Visa processing to travel to Schengen nations has become a nightmare for many Gambians who cannot avoid seeking such services in foreign missions based in neighbouring countries, most especially Senegal.
Banjul, the capital of the smallest country in mainland Africa, has very few foreign embassies, meaning the options for visa seekers in The Gambia are limited, if any.
Over the course of 22 years of former president Yahya Jammeh’s leadership, more foreign missions have closed down than opened in The Gambia during this period.
This has not been kind to visa applicants aspiring to travel to Schengen countries like France, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Norway and Denmark, for instance.
Over the years, some of those countries had gradually stripped down the support staff in their missions in The Gambia as the country ticked all the boxes answering to the description of a pariah state. This was due, in large part, to what their governments regarded as a repressive political climate in Banjul under Jammeh.
Although political change came to Gambia three years ago after Jammeh was voted out of office, the consequences of this international isolation are still being felt in Banjul to this day, especially among Gambians going through the motion for ordinary visas to Europe.
But Banjul’s misfortune has been to Dakar’s advantage.
In sharp contrast, a more internationalist city like the Senegalese capital, which has long established a reputation as a serious hub for the frenetic diplomatic activity in West Africa has thrived better than Banjul.
Gambians seeking to travel to Spain, for example, are required to make the tiresome journey to neighbouring Senegal in order to access visa services.
Thus, week in week out, hundreds hit the road for a five-hour journey which is 303km by road, to process their visa applications in Dakar where they join queues with other applicants from neighbouring Mali, Guinea Bissau and Guinea Conakry.
This process could take days, even weeks, when Gambians away from the relative comfort of their country, dig deep into their pockets for food and shelter if they can’t be accommodated by relatives.
One such applicant, Yorro Cham, a Health Innovations Officer at Action Aid International-The Gambia, said nightmare awaits most Gambians processing their application for visas away from their country.
“Aside from the expensive nature of traveling to Dakar, I had to part with a lot of money to acquire a visa to Europe, even though I had all the required documents and their photocopies” he said.
Cham said he was urged to photocopy his documents again, a needless exercise which in his view, was meant to provide business for some people involved in a photocopying enterprise in Dakar.
Cham said he once had an encounter with the Gendamerie in Karang where he was asked to return to Banjul for another clearance for his vehicle because the one he had, according to the Senegalese Police, was not convincing enough.
“But after a long discussion I was allowed into their country” he said.
Cham also complained about ‘extortion’ at the Senegalese border town of Karang, where money changers abound.
“As most Gambian travellers do not know the exchange rates of the Senegalese currency (CFA) to the Dalasi, many are at the mercy of money changers who take advantage of this ignorance to swindle them” Cham claimed.
Another Gambian who wished anonymity, argued that Banjul may be strategically located, but the Jammeh-era foreign policies of the past have not done Banjul any favours, especially to attract fully-fledged foreign missions offering visa services.
“Perhaps what this new government can do is embark on a charm offensive to attract fully-fledged foreign missions to Banjul so that citizens would no longer have to travel to Dakar for basic visa services” he suggested.
He added, perhaps optimistically: “We can have all these embassies in Banjul. Even a subsidiary branch of the Visa-For-Schengen (VFS) agency can be opened in Banjul to employ Gambians to process our visa applications as an alternative”.
Baba Hydara, a Co-Publisher and Production Manager at the local Point Newspaper, questioned the motive behind the exorbitant visa fees levied on sub-Saharan Africans given that they come from the poorest and most economically exploited part of the world.
He said although most Gambians have relatives in Dakar, this offers no guarantee for a comfortable stay in the Senegalese capital, saying the living condition is far more expensive than in Banjul.
“I used to stay with relatives but later I had to book for private accommodation in most of my trips nowadays. And yet the conditions are always appalling in those rented spaces” he added.
The Gambian Foreign Affairs ministry appeared indisposed for comments, despite repeated attempts by media in Banjul to elicit a response from its officials.