Gambians seek refuge in Senegal amid political tension

Several thousand Gambians have crossed to Senegal in the last 10 days to escape growing tension over the results of last month's presidential election.

Gambian women and children after crossing the border into Senegal.  © Courtesy William Diatta / WFP

DAKAR, Senegal – Several thousand people, mainly children, have crossed into Senegal from the Gambia in the last 10 days to escape growing tension over the results of last month’s presidential election.

While some people have decided to stay in the Gambia, many have begun sending their children to Senegal as a precautionary measure amid the political impasse, fearing potential unrest.

“UNHCR teams report seeing buses filled with children, accompanied by women, cross the border,” said Liz Ahua, the regional representative for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

Gambian President Yaya Jammeh narrowly lost to rival Adama Barrow in the country’s December 1 election. After initially conceding defeat, Jammeh is now contesting the result.

UNHCR, other aid agencies and the Senegalese authorities have been monitoring the borders since the political crisis erupted, deploying joint field missions last week and this week to southern Senegal’s Casamance, bordering Gambia, and its surroundings.

Much of the daily border crossing is regular traffic, but preliminary findings also suggest that several thousand people have crossed to Senegal to seek shelter, mainly in the Ziguinchor, Sédhiou, Kaolack and Kolda areas.

“UNHCR teams report seeing buses filled with children, accompanied by women, cross the border.”

Senegalese authorities, with the support of UNHCR, are working to strengthen registration systems, which will help clarify figures. Most arrivals in Senegal are Gambians and Senegalese who have been working or living in the Gambia. The teams also report Ghanaians, Guineans, Liberians, Mauritanians and Lebanese among the arrivals.

“Most are staying with relatives or host families. Some households have more than doubled or tripled in size, which risks putting a strain on their resources, especially food,” UNHCR’s Ahua noted.

UNHCR is working closely with the Senegalese authorities and aid agencies to establish contingency plans in case of future influxes. These include identifying and preparing transit and hosting sites near existing facilities providing basic services.

A UNHCR team left yesterday (Thursday) to Casamance’s Zinguichor area to assess existing protection capacity. The UNHCR office and the authorities in Guinea Bissau are also sending a team to Cacheu in the north-west of that country, where some 400 people have reportedly arrived from the Gambia in recent days.

In addition to UNHCR and Senegal’s National Committee for Refugees, Returnees and Displaced People, interagency missions also included OCHA, UNICEF, the World Food Programme, IOM and other stakeholders

Diplomatic efforts from various international actors, including ECOWAS, the African Union and the UN, are under way to convince President Jammeh to step down and allow Barrow to assume his new functions on January 19.