The Gambia

From The Gambia to Europe: the risks at each step of the backway

From The Gambia to Europe: the risks at each step of the backway

Is Niger safer than Libya for irregular migrants? What are the chances to reach the European coast safely via the backway? What should one be aware of before trying to cross the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea with people smugglers? Please read below to learn about the risks an irregular migrant actually faces at each step of the backway from The Gambia to Europe.

Niger: an expensive transit country

Niger recently passed anti-smuggling laws. With the help of the European Union (EU), which is training their security forces, the country is actively fighting smuggling and has already arrested hundreds of smugglers. This has resulted in smugglers increasing their prices and more kidnappings.

A number of Gambians have reported that when crossing the border to Niger they had to pay more than other nationalities. The border guards lied to them, saying that the President of The Gambia had ordered them to deny Gambians entry. With this lie, border guards manage to get more money from Gambian migrants.

In Agadez, the Nigerien transit town between The Gambia and Libya, migrants often have to hide in compounds to avoid being arrested. Prices are high for irregular migrants and there are no jobs for them there. As a consequence, many Gambian migrants get stuck in Agadez with no money to either move forward on their journey or to go back home. If they want to leave, they must rely on family support.

The Sahara Desert: a deadly journey

The Sahara Desert is a huge ungoverned region, with many criminal gangs robbing, attacking or kidnapping migrants. As the terrain is difficult, it can take weeks to cross the desert. Many cars break down or get lost during the long, hot journey. Migrants can die of starvation, from the heat, or by falling out of overcrowded trucks.

Migrants often report passing dead bodies on the journey. The number of migrants who have died in the Sahara is not known. As the desert is vast and has no roads, many migrants’ bodies become buried in sand and are never found.

One Gambian returnee told Seefar that the smugglers who had transported them across the desert had murdered migrants. “On our way from Niger to Saba, our vehicle had a breakdown in the desert. We were with two Nigerian women in the vehicle, and the driver told us all to come down and push the vehicle. The women said they were women and the sun was hot so they should be excused. The driver stabbed both of them to death.”

The military have recently started patrolling the main routes to the Libyan border. Since then, there are more cases of migrants being abandoned in the Sahara by drivers who fear going to jail.

Libya: a dangerous and lawless country

Libya has become a very unstable state with no single government. Sulayman, a Gambian migrant, said “Libya is run by mafias. We had no freedom while there. We couldn’t even go out because the moment you step out, you are captured and detained… I would not even advise a dog to travel through Libya.”

Migrants are regularly arrested and placed in detention centres, many of which are under the control of militias and armed groups who use them for forced labour. They torture migrants, and call their families and extort money from them. Many detainees are shot trying to escape.

A Gambian migrant, Ousmane, said that every Friday the Libyans would kill five people in the detention centre. Sometimes even if a migrants’ family had paid ransom the guards would still detain and kill them.

In Libya’s detention centres, there is very little food or water, and migrants are regularly beaten, raped and murdered. Detention centres are overcrowded, and migrants often have to sleep standing up. Some die of starvation, exhaustion and poor health.

If the detention centres or migrant warehouses become too full, or if migrants do not have enough money to pay their smugglers, they can be sold in slave markets and forced to work.

The Mediterranean Sea: drowning and detention

In Libya, it is very difficult to get on a boat as security forces patrol the beaches. They often arrest migrants and place them back in detention centres.

Smugglers often lie about the length of the journey and do not tell migrants that the boats are overcrowded, unsuitable for long sea journeys and are at risk of sinking. Many Gambians paid money to agents to access a boat, but saw them disappear without keeping their promises.

Since 2014, more than 16,850 migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. In 2017, 1 in 36 migrants died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

Many of those who died were Gambians, like Fatima Jawara, the goalie on the national women’s football team, and Ali Mbengu, the well-known Gambian wrestler, both drowned at sea in 2016.

Travelling in Europe

Border controls are extremely strict in European countries. Getting to a specific country will involve crossing many different borders. At each border there is a high chance of being arrested and deported back to The Gambia.

Smugglers hide migrants in trucks and the boots of cars. Sometimes migrants get trapped and die there. Often migrants have to cross difficult terrain on foot, including mountains, forests and rivers, for many days with no shelter and in very cold and harsh weather during winter.

Illegal migrant camps in Europe are also dangerous. There are acts of violence, crimes, and a risk of eviction by national security forces.

When migrants apply for asylum in Europe they do not get to choose where they live. Instead, they must claim asylum in the first European country they enter and will be returned there if they continue to cross borders.


Taking the backway to Europe is an extremely expensive and risky choice, from which many return. Risks differ depending on the country and terrain:

  • The European Union supports security forces in transit countries, leading to more arrests, detention and forced returns of migrants
  • In Niger, migrants now have to hide and pay a high price to cross the country
  • In the Sahara Desert, many migrants get lost, leading to dramatic consequences
  • In Libya, armed groups and militias manage detention centres, where migrants face violence, exploitation and death
  • Thousands have died in the Mediterranean Sea
  • Illegal migrants face tough living conditions in European countries
  • Everywhere, smugglers may lie to migrants and put their lives in danger.

For more life-saving information, please read:

  • The 5 main risks illegal Gambian migrants face on the backway
  • Migration to Europe: the policies you need to know
  • X alternatives to irregular migration to Europe for Gambians

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