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Dr Elia Vitturini

Why taking the Backway isn’t a matter of individualist thinking

Dr Elia Vitturini is a post-doctoral researcher, trained in socio-anthropology at the University of Milan-Bicocca, Italy.

In this second episode of the Research Series podcast, Elia Vitturini speaks about the ethnographic fieldwork him and his team led in The Gambia. He explains the complex phenomenon called “The Backway” and how, when it comes to migration, the decision to leave is rarely perceived as an individual driver. His research changes the focus from the individual to the family, the community, and beyond.

Elia’s research experience includes several fieldworks in Somaliland since 2011, where he studied youth activism and political party members and their participation in political processes related to state-building.

After his Ph.D., he also extended his research interests to the study of marginalized minorities and dynamics of social stratification in Somali territories.

As part of the MigChoice project, Elia Vitturini worked with Professor Alice Bellagamba and Doctor Ebrima Ceesay to better understand migration patterns in the Gambia linked to development interventions, through an historical perspective and in-depth observation of local development practices.

Bérénice: Today, we are with Elia Vitturini, an Italian socio-anthropologist who recently participated to the MigChoice project, a long-term research initiative led by the University of Birmingham in collaboration with the IOM to better understand the links between migration and development in Senegal, Guinea and the Gambia.

Elia: I am Elia Vitturini, I am a postdoctoral researcher in the MigChoice project, and I was part of the team that conducted research in The Gambia. I am based at the University of Milan in Italy and I am a social anthropologist.

Social Stratification was actually the main focus of my previous experiences. But migration is a topic which has always intersected the themes and the context of my research.

Bérénice: Now, we would like to know more about what the MigChoice project is and what makes its approach unique.

Elia : MigChoice Project is a research project that started in June 2019 and has seen the participation of numerous researchers from African and European University. The different teams worked in three countries: The Gambia, Senegal and the Republic of Guinea, and use mixed methodologies. The project analyzed the migration decision making processes as grounded in the local context, in particular in relation to the history of development interventions. I was part of the Gambia team, together with another social anthropologist and teacher, Alice Bellagamba and Ebrima Ceesay with political scientist.

Bérénice: Elia, could you tell us more about the different locations you visited during your research and the actors you interviewed?

Elia: Yes, our team has conducted field work research in five localities in the Gambia. The first is the urban settlement of Bakau, a large town located in Kanefing municipality and the first area of the country where tourism facilities were built in the 1960s. The second is the large village of Gunjur and West Coast region. Gunjur is an agricultural and fishing community not far from the coastal urban areas in the Gambia was recently interested by remarkable real estate investments and also by the implanting of Chinese industrial complex producing fishmeal. The third field site is Mansajang, a village at the outskirts of the town of Basse in Upper River region. The presence of a Catholic mission and secondary education institutions triggered the creation of an educated elite that has occupied the important national political positions the country, especially until the early 2000s and strong communities also historically related to agriculture and cattle rearing. The fourth field site is Jahaly Pacharr, which is a cluster of villages located in Central River region, then the last field site is Kerewan, an agricultural community in North Bank region that hosted women targeting development projects which contributed to the expansion of horticulture village. And Kerewan is also a very long history of regional and transnational migration.

Bérénice: Before diving into the research findings, we would like to know more about an important migration dynamic in the Gambia named the Backway.

Elia: The Backway is the common expression and used in the Gambia to identify migration trajectories to Europe without the regular visa. It is an expression that became widely used, especially after the early 2000s and referred to the land and sea travels towards southwestern Europe, mostly through the Canary Islands. After 2011, it was applied to the route that passed through Libya, the human trafficking and smuggling hub, where a huge number of migration trajectories from sub-Saharan Africa converged.

Bérénice:  In addition to migration towards Europe, what are the important mobility patterns and migration dynamics in the country?

Elia: Transnational migration is a very old phenomenon in the Gambia, which assumed different configurations, for example, in the 1950s, Gambians from different regions started to go to migrate to Sierra Leone to work in the diamond fields. And this flow continued well into the 1970s. Migration in the Gambia, like I said, had different configurations and different forms of interlocutors such as youth activist and returnees also underlined the massive losses caused by the Backway migration and by the functioning of the human trafficking and smuggling system based in Libya.

A very important point that we have outlined in our research is that returnees and also potential migrants do not use the lexicon of choice to describe their past or expected trajectories of geographical mobility. They interpret the decision to migrate in relation to micro or macro factors that restrain the possibility of a decent life for the individual and his or her own social network, the household, and the local community. Of course, people make their own evaluations and take decisions, but these two processes are not explained in terms of choices. The role of the situation is emphasized much more than individual ambitions or desires. As examples of what we may call micro factors, the interlocutors call into question the impact of family crises like the sudden death of parents or family heads like a father.

Bérénice: Now that we have a better understanding of the overall migration context, could you explain which macro factors behind migration have the interlocutors indicated?

Elia: One example we documented is land dispossession. The mushrooming of villas and compounds in the areas along the coast and proximity of the coastal urban areas is an extremely visible development result of the investments made in the country by governments abroad. And this has created the real estate market that influences deeply affects the life of regional, agricultural, and fishing based communities like Gunjur in West Coast region.

Then another macro element which affects mobility decisions is the crisis of agriculture. An elder from the village of Kerewan underlying both the long term negative macroeconomic effects of the leakage of groundnut the main cash crop in the Gambia into Senegal’s market, and also the strict connection between the inefficiency of groundnut commercialization in the Gambia, and young people’s mobility.

Vulnerability is the common ground in the accounts we collected, the interviewees represented the current situation, like I said, as a set of micro and macro factors that define individual and structural configurations of vulnerability. Their words describe the response to vulnerability as the assumption of risk. And risk-taking is a social act because it is associated with specific social and gender roles.

Bérénice: What are people’s representations around using convention, aiming at promoting employment or economic opportunities?

Elia: We had documented, you know, some critical remarks against youth targeting projects in general, the. In particular, young people were not, did not show to entirely trust the functioning of these youth schemes. They thought that I’m referring to the youth schemes mostly organized, you know, that basically provide business starting grants to young people. Several interlocutors believed that the successful rate was very low or was too low and also failed and encouraged even by the difficulty of going through the application process, even filling the forms. At the same time, we also collected more optimistic remarks during the last few months, even among some young men who actually worked under these youth schemes. And it seems that during 2020, young people, young Gambians were much more involved in these youth schemes. Their popularity increased in the country, but in general, what I can say is that and here I am also relying on comments from both people who worked under these schemes at the local level, not land management officers of these youth schemes, but the people working in the local branches and also potential beneficiaries and relying on both interlocutors.

What they both said is that it was extremely difficult for them to recognize these kinds of interventions as far or as potentially part. Of their local socio-economic context. This is related to two specific features of the five communities, for example, in Kerewan one. You know, business is not very popular among the local residents, is not considered a viable economic opportunity, and therefore a lot of interlocutors did not believe that this is the starting rounds where you could have an impact on what could be perceived as an alternative to both internal migration, to the coastal urban areas or to the Backway migration.

Bérénice: Thanks to Elia, we now have a better understanding of the specificities of migration dynamics in the Gambia. And more importantly, we learn about the micro and macro factors behind those patterns.

This podcast is part of the research series and is available on The research series is funded by the UK government through the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office.


“The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in these podcasts belong solely to the speaker, and not reflect the view of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), its partners or donors. This podcast is protected under creative commons and can be used by third parties under certain conditions. For more information, contact [email protected].”
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