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The migrant experience

The large majority of Comorian migrants arrive by sea in small boats known as kwassa kwassa named after the swaying Congolese dance rhythm. Would-be migrants from other countries including Madagascar, Rwanda, Burundi and Somalia also transit Anjouan seeking transportation to Mayotte. Historically, unlike on the central Mediterranean crossing, the majority of migrants are not looking to claim asylum on arrival, although the numbers of asylum seekers has risen sharply over the past three years, but more often to avoid interception by the French authorities and seek to become embedded in Mayotte’s irregular migrant communities. The small boats have the advantage of being readily navigable into Mayotte’s remote coves and beaches. The trade is operated by tight networks of so-called passeurs, sometimes children, occasionally Mahorais, but more often Anjouanais (Legeard 2012/13; Godard and Kaufmant 2001). Legeard estimates the price of the journey to be as little as €250 if the boat is full, but as much as €1,000 for a journey with only two or three passengers, potentially making for a safer voyage (2012/13: 637). In order to evade interception the kwassa kwassa often attempt the crossing at night to evade interception. One swindle perpetrated on migrants by the passeurs on these night crossings is to tell passengers that landfall has been made on Mayotte, when, in fact, the kwassa kwassa has only reached the shores of the small islet of Mtsamboro seven kilometres north of the main island of Mayotte. These stranded migrants are then forced to outlay further funds to local fishermen to complete the journey (France 24 2015). If the boat makes landing, the majority of migrants seek to make contact by mobile telephone with relatives and friends, mainly living in the shanty towns on the edge of Mamoudzou. Targets of police surveillance, they are transported by unregistered taxis driven by irregular migrants, again usually under cover of darkness. For those who do not have contacts on Mayotte, especially vulnerable women and children, this part of the journey entails the further risk of sexual violence and exploitation (Legeard 2012/13).

Extensive, and expensive, border control measures including maritime patrols by the gendarmerie, helicopter surveillance, four land-based radars and a mobile radar to detect kwassa kwassa entering its territorial waters have seemingly stabilised the numbers attempting to reach Mayotte, with deportations peaking at 26,405 in 2010, when that figure amounted to over half of all deportations from France. This figure decreased to 15,908 in 2013, but rebounded to 19,991 deportations in 2014. The number of interceptions also increased significantly in 2014 with 60 percent being made at sea and 40 percent on land. Of the interceptions at sea, the maritime gendarmerie intercepted 164 kwassa kwassa (up 121 percent from 2013), whilst the navy stopped 588 boats (up 23.5 percent on 2013).On being intercepted migrants are given a health check and, if clear, transferred to the main holding centre, the Centre de retention administrative (CRA) at Pamandzi on the adjacent island of Petit Terre for detention prior to deportation. The facility at Pamandzi has been the target of long-standing and consistent criticism. In 2012, the Tribunal administratif of Mayotte ruled that the Centre was guilty of ‘inhuman and degrading confinement’ in the case brought by a father and his two young children held at Pamandzi. Calling for the closure of the Centre, the migrant rights organisation, Cimade, report overcrowded and insanitary conditions, as well as a lack of segregation between sexes and between adults and children (2012). During periods when Pamandzi can hold no more, temporary, and unsuitable, holding centres, such as police cells, are used.

A further issue that has been consistently raised by pressure groups and human rights organisations is the position of ‘foreign’ children left alone on Mayotte by their parents. This is usually as a result of the parents being deported and refusing to reveal the existence or whereabouts of their child(ren). The number of children in this position on Mayotte remains inexact with estimates varying from 1,000 to 6,000. The non-governmental organisation TAMA, meaning ‘hope’ in Shimaore, that addresses issues of social exclusion on the island estimates that there are around 500 totally abandoned and 3,000 long-term abandoned children (Sueur et al. 2012: 87). The report to the Senate completed in 2012, emphasises the age of 16-18 as the most vulnerable period for these children since they will have completed compulsory schooling at 16 and will face potential deportation on reaching 18 (Sueur et al. 2012: 87). This precarious status often leads these young people to, at best, stopgap jobs in the informal sector, or often to criminal activity. Even, those born on Mayotte and, therefore able to apply for French citizenship, often fail to break out of this trap.

It is in the shifting demography of Mayotte, notably in the context of land and labour, that the consequences of France’s policies in the archipelago are most conspicuous. The island is reliant on migrant labour and irregular migrants, known as sans papiers, are willing to work for significantly less than the minimum wage (Godard and Kaufmant 2001). Jacques Witkowski, the Prefect of Mayotte, has commented that whilst it is common for sections of the Mahorais population to denounce irregular migration, it is these same people employing undocumented workers (Journal de Mayotte 2014). For ‘employ, the Prefect might have more correctly used ‘exploit’. Irregular migrants work in agriculture, construction, fishing and in the tourism sector. Working long hours, often at night, at the weekend and on public holidays for monthly wages between €100-500, Legeard goes as far as to suggest that this exploitation of undocumented workers could be described as ‘modern slavery’ (Legeard 2012/13: 639).

Yet, the flow of migrants continues, only partly reduced by the vigorous efforts of the maritime gendarmerie and the navy. Why do migrants from the Union, and beyond, take such high risks. Salima, a grandmother of 58, recounts how after living on Mayotte for 14 years she was detained and deported as illegal, but waited six months and returned to ‘her home’: ‘what would I do in Anjouan, my children are here, and all my possessions. I am a stranger in Anjouan. I have made my home here’ (Liberation, 2008).

Beyond the incongruity of a migrant existence in an EU member state that, in many ways, mirrors the poverty from which the migrants are seeking to escape, the strictures imposed by the Balladur visa also influence the layered relations between those who live on Mayotte. A ghettoised ethnic French population largely live separate lives to the indigenous Mahorais. For their part, the local Mahorais distance themselves physically and socially from the communities of irregular migrants who live in the shanties on the edge of Mamoudzou or on the smaller island of Petit Terre. Kinship and friendship bonds exist between the Mahorais and migrants from other islands, although there is also a history of antipathy towards irregular migrants which can lead to denunciations of undocumented workers and rallies calling for harsher measures against irregular migration.

Indeed, civil unrest is a regular occurrence on Mayotte. There are almost permanent demonstrations and strikes, and in October 2011 the island was paralysed by a general strike that led to the closure of all shops on Mayotte, barricades on the main roads and violent clashes between youths and gendarmes that led to deaths and serious injuries. The government was forced to deploy three battalions of gendarmes from Reunion, another Indian Ocean department, and even mainland France, to contain the violence. The unrest was triggered by the sudden steep rise in the price of the protein staple, mabawa or chicken legs, as a result of a commodities cartel by the three main wholesalers. Apart from protesting against la vie chere, the protests targeted the centre-right Sarkozy government in Paris; the patrician Prefect of Mayotte; and the heavy-handed tactics of the gendarmes. Despite an ineffectual intervention by the minister for overseas territories, Marie-Luce Penchard, the strike persisted for 44 days although it ultimately achieved little beyond an assertion of the Mahorais’ frustration with their perceived second class citizenship within the Republic. This dissatisfaction is shared by the populations of France’s other overseas departments of Guiana, Martinique and Guadeloupe.

Given their low income, the high cost of living impacts irregular migrants particularly severely. Access to the European-standard social security benefits available on the island is variable and precarious. Irregular migrants do not receive any welfare payments such as unemployment benefits, child allowance or retirement pensions. Although, since 2005, access to free health care for ‘foreigners’ has officially been restricted, a study completed in 2007 by a team of French doctors concluded that there was little difference in terms of the frequency of healthcare attendance between both the local and migrant communities (Florence et al. 2010). The possibility of claiming French citizenship for babies born on Mayotte through the jus soli has led to a maternity wing of the main hospital on Mayotte, the second largest in any French hospital, where 77 percent of the patients are ‘foreign’, nearly all from the Union. Yet, the results of the study by the French doctors indicate that as a pull-factor, access to healthcare is a relatively low priority with only 8.8 percent of migrants citing it as the main reason for emigrating as against 49.4 percent who cited economic opportunities (Florence et al. 2010).

A further demographic development with bearing on migratory flows and the relationships between France, Mayotte and the Union is the increased emigration from Mayotte, mainly to Reunion and metropolitan France. Based on extrapolating from data gathered between 2002 and 2007, Antoine Math estimates that over a ten year period up to 2012, a fifth of the islands inhabitants have emigrated, with the majority of these being young, educated Mahorais studying abroad and opting not to return, and families seeking a better life. For Math, the cliched portrayal in the French press of Mayotte as the locus of ‘massive immigration’ ignores the reality of the island as suffering a potential ‘massive emigration’ (2013: 34). Further, he argues that ‘to characterise the Comoros as a scapegoat for all ills diverts attention from the economic and social problems of the island, the shortcomings of the welfare state, systemic discrimination etc’ (Math 2013: 34).

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