“I like to be travelled”: Psychosocial Experiences of Return Migration from the Backway

By: Emma-Jane Dennis

Thousands of young migrants have returned to The Gambia in the past three years after the political transformation of the country. With new expectations of democracy and youth employment opportunities, experiences of returning from the Backway journey can be difficult to navigate.

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One of the many beaches along the Gambian coast, quiet before the tourist season starts. All photos by the author

The Backway is an irregular migration route that thousands of Gambians have taken over the past two decades in search of prosperous futures abroad. It is a dangerous path for anyone to take for many reasons, not least because of the extreme desert heat, smugglers, exploiters and torturers reported along the way. Many who take this path don’t make it to Europe or are not able to claim asylum and must return to The Gambia. But what many people don’t expect from such a journey is the impact it can have on mental health when they have no choice but to return to where they started. To learn more about the psychosocial impacts of return migration, I went to the Gambia to speak to some young men about their experiences.

The Gambia is a lusciously green country running from the Atlantic coast up each side of the Gambian River, sandwiched by Senegal. It is popularly known amongst tourists as “The Smiling Coast of Africa”. Flocked with thousands of European sun-seekers every year, tourism makes up more than 30% of the country’s economy. In 2017, the country underwent a historic political transformation, ending 22 years of brutal dictatorship. In the wake of this political uprising, one of many challenges that have arisen reflects a less smiley reality of the small West African country: the organised return of an exodus of youth who left in search of better futures.

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Peaceful boat rides through the mangroves on the Gambian River

Both men and women fled The Gambia and are subsequently returning, but the dominant percentage of migrants is male. Many have had primary and often secondary education in The Gambia, yet with youth unemployment in the country standing at around 40%, opportunities are scarce. The young men I spoke to during 2018 told me of hazardous journeys towards or across the Mediterranean Sea in hope of reaching Europe, their experiences often gruelling. These journeys are referred to as the Backway and come up quite regularly in local conversation, as well as in the media. The return journey, however, is left hanging without much reference and the experiences of such journeys are rarely shared.

“The moment you step from this border, Gambia – you lose your dignity. Nobody considers you outside of here. On this Backway – without proper documents you are nobody, nobody. Even if you make it to Europe you are nobody without documents.”

As we sat in the shade of an umbrella tree and drank Attaya, the local green tea, return migrant Stephan* described to me his experiences. One of the worst aspects of the Backway for Stephan was the dehumanising loss of identity he felt. On returning, the psychological impact has been difficult. He and others described the feeling as a realisation of world order, of the unfair and unjust controls in place to restrict the movement of unwanted bodies across the globe.

Henrik Vigh writes about the concept of the “social imaginary,” which he uses to describe the shared hopes and possibilities of migration among youth populations. The concept touches on the idea of a shared expectation; a prospect of financial reward that inspires young would-be-migrants into taking the Backway, often in the form of new TVs and cars owned by families with sons or daughters successfully working abroad. However, I found that for many young Gambians, the prospect of travel itself was just as appealing. In the same way that eighteen-to-twenty-somethings from Europe or the USA want to take gap years to travel to “exotic” destinations and explore other cultures.

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The back-and-forth pouring process of brewing attaya, a social activity around which most conversation happens

I just want to change environment, I want to meet different people, different culture(s), see a different system! I was born into poverty, I was born into no good condition, no good feeling. I am just getting to know myself now [after travelling], I am much more now. I like to be travelled; I like to meet good people.”

It is not surprising therefore, that the experiences of the Backway – of being stuck in transit, dehumanised, and returned like lost cattle “back to where you came from” – has impacted constructions of wellbeing and perceptions of personal worth.

The shared expectations of returning to The Gambia were described as optimistic: the first time living in a democratic state without the harsh glare of Jammeh’s regime, promises of new employment opportunities, and rumours of funding packages circulating in migrant prisons. However, the newly formed government underestimated the level of job security and adequate reintegration support needed by the high numbers of returning migrants. Many returnees fell through the gaps, left with feelings of disillusion and worthlessness.

For Stephan, this wasn’t good enough. Together with other return migrants, he set up a youth organisation in The Gambia called YAIM – “Youth Against Irregular Migration” – with the goal of sharing experiences from the Backway to deter other young boys and girls from taking that route and to build confidence through employment opportunities and entrepreneurism in their own country instead.

As we talked, I learnt that Stephan’s concept of psychosocial wellbeing has been shaped through this mental and physical journey. From before – believing his purpose in life used to lie in escaping The Gambia and having that option ripped from under him; to now, whereby he is fuelled with a fiery determination to create purpose for himself and other youths in The Gambia, in order to develop their country rather than escape it.

Irregular migration routes such as the Backway are travelled by millions of individuals from countries across the entire world and in hundreds of directions, in the hope of opportunity and a prosperous life. For these young Gambians, the process of geopolitically organised return is a stark reflection of a world that discriminates against certain populations. Their experiences highlight the inability for Gambian youth to move freely across international borders as do the flocking tourists that fill hotels along their Smiling Coast every year.

By undertaking a Backway journey and experiencing being “without documents” and therefore “without dignity,” it is interesting to consider that the journey itself alters the construction of wellbeing and fulfilment. By opening experience dialogues, we can become more aware of what it means to be “returned” to where you started and begin to learn how to support psychosocial health.

*All names have been changed and anonymised

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