An Economic Migrant, Waiting at America's Back Door

Adolescent migrants Mustafa from Gambia and Ishmael from Sierra Leone stand in a courtyard at an immigration centre in Caltagirone, Sicily March 18. In Gambia, whole towns are being emptied of their young men on their way to Europe or the U.S. Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

I received a frantic phone call recently from a family member living in New York City. She was inquiring whether I knew anyone who could help, or any way for, a young seventeen-year-old migrant (her younger brother), stranded in Ecuador to come to the United States.

I was lost for words. Do African migrants go to Ecuador? How in the world did he end up there?

This is the reality facing parents in many West African countries. Throngs of young men are heading North, for a chance to make it to Europe, or anywhere else with better economic prospects. Many are fleeing conflicts and political repression, while many more are fleeing poverty and unemployment.

The journey to the North, however, is fraught with danger. Thousands have died just this year in the Mediterranean, and the death toll is set to beat the record from last year. All this is if they make it through the Sahara desert alive—teeming with bandits, and now Islamic militants.

As for the young man who is stranded in Ecuador (I will call him Bangalie), his odyssey started a few months ago when he left the Gambia for the Bahamas, purportedly enroute to the United States without the proper documentation. His family was lured into shelling out about $5,000 of life savings to what I will consider a swindler who promised to help him and five others get into the United States.

The journey began in Dakar, Senegal, to Spain and then on to the Bahamas where the person leading them disappeared because they could not come up with more money. From the Bahamas, they headed to Quito, Ecuador with hopes of travelling from there to the US through Central America.

News of young people moving to the U.S. and seeking asylum had reached them, and they were prepared to try their chances, but the uproar over migrant children in the U.S. has thwarted their plans. As of this posting, he is still in Ecuador, still waiting for a chance to make it to the United States.

This is what is known in the Gambia as "the back way." That is going to Babylon (Europe, America, or anywhere else out of the continent) through illegal and often dangerous means, risking everything, not least their lives.

The Gambia, a tiny sliver of a country in West Africa is one of the most affected by outward migration. Whole towns are being emptied of their young men on their way to Europe or America. In some communities, there are very few young men left to work in the farms. Babylon seems to be the major pre-occupation.

Conversely, for a good number of the population, migrant remittances from those who manage to make it are a mainstay of economic survival. For others, it is a rite of passage for young men to go out into the world to seek their fortunes. My father and his cohorts were among the first wave of migrants in the 1960s and 1970s that left the Gambia for in Sierra Leone during the diamond boom in that country.

The difference this time is that the migrants are younger, and are headed north, much farther north—–to Europe.

If the Atlantic was narrower, they most certainly will cross it to the United States. As it turns out, even the vast Atlantic, as in the case of Bangalie, cannot stop those who are willing to give up everything for a better future.

For the parents, there is anguish, and then there are mixed feeling. While many will certainly benefit from the remittances of those who make it, they have no clue of what awaits these young men, or the horrors of a journey fraught with uncertainty. As a result, they become willing participants, often draining their life savings, and entrusting their children to people smugglers and criminals.

Even the U.S. embassy in the Gambia has recently gotten involved in the effort to deter young men from leaving through the backway. The embassy sponsored a concert last year with performances in local languages "to sensitize the public" about the dangers facing their children.

As far back as I can remember, the constant ebbs and flows of migrants, flowing with the economic currents to a place a little better than their countries, have shaped this part of the world. In the past, these young men would have gone to the larger urban centers or neighboring countries for work.

However, the global economic downturn, and the lack of opportunities in these neighboring countries has shifted the tide northwards.

So what is being done to stop the flow of migrants like the young man in Ecuador? Nothing much. At least, nothing with significant impact to change minds. West African governments have raised alarms, but they cannot offer anything meaningful for these young men to start a life in their own countries. Regionally, there is no mechanism in place to address this issue as a collective, just as European governments are struggling to come up with a cohesive plan.

Meanwhile, these young people continue to leave, and are willing to do anything, to pay any price for a chance to make it to their Babylon. Many will make it, and many more will perish in the Mediterranean, or languish for years in detention centers in Italy and France, or prisons in Libya, and Algeria. In this case, faraway Ecuador.

Mohamed Jallow, an Africa watcher, following politics and economic currents across the continent, works at RTI International in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.