As Gambia’s Crisis Grows, Refugees Face Struggle for Asylum in Senegal

Thousands of Gambians are fleeing to Senegal, fearing unrest in their country after President Yahya Jammeh refused to step down. Exiled Gambian journalist Sanna Camara writes of his dashed hopes of returning home and his concerns for fellow refugees in Senegal.

Written by Sanna Camara Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A man walks in Gambia’s capital Banjul Tuesday Jan. 17, 2017. AP

In August 2014, I crossed the Gambian border into SenegaI. I was fleeing persecution by my government and possible imprisonment over a story I had written two months earlier, about a human trafficking case involving locals. I have now been on the run for more than two years. I am stranded in Senegal, where I have been trying to get refugee status to no avail.

My country has been ruled by an iron-fisted dictator since 1994, when he overthrew a military government. In the face of Yahya Jammeh’s absolute opposition to dissent, more than 100 Gambian journalists have been forced into exile simply for doing their work. Their voices were stifled because they questioned the government over its performance. I remained as long as I could, continuing to work as an independent journalist. My arrest in 2014 was the third time I’d been arrested since 2001. This time, I was “advised” to leave the country.

Despite losing the presidential election in December, Jammeh has refused to step down, declaring the results as “null and void.” As his term expired on January 19, regional powers gathered their forces at the borders of Gambia – led by Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone and supported by the African Union – and thousands of civilians are once again fleeing the country.

U.N. workers witnessed buses loaded with Gambian women and children heading toward Senegal, where many of us have been stranded for years without refugee status. Many will likely not receive asylum, given the restrictive procedures of the country.

Lack of Asylum

When I fled to Senegal as a last resort I did not realize that the process to acquire refugee status would continue without any result for more than two years. Had I known, I would have thought twice before leaving my wife and three kids behind to seek my own safety.

Growing up, I had known Senegal as a stable country that surrounded Gambia on three sides, except to the west. Since gaining independence from France five decades ago, following a peaceful transfer of power, the country has enjoyed relative stability. Unlike Gambia, Senegal did not experience coups. It boasts one of the highest democratic rankings in the subregion.

I have met hundreds of Gambian refugees – former civil servants, politicians, security personnel, military men, housewives and children, and of course journalists – living in Dakar. All of them have fled situations similar to mine. Some have given up on returning to Gambia or being relocated to a third country.

When I arrived, I stayed with a Gambian friend who had worked with me for eight years as a journalist. He fled the country after two months of detention by the intelligence agency. We were both wanted on the same charges: “false publication.” I was never tried in court, as I fled while my case was still pending.

I was hopeful, after starting the Senegalese asylum process, that the authorities in Dakar would consider my plight and my well-founded fears of persecution. I was confident they would approve my application without delay. I was wrong.

Six months after applying, I received a notification letter that my case had been turned down because the asylum authorities did not feel that my situation merited refugee status. I was shocked. “You have the right to appeal,” the administrator at the office informed me, in a matter-of-fact tone. Despite international, domestic and regional support from several organizations and individuals, my situation was apparently not compelling enough for the Senegalese authorities.

The National Eligibility Commission, the agency responsible for processing asylum seekers in Senegal, did not provide specific reasons for turning down my application. My friends told me to give up, as very few journalists have received state protection in Senegal in the last 10 years.

So I did not bother to appeal. But in November 2015, some international human rights lawyers listened to my story, considered the facts presented to the commission in Dakar, and opined that I have a legitimate case and should be granted asylum in Senegal. “There are legal channels to pursue,” one of them told me. So I decided to appeal and am still fighting a legal battle for refuge.

Life on Hold

Meanwhile, it has not been easy to live in exile. Being a non-French-speaking foreign national in a highly competitive job market is an immense challenge. I had established a blog while working in Gambia to publish my journalism reports, so I continue to publish on it. But blogging does not pay the bills.

Despite the presence of numerous international news bureaus in Dakar, my fluency in English and my intimate knowledge of the region, I have not found employment. Most foreign media staff pick my brains on issues and say “thank you” without offering any financial compensation. My information sometimes earns them headlines.

To add to my troubles of unemployment and the pressure to provide for myself and my family across the border, I am still not fully safe. In June 2015, for example, a former member of Jammeh’s elite paramilitary squad in Gambia was attacked by a group of people in Dakar. Following a brutal fight and a teargas attack that rendered him unconscious, he was lucky to escape alive. “These were trained commandos from Gambia,” he told me when I met him about a week later.

On another occasion, a former opposition party member, who also lived in Dakar, was kidnapped in southern Senegal during a visit. There have also been deaths of Gambian opposition figures under mysterious circumstances in so-called “accidents” in Senegal. The Gambian government continues to intimidate its citizens, even across the border.

Strained Relations

The shaky relationship between Gambia and Senegal makes the asylum process even more tricky. There have been several diplomatic rows between the two countries since Jammeh came to power. He has often accused Senegal of harboring “enemies of his government.”

Relations between Dakar and Banjul have been strained by diplomatic crises arising from unilateral border closures, spikes in ferry tariffs for Senegalese commuters and dissidents fleeing from Gambia into Senegal. To avoid being further mired in controversies, Senegal has been reluctant to grant political asylum to Gambians.

The National Eligibility Commission keeps the number of Gambians who have fled to Senegal confidential, purportedly for security reasons. Many Gambian asylum seekers live clandestine lives outside the city, in rural villages and towns, without declaring themselves to the authorities. Their number is bound to grow if Jammeh does not peacefully hand over power to President-elect Adama Barrow. If a power struggle ensues, the African Union-supported troops may force Jammeh out of office.

Most Gambians would like to avoid further strife and violence in the country. Many parents are sending their children across the border, while they stand guard at home to protect their livelihoods and properties.

I had started my preparations to return home to join my wife and children in light of the election. I hoped the results would provide a new lease of life for those of us who were displaced under Jammeh’s rule. I continue to wait, ever hopeful.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

This story is part of a new series, “Living the Story – Displaced Journalists,” in which journalists describe their experience of being displaced and continuing to report on the communities they left and those they have joined.

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