More than 4,600 refugees have died or disappeared in the Mediterranean this year while trying to reach Europe for a better life. Many of these deaths have gone unnoticed.
The death of Gambia’s 19-year-old Fatim Jawara in early November, however, changed all that.
Jawara was the goalkeeper of Gambia’s women’s football team. She drowned in the Mediterranean Sea while attempting to reach European shores by boat.
She had played as part of Gambia’s national team in the U-17 women’s World Cup in Azerbaijan in 2012. She became a national treasure. At the time, Lamin Kaba Bajo, the president of the Gambia Football Federation, described the 19-year-old as “a talent’’.
Jawara’s teammates said her parents repeatedly pleaded with her to abandon her plans to make the treacherous journey. In one of their last conversations with her, the young footballer said she just wanted “to follow her destiny and play for a big European club.”
While the refugee crisis has mostly focused on refugees from Syria, hundreds of young Gambians are making desperate journeys through the Sahara Desert and then by sea on rickety, overloaded boats to Europe.
More than 7,000 Gambians have left so far this year alone, making it the largest contributor to the refugee influx into Italy, relative to population size.
Young Gambians represent the fourth-largest group of arrivals to Europe by number according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), despite being the smallest country on the African mainland, with a population of around 1.8 million.
“The area I lived in, where I was brought up in the Gambia, some of the houses next to mine have people who died on this route. A lot of people have passed away this way.
"But this [the death of Jawara] was in the newspaper, maybe because of sport and she’s a footballer,” Modou Barrow, who is the only Gambian footballer playing in the English Premier League, told The Guardian earlier in November.
The journey to Europe is riddled with dangers. In some cases it may take months just to travel across West Africa and the Sahara Desert to reach Libya — a hub for refugees setting out for Europe.
With Libya mired in civil war, Sub-Saharan Africa’s smuggling networks have boomed over the past two years. From there, Italy and other European countries are only a few hundred miles away.
Experts have dubbed the refugee route “The Western Route,” but Gambians have a different name for the dangerous journey to Europe: The Backway.
The Backway is “affecting socio-cultural relations, impacting agricultural production and fuelling insecurity — as mainly the young ones and the elderly are left behind,” Sanna Camara, a Gambian journalist who left the country and now lives in exile in Senegal, told TRT World.
“Husbands and brothers have mostly left. Many died leaving women to be widows with no one to care for them.’’
Why are young Gambians fleeing their country?
"There's a lot of hopelessness in the future. The political uncertainty and economic stagnation, coupled with social factors like family living standards all motivate youths to try elsewhere," Camara continued.
Nearly 35 per cent of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day. Over 60 per cent of the total population lives below the poverty line, according to the United Nations.
“Ten or five years ago, the poverty, the lack of jobs are what drove youths into the urban areas and cities. Now, since there are no jobs in the cities, rural youths are saving for a journey to Europe through deserts and high seas,’’ Camara said.
Since the government has failed to diversify its economy, young people, who make up more than half of the population, are left with no choice but to leave the country.
What is the Gambian government doing to persuade Gambians to stay?
Gambia’s government stands accused of ignoring the flight of the nation’s young.
The country's information minister, Sheriff Bojang, blamed European leaders for the ''mass murder of young African migrants on European beaches and waters,” when he announced its withdrawal from the International Criminal Court last month.
President Yahya Jammeh urged young people to stay in the country and to take up job opportunities which are "available in the country."
Gambia's President, Yahya Jammeh has been in power in the country since he staged a military coup in 1994. When Jammeh took charge, he was a 29-year-old lieutenant who had returned to the country just four months after he underwent military-police training at Fort McClellan, Alabama in the US.
Human rights organisations have accused him of systematically targeting journalists, rights activists and opposition members.
Jammeh, whose official title reads "His Excellency Sheikh, Professor, Alhaji, Doctor Yahya AJJ Jammeh" is seeking a fifth term in power and will contest the presidential elections that will be held on December 1.
However, the opposition has accused the government of illegally detaining 90 opposition members ahead of the elections, following a series of anti-government protests.
One prominent opposition leader, Solo Sandeng, was beaten to death in police custody last April and his body still has not been handed over to his family. Thirty people, including the head of the biggest opposition party, Ousainou Darboe, were jailed for three years in last July whilst demanding electoral reform.
The political uncertainty, Camara said, ''as a result of the President's refusing to leave power and offering jobs to only those loyal to government'' is causing frustration among young people who wait for change.
"And they leave,'' he said.