The thousands of migrants fleeing Myanmar and Bangladesh could find an unlikely safe haven in the Gambia, after the small West African nation announced it would welcome all the Rohingya and so-called “boat people” interested in resettling there.
In a statement posted online on Monday, the government professed that as a Muslim nation it was willing “to accept and will resettle all ‘boat people’ who wish to reside in The Gambia.” The country included an appeal for all countries to assist with bringing the Rohingya — a Muslim ethnic minority group which accounts for a majority of the thousands of migrants fleeing Myanmar and Bangladesh — to the Gambia and help provide the nation with the necessary materials.
“As human beings, more so fellow Muslims, it is a sacred duty to help alleviate the untold hardships and sufferings these fellow human beings are confronted with,” the government said in the statement.
The Gambia’s unexpected offer comes after a recent surge in the number of Rohingya migrants taking to the ocean in rickety and overcrowded boats predominantly fleeing from Myanmar and Bangladesh by boat, seeking to escape government persecution and poverty.
More than 3,000 Rohingya have reached the shores of several South Asian nations in just the last week alone, with aid agencies concerned that thousands remain stranded at sea. While Malaysia is the most common intended destination, many of the 130,000 Rohingya who have fled their home countries in recent years have landed across the region.
Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia have come under international criticism for turning away ill-equipped ships full of desperate refugees and even pointing them in the direction of neighboring nations, an act described by many as “human ping-pong.” Meanwhile countries like Australia have refused to accept the migrants amid the ongoing crisis.
The US has offered to house the refugees in light of the crisis and to take a lead role in multi-country coalition —led by the United Nations — in an effort to resettle the displaced. The Myanmar government has agreed to attend a regional conference on the crisis on May 29, with Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and Australia in attendance.
Out of all the countries that have been involved in the Rohingya refugee crisis, the Gambia is an unexpected addition. The tiny West African nation, surrounded by Senegal on three out of four sides, has had a less than enviable human rights record under the tenure of President Yahya Jammeh, who rose to power in 1994 through a military coup.
The 49-year-old leader, who personally claims to hold the cure for AIDS, rules Gambia with an iron fist. He is known for silencing dissent, jailing opponents, and cracking down on the press. Jammeh has made a habit of spewing anti-gay rhetoric, most recently threatening to slit gay mens’ throats just months after making homosexuality a crime punishable by life in prison. During his tenure, the Gambia’s economy has also tanked, with a third of Gambians living on less than $1.25 a day.
Oppression and economic problems have helped spark a mass exodus of the Gambia’s own people. According to the International Organization for Migration, out of the nearly 43,000 maritime arrivals to Italy in 2014, more than 8,000 were Gambian, making it the third highest country of origin behind Mali and Nigeria, which is Africa’s most populous nation. In the first two months of 2015 alone, the number of Gambians entering Italy hit 2,099.
Beyond the number of people fleeing the Gambia — a popular tourist destination that lies along the Atlantic coast — the country is already home to nearly 10,000 refugees living in poor conditions. Coming mostly from the lengthy low-level conflict in the Casamance region of neighboring Senegal, they often face issues like food insecurity, poor health, and insufficient housing, according to the US Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Considering all of these factors, the motives and sincerity behind the Gambian government’s offer to help the Rohingya has come into question. Jeffrey Smith, an advocacy officer with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, told VICE News that there may be many reasons for the offer, but it likely has nothing to do with Jammeh’s concern for the Rohingya refugees.
“Let’s be clear, Jammeh did not make this announcement because he genuinely cares about the plight of the Rohingyan people,” Smith said. “It’s a clever tactic, but transparently self-serving.”
According to Smith, Jammeh is looking to secure positive media attention to offset the windfall of negative stories that have come out in recent months regarding his “increasingly deplorable” human rights record at home. Smith said the leader is also looking to burnish his Islamic credentials in the pursuit of financial aid.
“Funding from the West for his his abusive regime has dried up,” Smith explained. “By seeming to publicly side with the Rohingyas, Jammeh is attempting to garner goodwill with potential new allies who can fill that funding void.”
Last year the European Union withdrew millions of euros of funding in response to the poor human rights record in the country. Similarly, in December the US cut the Gambia out of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a long-standing regional trade agreement. Largely dependent on international aid for development, the country has had to look elsewhere for funding, with Middle Eastern and Muslim nations stepping in to fill the gap. Turkey, Kuwait, and Qatar have all recently pledged funding to the autocracy.
Sabrina Mahtani, a West Africa researcher for Amnesty International, told VICE News it may be as simple as Jammeh “deflecting attention away from the high levels of Gambians leaving his own country and his terrible human rights record.” Mahtani said it was interesting that Jammeh has been so “magnanimous toward the Rohingya,” and yet “totally unsympathetic” towards the plight of his own people.
Either way, it’s highly unlikely the offer will ever come to fruition. When asked about Gambia’s suitability as a resettlement location for Rohingya refugees, the deputy director for Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, Phil Robertson, told VICE News the country was not a likely candidate.
“As a poor country ruled by a repressive government with human rights policies that sends its own people fleeing, the Gambia is hardly a likely candidate to resettle Rohingya refugees,” Robertson said.