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Africa

Gambian youth flee bleak future at home

Over a thousand Gambians tried to reach Europe in the first three months of this year. President Yahya Jammeh has been ruling their country for the past 20 years with an iron fist, prompting many to leave.

Banka Manneh, head of Civil Society Associations Gambia (CSAG), is angry when he thinks of all the migrants who risk their lives on their journey to Europe. He knows of a young man, 21 years old, well-educated, with a knack for making airplane models out of electronic and metal waste.

The young man is now somewhere between Mali and Senegal, making his way to the Libyan coast to join others on a boat they hope will reach the other side of Mediterranean, Manneh said.

"When I asked them whether they knew how bad it was and that they could easily die they told me 'Banka yes, we know we can die easily. But what option do we have? Surrender or die to the current leader [Yahya Jammeh]? No, the only option we have is to go out there. If we survive we will have a better life.'"

Yahya Jammeh (photo: AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Jammeh has been ruling Gambia since he came to power in a coup in 1994

There are no opportunities for young people under Jammeh's authoritarian regime which is becoming even more repressive, Manneh said.

"We have more disappearances, more killings. Jammeh is acting with more impunity now than he has ever before." .

Manneh, who left Gambia for the US, has kept in touch with people in his home country.

Gambia's economy continues to deteriorate which is no surprise, said Manneh. "All the major businesses are owned by one person - and that is Jammeh himself."

'Jammeh is the law'

"There are no rules in the country. It's a dictatorship and Jammeh does what he likes. He's the law," said

Sidi Sanneh

, who served as foreign minister under Jammeh before fleeing to the US in 2006.

Sanneh points to the case of a 14-year old whose father is believed to have participated in a

coup to topple Jammeh at the end of 2014

. "The boy should be in school, but he has been arrested, kept in detention. Where - nobody knows."

The failed coup only made things worse, because it has prompted Jammeh to tighten his grip still further, says Sanneh. "He's very nervous."

'Wave of repression'

The human rights situation in the country has gone from bad to worse, Sanneh said.

"It continues to deteriorate by the day. There are a lot of Gambians languishing in jail; there are also a lot of Gambians unaccounted for to this day."

Marta Colomer from Amnesty International said the country has seen a new "wave of repression" since the abortive coup in December.

"There is an increase in arbitrary arrests and detentions of people that are believed to be against the regime," she added.

In August 2014, Jammeh's regime introduced the crime of "aggravated homosexuality", according to Amnesty International. "Since then, a lot of people from the LGBT community have been suffering a lot of repression. They have been detained and tortured," Colomer said.

Many are trying to leave the country. Those who try to make it across the Mediterranean are mostly young, said Sanneh. "Initially they were all male, but now we are beginning to see young girls, some of whom have lost their lives in the process. Women are increasingly part of this whole exodus of young people."

It is mostly the highly skilled who are leaving the country," both Sanneh and Manneh told DW. "You even see kids on the boats with university degrees," Sanneh said.

More and more Gambians fleeing to Europe

According to

Europe's border agency Frontex

, more than 1,400 Gambians have tried to enter Europe via Libya and the Mediterranean in the first three months of 2015. Gambia, a small country with just 1.9 million inhabitants, topped all other countries on that particular route.

According to the

UN refugee agency UNHCR

the number of asylum applications lodged by Gambians in industrialized countries has increased fivefold. There were 540 applications in the second quarter of 2012, but during the same period two years later, there were almost 2,800 applications.

"It's not like they don't know these stories," Manneh said, refering to the people who try their luck crossing the Mediterranean.

"They have friends who arrive in Italy and they always call back and say 'Oh my God, five of my colleagues died on the way, or ten of my colleagues, or hundred of my colleagues.' 'Where is the other guy that you left with?' 'Oh he died on the way.' So they know the story."

Both Manneh, the civil society activist and Sanneh, the former foreign minister, say it is important to help the people in Gambia, but funds should not be given to Jammeh's government as they would only disappear in the pockets of a corrupt regime. Instead, the international community should impose travel bans, freeze assets of high-ranking officials and support NGOs as well as opposition parties, they said.

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