A new soccer (football) tournament started last weekend in the Gambia’s most populous West Coast region targeting 20 under-15 teams to pave an alternative way to irregular migration, which continues to claim the lives of many young Gambians.
The Gambia is witnessing a record surge in irregular migration. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Cooperation and Gambians Abroad revealed last month that its collaboration with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a United Nations agency, led to the interception and return of at least 475 Gambians from Senegal, Niger and Libya between October and November alone.
The ministry said in a statement that the severity of the problem calls for a national dialogue and participation of all stakeholders to address the menace.
“The current situation demands a collective effort to address the complexities of irregular migration effectively and ensure the safety and well-being of our citizens,” the statement said.
Poverty and unemployment are leading drivers behind irregular migration. According to the Gambia Bureau of Statistics’ 2022-2023 Labor Force Survey, which was published in August, 48.6 percent of the country’s youth are jobless.
As the government calls for concerted efforts to address the situation, some soccer stakeholders think the sport can be a changemaker. Baller4Life Sports Management, which facilitates player transfers, trials, and grassroots soccer promotion, in partnership with its local stakeholders such as Jarisu Talents and Brikama Sports Committee, staged the competition to inspire.
The tournament is being played in front of professional soccer scouters from Germany to gather talents and expose them to opportunities in Europe.
“The objective is to scout talents for our international football partners, help the kids out of the streets, and discourage youngsters against irregular migration, drugs and substance use,” says Alieu Sowe, an official at Baller4Life, the tournament’s organizer.
“We strongly believe that football has all it takes to give hope to young Gambians,” he said. “We are creating this opportunity so that they will stop thinking about reaching Europe at all costs, including sacrificing their lives.”
“Rather, they can utilize their talents through football, and the legal ways will open for them to travel to anywhere for the right purpose,” Sowe said.
Ebrima Ceesay, 14, is the captain of BK West, one of the teams competing in the tournament. He has already started reaping the benefits of his talent, having been invited alongside his full academy to play in the Laola Cup held in Hamburg, Germany, in July.
“This is a great opportunity because scouts have not been coming to the Gambia frequently. I think this is a great initiative and a better alternative to discourage irregular migration, which is too dangerous to consider,” Ceesay told Xinhua.
“A lot of young people have perished and their mothers and fathers will cry forever. The opportunity (I) enjoyed will motivate people not only to avoid irregular means of traveling, it also encourages people to travel to Europe and return,” he said. “Gambians have talents and with this kind of opportunity, you will see football changing the narrative of this menace.”
Cherno Barry, the founder of BK West, said more capacity-building initiatives are underway.
He said that with the right motivation, football will help solve the Gambia’s irregular migration challenges.
According to the IOM, 17,324 nationals of West and Central African countries, including The Gambia, arrived in Europe irregularly in the first three months of this year.