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A Hidden Catastrophe: Irregular Migration within the Comoros Archipelago

Simon Massey

Abstract: The decision by France to definitively incorporate Mayotte as part of its sovereign territory has had a negative impact on the Union’s political, security and economic development. The introduction of a rigid visa regime preventing the free movement of people between the islands that comprise the Comoros archipelago has resulted in large-scale irregular migration from the three islands of the Union of Comoros to Mayotte. The chapter examines France’s rationales for retaining Mayotte; the impact of its policy on the inter-island politics of the Union and on the lives and livelihoods of the peoples of all four islands. It concludes that whilst the status quo is detrimental to all involved, the current French government is determined to retain the securitisation policy favoured by previous governments.

Massey, Simon and Rino Coluccello. Eurafrican Migration: Legal, Economic and Social Responses to Irregular Migration. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. doi: 10.1057/9781137391353.0010.

In keeping with the other contributions to this book, this chapter will examine the journeys and experiences of irregular migrants from an African country of origin to a member state of the European Union, in this case France. However, rather than crossing the Mediterranean Sea, this migration is taking place between islands in the Indian Ocean, nearly 7,500 km from the French mainland. The Comoros archipelago lies about 300 km off the northern coast of Mozambique and 350 km north-west of Madagascar. It consists of four main volcanic islands: Grande Comore, also known by its name in the local language Ngazidja, Anjouan (Nzwani), Moheli (Mwali) and Mayotte (Maore). The first three of these islands constitute the independent Union of the Comoros which attained independence in 1975, whilst the fourth island, Mayotte, retained its ties to the colonial power, becoming in 2011, France’s 101st department.

On a clear day, the hills of Mayotte are visible from the shores of Anjouan, just 70km away. The ‘pull factors’ for migrants undeniably include the possibility of wages much higher than those in the Union islands and potential access to European-standard health and education systems. Indeed, the chronic incapacity of the Union to construct a viable economy has led to a reliance on remittances from emigrants running at US $147m in 2012 or 23 per cent of GDP (da la Cruz et al. 2004; Diabate & Meddeb 2014). Moreover, out of a Union population of about 1m, up to 200,000 live abroad, with between 85-150,000 in metropolitan France and a further 45,000-60,000 on Mayotte (United Nations 2011). However, the motivation to travel to Mayotte goes beyond economic ambitions, and equally there exists an innate desire amongst Comorians to maintain links with family and friends, or to conduct business on, what they take to be, one of the four islands of the archipelago. As in the other cases explored in this book, the strength of these pull factors leads to significant numbers willing to attempt the perilous, and too often fatal, sea journey. For example, in just one weekend in January 2014, 352 people were intercepted off Mayotte by the French coastguard in 12 flimsy craft. In this regard, the dangers of migrating by sea to Mayotte are as pronounced as in the Mediterranean with an estimated 7000-10,000 perishing since 1995 (Sueur et al. 2012).

This chapter will investigate the ambiguous nature of the Comorian nation and the complex relationships between France, Mayotte and the Union. The experience of the irregular migrant is then explored from the push and pull factors, to the mechanisms for making the journey and the reality of life as an irregular migrant on Mayotte. The chapter concludes by examining the rival proposals that have been elaborated to address the ‘Mayotte question’ since the French presidential and legislative elections of 2012.

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