa and flight to Ecuador, in South America.
“When I got there, I was received by a gentleman, a West African national. He took me to the hotel I was supposed to stay in for two weeks,” she notes.
After a few days in the hotel, the man brought a bag to Sarjo and told her everything in it was for her to take to Africa. Unfortunately, she was asked to engage in drug trafficking.
“The bag contained tablets and he asked me to swallow all of them and fly with them to my boyfriend in Africa.”
She couldn’t imagine this in her wildest dreams and when she refused, all her documents were confiscated by the man. To her dismay, she was vacated from her hotel room.
“After I refused to accept what he wanted me to do, he was angry. He seized my passport and other documents. He said, ‘You will do what we want, or you will not get your documents forever’,” she recounts.
Sarjo got ejected from the hotel and had no place to stay. For the next decade in Ecuador, she was subjected to labor exploitation and other dire conditions, including living with over 10 men in a very small and not-fit-for-living apartment.
“I was homeless because I didn’t know anyone in the country. For at least 10 years, I was doing laundry as my job. I had no place to live, so I resorted to staying with about 10 men in a tiny room with no privacy. This was very humiliating,” says Sarjo.
“I couldn’t secure any job to earn a living as I had no documents. I used to wash their clothes and I was paid meager amount, and sometimes I wouldn’t even receive any payment at all.”
After years of suffering, Sarjo met a young Nigerian lady, who became a source of comfort and relief for her.
“I explained my ordeal to her. She was empathic and allowed me to stay with her. At last, I felt happy and had my dignity restored,” she recounts.
She worked as a babysitter for the Nigerian lady for almost a year, which allowed her to earn some income and had a comfortable place to sleep for the first time in a very long time.
This short sigh of relief did not convince Sarjo that it will be a good idea to stay in South America . She made this clear to her Nigerian host and friend.
“I didn’t hesitate to inform her of my desire to return home to The Gambia. I missed my kids, my family and friends a lot at the time,” she explains.
Adding, “I discussed with her, and she recommended that I travel to The Gambian Consular in either Brazil or Cuba.”
Given her desperation to return home, this recommendation was like a glimmer of hope.
“No body ever discussed or even suggested to me any idea of returning to The Gambia, so I thought that was the time,” she accounts.
After a few weeks, Sarjo set out on a long and risky journey for Brazil through Peru. “I had no passport or any identification document, so I had to pay smugglers on my way to Brazil. This was very risky as I could have been caught and got myself arrested.”
Despite all these sufferings, finding a way to the Smiling Coast of Africa, The Gambia, convinced Sarjo that the risk was worth taking. She was smuggled again to escape the Peruvian border authorities given her lack of any form of travel document.
“Entering Peru was another nightmare. I was forced under a seat of the bus, so that the border officials wouldn’t notice my presence and ask for my documents,” she accounts as she forced a smile.
But the conspiracy of shielding her would end up futile as she would be arrested by the border officials. She alleged being inhumanely treated by border officials and her little savings on her was taken.
“They arrested me. They harassed me — removed all my clothes and took my little savings I had,” she alleges.
For several years, Sarjo stayed in a car park in Peru. She continued to do menial jobs and was paid very low wages — there were instances when her employers wouldn’t even pay her.
“I did all sorts of labor-intensive jobs, including cleaning sewage drainages. I was paid very little and sometimes, employers won’t pay me at all,” she recalls. Expectedly, she describes this experience as “heart aching”.
Despite the ordeal, Sarjo continued to find any work she could get to make ends meet. She braided and laundered for some migrant workers, and she was paid some money. She saved part of this income and used it to foot her much-delayed journey to Brazil en route Bolivia.
Traveling to Bolivia, Sarjo was optimistic of making it to The Gambian Consular in Brazil and culminating in her return to her home country. Far from that, again, she was smuggled to enter the Bolivia and would come face-to-face with a familiar fate “I had no home, no decent job and I was exploited once again,” she says.
Two years later, Sarjo met Caritas, a humanitarian organization working on serving the poor and promoting charity and justice throughout the world. She was referred to IOM Bolivia and this was the beginning to the end of her suffering, exploitation, and voluntary return to The Gambia.
“I decided to return voluntarily because the suffering I endured became unbearable. I never got a decent job as I had no documentation and also because I couldn't communicate with the people since I wasn’t literate in either English or Spanish. It was constant communication breakdown with people,” she explains.
After over two decades, Sarjo returned to The Gambia thanks to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) with financial support from the US Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (J/TIP).
“At last, I found myself on a flight heading to The Gambia. I cannot express the overwhelming emotions, as I’m not sure I have ever felt such sense of relief in my entire life,” Sarjo says, rolling tears down her cheek.
Upon her return, she received immediate support from IOM including medical and psychosocial support, food and non-food items, and temporary accommodation.
Additionally, she also received reintegration assistance from IOM. With the assistance, Sarjo opened a beverage and cement retail shop. “It was helpful. I used the money generated from the beverage and cement sales to support my family with paying house rent, feeding, clothing as well as my personal needs.”
Until very recently, Sarjo was also working at a local gym, doing massage for fitness trainees and as well as improving her own physical health, which she thought had a positive impact on her mental health too.
“I was working at a local gym around my neighborhood. I was doing massage for the trainees, and I also exercised there as well. This way, I earned some income and got myself physically fit,” Sarjo narrates. “I can say the gym was a very comfortable space for me as it used to make me feel very relaxed. That was good for my mental health. Now I can say, I feel good,” she adds.
IOM’s assistance ranges from supporting the voluntary return of victims of trafficking to their country of origin, providing medical or mental health and psychosocial support services, and providing economic reintegration assistance.
Migrant returnees face a great deal of stigma and discrimination in The Gambia, and women returnees and victims of human trafficking arguably face severest of this societal prejudice. IOM, and its partners including the National Agency Against Trafficking in Persons (NAATIP) and civil society organizations work in close collaboration in combatting trafficking in persons and its related menace.
“Partnership among government, civil society, the private sector and other multilateral organizations continues to be crucial. Quite clearly, government cannot do it alone, so civil society and other actors complement its efforts in ensuring that the much-desired results are achieved,” explains Isatou Dabo, Executive Director, NAATIP.
“Trafficking in persons is a transnational organized crime and you need a multi-faceted approach to support all actions aimed at combatting this inhuman act,” she reiterates.
Now 52, and reunited with her family since 2022, Sarjo’s experience got her a message for other young women and potential migrants so that they don’t fall prey to human traffickers.
“It’s normal to dream and want to live a luxurious lifestyle. But it is equally important to be cautious of the route to that lifestyle. Attempting a shortcut to a beautiful life and negative peer influence got me into a trafficker’s trap,” she states. “Do not fall for this kind of bait; it can cost you your life,” Sarjo advises.
Since 2017, 71 Gambian survivors of trafficking received assistance from IOM.
*Name has been changed to protect her identity.
IOM’s counter-trafficking activities in The Gambia are financially supported by the US Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (J/TIP).