A team of five Gambian teenage students has been denied visas to travel to the United States to participate in the prestigious International Aerial Robotics Competition scheduled to take place between July 25 and July 27 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Team leader Mucktarr M.Y. Darboe, who is also a director in the Gambia’s Ministry of Higher Education, told ABC News that the students were not given any reason for the denial, terming the decision as “disappointing and unfair.”
The U.S. Embassy in the capital, Banjul, is yet to issue a statement on the rejection.
However, the Gambian team is not alone in its rejection as the United States also denied an all-female team from Afghanistan visas to attend the contest.
“It’s very disappointing knowing that we are the only two countries that aren’t going to take part in the competition,” 17-year-old Fatoumata Ceesay from the Gambian team said.
The five students were invited for interviews at the U.S. embassy on Wednesday, after the Gambian government gave them money for fresh applications. They had to pay more than $160 each for the visas and transport to the embassy for the interview.
Their project, which they have been working on for months, includes a machine that separates balls as part of an effort to simulate solutions for separating contaminants from water. It was shipped to the competition on Tuesday.
“We will go for an interview and hope for the best,” Darboe says.
The students were eager to attend the competition, saying it would give them a chance to see and discover other robots, ask questions as well as exchange ideas with students from other countries.
Of the 160 countries that will be attending the competition, 40 will be from Africa. If the fresh applications are denied, the Gambian and Afghan teams will be forced to watch the competition on Skype as their robots are presented, according to FIRST Global President Joe Sestak.
Political Instability & Separatism
The mysterious denial of visas appears to be part of the controversial executive order issued by U.S. President Donald Trump, which bars travelers from seven Muslim countries from entering the United States.
Although the Gambia, a largely Muslim country, was not among the seven countries, some of its regions, including areas near its border with Senegal, were mentioned in a recent travel advisory issued by the U.S. government as unsafe.
The travel review, which was published in November last year, advised American citizens against traveling to the southern part of the Gambia, where separatist groups and rebels operate and often attack travelers on the road from Ziguinchor, Senegal, to Banjul:
Public demonstrations are increasingly common. Police tactics used to clear these events have included violence and arrest of bystanders not directly involved in the demonstrations, the statement warned.
The apparent threat was exacerbated by the recent political standoff between the exiled former President of the Gambia Yahya Jammeh and the current President Adama Barrow following a controversial election in December 2016.
Even as the new administration looks to repair the damage caused by Jammeh’s 22 years of authoritarian rule, a cloud of political instability and potential violence still hovers around the tiny West African country.