FACING a migration quagmire on the French island territory of Mayotte, off Africa’s east coast, France’s government has sent in 2,000 troops and police to carry out mass expulsions, destroy slums and eradicate violent gangs.
But the operation has become bogged down and raised concerns of abuse, aggravating tensions between local residents and immigrants from the neighbouring country of Comoros. It is also laying bare entrenched poverty among both communities, tensions over the island’s status – and deep inequalities between Mayotte and the rest of France.
While Mayotte is a part of France, Comoros – 100km to the northwest across a strait in the Indian Ocean – was also once a French colony but has been independent since 1975. Mayotte is by far the poorest corner of France, but its average annual income of around US$3,500 (RM15,874) is still more than double that in Comoros. This has created a powerful pull.“How can they imagine for a second that (the operation) will make things better?” asked Momo, a father of five from Comoros who has lived in Mayotte for 30 years and is opposing efforts to expel him and his family from the island.
He is among those who say a lack of attention from the French state is at the core of Mayotte’s problems. Momo fears having his full name published for fear of reprisals or expulsion.
Meanwhile, anti-migrant collectives on Mayotte, a volcanic island north of Madagascar known for its vanilla and tea plantations, are starting to take things into their own hands.
Some are blocking a hospital treating foreigners, disrupting shipments of medicines and goods to Comoros and threatening to destroy slums if the authorities don’t get there first.
Youth gangs are fighting back, and resisting efforts to make peace. Military forces and police are struggling to keep Mayotte under control.
Both communities are majority Black and trace their origins to a chain of islands whose status is the source of historical dispute.
In 1841, France bought Mayotte from its self-proclaimed sultan in exchange for protection. French colonisation then extended to the other three main islands of the Comoros chain. As independence movements emerged after World War II, tensions arose among the populations of the different islands.
In a 1974 referendum, three islands supported independence and became the new nation of Comoros, but Mayotte voted against and remained French. Comoros still claims Mayotte as part of the same chain.
While development in Mayotte remains far behind that of the French mainland, Comoros is wracked by corruption and struggles to provide even basic public services. Mayotte is seen by Comorians as a land of refuge where people can at least get medical care and children can go to school.
Since 1991, the population of Mayotte has almost quadrupled to around 260,000, according to the French statistics agency Insee – and many other immigrants are believed to remain uncounted. Many people arrive so that their children are born with French residency. Insee says that of the 10,600 children born on Mayotte in 2021, 46.5% had both parents who weren’t French.
But once they turn 18, these young people have few job options. Those with only a residence permit can’t travel to mainland France. Many turn to the underground economy. Crime has flourished.
That’s the backdrop for “Operation Wuambushu,” launched on April 24 for two months. It’s expected to be extended because of setbacks suffered by the French government and Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, the architect of the operation and the driving force in France’s overall efforts to stem migration.
Just as the police contingent arrived from the French mainland, a court blocked expulsions, and Comoros refused to take the migrants back. French President Emmanuel Macron hosted Comoros President Azali Assoumani recently to try to break the deadlock.
Many residents welcome the security surge. Earlier this month, more than 1,000 people demonstrated in Chirongui in southern Mayotte in support of the operation, and to express their attachment to France.On May 14, people in the village of Tsimkoura in southern Mayotte compiled a list of “foreigner settlements” and sent it to the mayor, demanding that he expel the residents by the end of the week.
“Otherwise, we will take care of it,” said Kourati Youssouffa, a public servant with the local administration of Mayotte.
In the isolated village of Hagnoundrou, a printed message circulating recently warned of an imminent “hunt for migrants.” It warned, “Don’t forget your children, they are part of your luggage.” Local authorities banned any such move.
There is little room for moderation or neutrality, and tension is worsening between those who define themselves as “true Mahorais” or Mayotte residents, and the population of Comorian origin.
Many Mahorais feel the arrivals from Comoros deprive them of potential development and of their right to live in peace. — AP