By Alieu Ceesay
In the shadows of Gambia’s football arenas, a somber tale unfolds as a rising number of young players from Division 1, 2, and 3 teams embark on perilous and illegal journeys by sea in search of a better life in Europe.
This exodus, marked by tragedy, has seen lives lost and many missing persons and left communities such as Bakau, Kartong, and Gunjur, among others, grappling with the harsh reality of dreams shattered by desperation.
In a heart-rending trend, several Gambian young football players, fueled by aspirations for a brighter future, are opting for the treacherous route to Europe, often facilitated by human traffickers promising a prosperous life elsewhere.
While the beautiful game has long been a source of joy and unity in the nation, an alarming number of seasoned and aspiring players are being lured by the illusion of opportunities abroad.
The journey, however, is taking a devastating toll. Reports confirm that some players have lost their lives at sea, drowning in the unforgiving waters of the Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea, while others have gone missing, leaving families and communities in an agonizing state of uncertainty.
Modou Lamin Sambou and Sidia Yaboye trained at a sandy-soil football field in Jambanjelly. The duo were starting players of Jamcity United, a second-division Gambia Football Federation Division 2 club.
Sambou, a powerful striker, and Yaboye, a maestro midfielder, embarked on a journey through the sea to Europe. The two have been announced dead, but their memories shared with the community football team remain strong.
Ismaila Jammeh, the head coach of Jamcity United, described the death of these two talented stars as “a great loss to the team.”
The Jamcity coach added that the stars were among his instrumental players who could bring many victories to the club.
“Migration has really affected me; I lost some of my players; those are key players. Some of them are starters in my team,” Jammeh told TAT.
Jamcity United is currently standing in 16th position in the 18-team competition. It last finished at the top of four GFF Division 2 competitions.
Gambia Armed Force’s male team has also lost three regular players through migration. At the same time, two reportedly made it to their destination. One Ansumana Gibba, a central defender, was announced dead.
Head Coach Adama Jatta believes a lot must be done to keep these young stars from embarking on the perilous journey.
Some players in the country’s top-flight league often play voluntarily with no salary, proper football facilities, or other necessities. Yet they keep pushing more challenging as they dream of becoming a professional football player someday somewhere.
“The challenges are lack of proper training facilities like a good pitch, training materials, lack of payment; most of the players are playing voluntarily just for the love of the game, but with no salary.”
He added that “no proper long-term development program for the youngsters.”
He was asked if there are support systems or programs to guide and mentor these players toward more sustainable opportunities.
The GAF coach responded: “Right now, the only sustainable opportunity for the youngsters is the national youth category U17 and U20. These youngsters can showcase their talent and skills to reach higher levels at this level because they will believe in themselves and have a career.
“But apart from the national youth category U17 and U20, there is no support system that gives more opportunities to these players.”
Indeed, in The Gambia, the dream of playing football in European leagues transforms into a nightmare of perilous boat journeys, human trafficking networks, and the harsh realities of clandestine migration.
One bereaved sister, who lost her brother to the journey, speaking in sorrow, called on the government and other stakeholders to create better employment opportunities for Gambian youths.
“Government has to create job opportunities for youths; our youths are not employed; if they can, they will migrate. Even me, a female, if I see a boat, I will go because I’m not doing anything here.”
Amidst this crisis, the pleas continue for the government and relevant stakeholders to create better employment opportunities for the youths.
On the 14th of November, 2023, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in a press release, conveyed its sympathy and condolences to the bereaved families of Gambian migrants. In the press release, it said:
“According to the Gambia Bureau of Statistics, the youth unemployment rate in Gambia decreased by 0.3 percentage points (-3.61 percent) since the previous year.
“Nevertheless, the last two years recorded a significantly higher youth unemployment rate than the preceding years…”
For example, in The Gambia, places like Bakau, Gunjur, and Kartong are now turned into sea ports for several migrants to Europe using boats.
Despite laws put in place to stop irregular migration, it continues as most of these migrants are smuggled when leaving the country and when entering their destinations.
The Gambia government modestly increased law enforcement efforts. The 2007 Trafficking in Persons Act, as amended in 2010, criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking and prescribed penalties of 50 years to life imprisonment and a fine of between 50,000 and 500,000 dalasi ($820-$8,200).
A human rights activist, Nfamara Jawneh, said more sensitization is needed to raise awareness on migration issues.
“We should continue the engagement, community outreach and also push for more legislation to ensure that people who are responsible for the smuggling of migrants are punished to deter others from doing that.”
The Gambia government, along with European countries such as Spain, Italy, and Germany, has to come to an agreement to make it easier to obtain a travel visa, which will automatically open ways for legal migration and minimize illegal migration.