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ISS TODAY OP-ED

Comoros-Mayotte immigration saga a microcosm of destructive Africa-Europe migration crisis

Comoros-Mayotte immigration saga a microcosm of destructive Africa-Europe migration crisis
President of Comoros, Azali Assoumani. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Jason Szenes)

The flow of undocumented migrants to Mayotte is straining relations, and the island’s response runs counter to AU policy.

The fraught drama of irregular migration from Africa to Europe is playing out in a corner of the Indian Ocean far from mainland Europe. Tensions are rising between Comoros and the island of Mayotte — part of France — over Mayotte’s (i.e. France’s) efforts to deport irregular immigrants from Comoros back to their country of origin.

Mayotte’s Operation Wuambushu (‘take back’) was launched last month to clear irregular immigrants from Mayotte’s slums and ship them about 70 km to the nearest Comorian island of Anjouan (supposedly their origin). But this stalled because the Comorian government of president Azali Assoumani refused to accept the deportees.

The saga takes place against the backdrop of the complex constitutional relations between Comoros and Mayotte. Mayotte is geographically part of the Comoros archipelago, at the northern entrance to the Mozambique Channel off Africa’s east coast. It was part of France’s colonial Comoros territory. But in 1975, when the other islands, Grande Comore, Mohéli and Anjouan, formed the independent republic of Comoros, the people of Mayotte chose by popular referendum to remain part of France.

Comoros still claims Mayotte and is supported by the United Nations (UN) and African Union (AU). But the Mahorais (the people of Mayotte) prefer to remain French because even if Mayotte is the poorest of 101 ‘departments’ of France, it is still better off than Comoros. Hence its attraction for Comorian migrants, who risk travelling in rickety ‘kwassa-kwassa’ boats and dinghies. About half of Mayotte’s roughly 350,000 population is estimated to be foreign, mostly Comorian.

Local conflict

As the number of foreigners has risen, locals have become resentful of their presence, blaming them for an apparent rise in crime. There is however no evidence that the Comorians are more guilty of crime than anyone else. And ethnologist Sophie Blanchy, a Comorian and Malagasy societies specialist, says Mahorais don’t regard Comorians as foreigners

Nevertheless, Mahorais’ sentiment towards migrants seemed clear last year when the French right-wing, anti-immigrant presidential candidate Marine le Pen won over 59% of the vote on Mayotte in the second round against President Emmanuel Macron.

Such attitudes may have inspired Operation Wuambushu. But it hasn’t gone well. One shanty settlement was destroyed, and Mayotte courts barred further shanty clearance. And Comorian authorities have thwarted the wider operation, partly because they regard Mayotte as part of Comoros, meaning Comorians are entitled to live there. 

Comoros has demanded that deportees produce Comorian identification before allowing them to disembark. But most, if not all, have no such documents. Many deliberately destroy them, say media reports. Comoros also once closed its ports to Mayotte ships carrying deportees.

Assoumani criticised Paris for Operation Wuambushu, saying “it goes against respect for human rights and risks damaging the good relations between the two countries.” He said the operation had disrupted 20 years of cooperation between Comoros and France over the Mayotte migration issue.

Illegal immigration crisis

Indeed, his government has worked with France before on the matter. In 2019, for example, the two countries agreed to address illegal immigration. A diplomat based in Comoros’ capital Moroni told ISS Today confidentially that shortly after that, the Comorian government destroyed many kwassa-kwassa in Anjouan. So, this diplomat suggests, Moroni may have enabled the current crisis by cooperating with Paris in the past.

However, the diplomat also pointed out that the circumstances were different. The 2019 agreement was to intercept illegal migrants, whereas now Comoros is saying it’s being asked to accept deportees — and it doesn’t know where they all come from. 

Some foreign diplomats and other observers also believe Assoumani has been emboldened to defy France by Comoros’ recent election as chair of the AU, where Mayotte still figures as unfinished business in the decolonisation discourse. And the AU has a policy position against forced returns. 

Others suspect Assoumani stood up to France to boost his re-election chances in next year’s presidential poll. Although they observe that he will probably suppress any opposition anyway, and suggest he might be jeopardising funding from France.

This week Assoumani was in Paris to discuss the dispute. Nothing was announced from his meeting with Macron, and a rather cryptic statement was released about the meeting of lower officials. It reaffirmed both sides’ determination to combat trafficking and people-smugglers, coordinate efforts to protect lives at sea and manage flows of people between the islands. Comorians and Mahorais were left wondering whether this meant Assoumani’s government had changed its mind and agreed to Operation Wuambushu. 

No obvious answer

As with the bigger migration crisis across the Mediterranean, the Mayotte-Comoros saga seems hard to resolve. Many Mahorais seem genuinely distressed by the large presence of Comorian immigrants, but the lot of immigrants is also often pitiful. 

One diplomat described how, “On the one hand, French law relating to Mayotte is that if you are born in Mayotte to undocumented parents, you are not French. On the other, these kids are technically not Comorian because they are not born in the Comoros, and their parents don’t register them in the Comoros. They become technically stateless. In Mayotte, they can’t go to school, receive public healthcare or work. They resort to crime to survive. This is the human tragedy.” He said the deportees from Mayotte were being denied their right under French law to appeal their deportation.

Aimee-Noel Mbiyozo, Senior Research Consultant on migration at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) says that France has sent security personnel to forcefully ‘repatriate’ up to 10,000 people to Comoros. “This poses many human rights, procedural and political concerns.” The demolition of informal settlements believed to be occupied by Comorians has the hallmarks of a xenophobic red herring campaign, Mbiyozo says. 

“Putting pressure on Comoros to accept thousands of dispossessed people without any reintegration programme by dangling foreign aid, parrots Europe’s approach. It is not good for Mayotte, Comoros or Africa.”

More integrated development is needed to counter the flow of irregular migrants, says Blanchy, suggesting France should contribute more to the upliftment of Comorians — as should Assoumani’s government. DM

Peter Fabricius, Consultant, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Pretoria.

First published by ISS Today.

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