Banjul – Gambian President Yahya Jammeh has berated families sending migrants on perilous journeys across the Mediterranean Sea, suggesting they are not “true Muslims”.
More than 5 000 migrants, many from Muslim-majority Gambia and its neighbours, have died in the past 18 months trying to cross into Europe, and African leaders have been criticised for not speaking out on the issue.
Jammeh broke his public silence late Thursday, acknowledging in an address on state-run television that “there were many funerals in the country a few weeks ago because a lot of people died in the Mediterranean”.
“Those who paid for their sons and daughters to embark on this risky journey claimed their children would have died if they were still around,” he said.
“But if these people are true Muslims and really believe in what they are saying, then they should equally believe that their sons and daughters could have made it at home if they were ready to invest and work.”
For years Libya has been a stepping stone for Africans seeking to get to Europe, fleeing conflict, economic hardship and instability often in rickety, unseaworthy vessels.
But the number of deaths has risen dramatically as boats operated by smugglers have capsized off Libya’s coast, triggering alarm among European leaders seeking to halt the flow.
The UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, estimates that around 60 000 men, women and children had braved the Mediterranean so far this year, more than 1 800 perishing in the attempt.
“We all saw on television Europeans complaining of economic hardship, yet still people in this country would pay for their sons and daughters to go and die in the Mediterranean Sea,” Jammeh said.
Human rights abuses
The president did not announce any proposals for solving the crisis but suggested that the kind of work migrants were undertaking in Europe was already available at home.
“Some parents do not mind how their children earn their income in Europe, all they are interested in is the remittance sent to them,” he said.
Jammeh, an outspoken military officer and former wrestler, has ruled the former British colony with an iron fist since seizing power in 1994.
The regime is frequently berated for human rights abuses, extra-judicial killings, torture and the muzzling of journalists.
Sixty percent of the population live in “multi-dimensional poverty”, a third surviving on $1.25 or less a day, according to the UN’s 2013 Human Development Report.
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