As explained in my previous post, Mayotte is a French Overseas Territories which voted to be more integrated and become a Departement d’Outre Mer, therefore abiding to French and European laws.
As a French possession, Mayotte enjoys better living conditions than neighbouring and former fellow country-men in Comoros. When the Comoros decided to seize their independence and Mayotte voted to go their separate ways, each territory started on separate path – towards independence for the Comoros and towards remaining a relic of colonialism in the case of Mayotte.
The fact that Mayotte refused to build a common future with the rest of the archipelago stirred up problems in the region. Historical and cultural arguments have been put forward by the Comoros to explain how the partition of Mayotte from the Comoros went against the territorial integrity of the archipelago which is made of 4 and not 3 islands. It is on this basis that the President of the Comoros have appealed to the UN General Assembly to reject France’s “annexation” of Mayotte, which was made in accordance with people’s right to self-determination (although the results of the referendum were contested) and against the principle of territorial integrity.
Illegal immigration: Mayotte’s attractiveness
Every year, thousands of Comorians cross the seas from their islands to Mayotte to immigrate illegally. At a time when we speak of the migration waves from the Middle East to Western Europe, the migration crisis in the Indian Ocean is swept under the carpet, although the phenomenon is important and has increased since Mayotte became a French département. What attracts the Comorians to Mayotte is the French Département’s development and wealth. It is estimated that Mayotte’s GDP is 7 times higher than that of the Comoros. the French health care system, much more advanced, better sanitized and also cheaper than in the neighbouring islands.
In addition, Mayotte has become a birth center in the region as all babies born in Mayotte automatically become French citizen. Indeed, the legal principle of jus soli, or right of soil, applies in Mayotte, thus granting the French nationality to anyone born in Mayotte. Jus soli is opposed to jus sanguinis which would require one of the parents to be French citizens for the newborn to gain the French nationality. It is believed that a third of the population of Mayotte, that is to say 50,000 to 60,000 people out of 21,700 (2013) are illegal immigrants, amongst which 90% come from the Comoros. (NB: a similar phenomenon can be observed in French Guyana, where mothers from neighbouring countries travel to give birth in the French overseas territories)
Although the French border control attempt to keep the Comorians away, the attractiveness of Mayotte seems to be a sufficient motive for the illegal migrants to risk their lives over and over on kwassas-kwassas, the local fishermen’ boats, to cross the seas. The 70km that separate the island of Anjouan to Mayotte are deadly; it is estimated that up to 10,000 people have died since 1995 trying to reach the French territory.
This migration pattern, however, causes problems in Mayotte as the medical system is not built to also cure the population of the Comoros. The local finances are thus in deficit because of the migrants. Estimates judge that more than 50% of mothers giving birth in Mayotte are from the Comoros.
In addition to the weight on the health care system, immigrants cost a fortune: the border police must deploy important means to prevent illegal immigration and send the migrants back to where they came from (20,000 Comorians were rejected by the French border police in 2014). Illegal immigration was triggered by the imposition of a visa without which Comorians cannot visit Mayotte. The cost of that visa is, however, prohibitive for more Comorians, who thus prefer to go “visit” the neighbouring island via the fishermen’s boats.
The problem is historical: Mayotte is historically a part of the Comoros, and thus cannot be isolated from the other islands. It has been evaluated that a third of the migrants who come to Mayotte were born there, and thus only wish to go back rather than to immigrate. In addition, the visa – commonly called “visa Balladur”, but a financial strain on those historical and cultural ties which the Comoros and Mayotte share. On top of that, Mayotte is geographically isolated from the continent, and the Comoros are important partners for the island. Cutting the ties completely would be disastrous.
Plus, and although Mayotte is in development and still lags far behind the metropole, the island is very attractive for the neighbouring islands due to the available means France brings to Mayotte. In order to stop illegal immigration, supporting the development of the Comoros is part of the solution.
Many advocate for a more forceful method to stop the illegal transit of people to Mayotte, such as the creation of the equivalent of Frontex at the French level. But as shown by the migrant crisis in Europe, this type of military mission is not a deterrent to those looking for better living conditions.