Comoros: Escape to Mayotte, the French Suburb in the Indian Ocean

The solution to the hundreds of Comorians attempting to enter French-owned Mayotte each year lies not in security but development.

Every year, thousands of Africans attempt desperate and difficult trips across land and sea in the hope of reaching Europe. Most of these would-be migrants cross harsh desert landscapes or tricky terrains in a bid to reach North African ports, the closest point to either the southern shores of the mainland or Europe’s Mediterranean islands. From here, a hazardous boat journey awaits.

These dangerous routes are well known and well trodden, but for one group of African migrants, the risky journey to Europe starts and ends several thousands of kilometres away from mainland Europe, in a small corner of the Indian Ocean.

Nestled between Madagascar and the east coast Mozambique lie the Comoros. And just 60 km southeast of these isles sits a little piece of France.

The French banlieue in the sea

In 1974, when France offered the population of the Comoros a referendum on independence, the people voted overwhelming in favour of self-determination – all apart from those on the island of Mayotte.

While their erstwhile compatriots started a new chapter as newly-independent Comorians, Mayotte remained part of France. And since then, the fates of the Comoros and Mayotte have diverged even further.

Today, Mayotte is primarily known for being an idyllic – if perhaps over-priced and “over-Frenchified” – beach holiday destination. As Lonely Planet explains, “French citizens don’t need visas to holiday here, and the island is crammed with holidaymakers on packages from all over France”. According to a leaked diplomatic cable from a US diplomat, the island of Mayotte is like “a lower-middle class French suburb”.

By contrast, the reputation of the Comoros could not be more different. In the same leaked cable, the US diplomat talks of the country’s “moribund” economy, and since independence, the islands have experienced 21 coups or attempted coups. 45% of the population is believed to live below the poverty line, and the islands rank 169 out of 187 countries on the UN Human Development Index.

It is perhaps not surprising then that hundreds of Comorians each year attempt to escape to the French suburb on their doorstep. In 2011, there were reportedly 1,200 applications for asylum in Mayotte – the vast majority from the Comoros – and each year scores of Comorians drown attempting to reach Mayotte’s shores.

Mayotte’s joie de vivre

Although Mayotte voted to remain part of France in 1974, overwhelming voted again in 2009 in support of becoming a French “overseas department”, and is now gearing up to gain European Union (EU) status in 2014, Mayotte’s Frenchness has not gone unchallenged.

Soon after France decided to maintain sovereignty over the island in 1974, the Organisation of African Unity – the predecessor to the African Union – accused the European country of “aggression against all the Comorian people”. Meanwhile the Comoros government itself insisted that Mayotte was part of the Comoros and pursued its claim at various international summits.

As witnessed by various referenda, however, Mayotte’s population have been keen to remain French. And while they have been accused of being “the spoilt children of the republic” and of having “sold out”, the benefits of being French have been clear to see.

Although it remains below the standards of mainland France and its wealthier overseas territories such as Réunion – an island which lies 1,500 km southeast of Mayotte and on the other side of Madagascar – Mayotte’s 210,000 citizens have long benefited from significant French and European investments.

Since 1987, Mayotte has received at least €680 million ($900 million) from France in annual subsidies; there has been a guaranteed minimum wage and considerable fisheries subsidies; and living standards have climbed. Meanwhile in 2007, the island received a €20.5 million ($27 million) aid package from the EU to support reforestation, drainage and sanitation. And total EU development aid between 2008 and 2013 is projected to have been a further €23 million ($30 million).

From the French perspective, maintaining sovereignty of the Comoros also has its benefits. France can retain lucrative rights to fishing and mining resources. And it can maintain a presence in a strategically-important region close to various trade routes; the French military have recently stationed radar dishes on the island.

Comoros’ cri de coeur

However, Mayotte’s success also has its downsides. The huge imbalance between its middle-class comforts and the Comoros’ instability, under-development and poverty has driven feelings of injustice and a clear route for escape. Some have even suggested that the French presence in the region undermines the stability of the Comoros by providing an alternative to their failing politics.

Indeed, in 1997, the second and third largest islands of the Comoros – Anjouan and Mohéli – tried to break away from the corrupt regime of Mohamed Taki Abdulkarim in order to rejoin France. This effort failed, however, and simply led to further bloodshed.

Nevertheless, many in the Comoros remain determined to escape to Mayotte and, according to former president, Ahmed Abdallah Mohamen Sambi, some 7,000 Comorians have died trying. France reportedly spends €70 million ($93 million) each year trying to combat such illegal immigration, and there are some calls for such measures to be improved. But others in France are now calling for a new approach.

While France spends tens of millions on border security each year, it spends just €9.3 million ($12 million) on development aid to the Comoros and €300,000 ($400,000) on regional cooperation efforts. And some believe that if France did more to support the development of the other islands in the region, it would not only help the immigration problem but also strengthen fragile diplomatic relations with the Comoros.

The need for a rapprochement

One of the leading voices in this urge for a new direction is French Socialist MP Daniel Goldberg. Speaking to Think Africa Press, Goldberg insisted that the most cost-effective solution for both illegal immigration and the ongoing diplomatic conflict with the Comoros lies in thinking of Mayotte and the other Comorian islands as one issue, “regardless of territorial status”.

He believes that by implementing a “shared vision” for sustainable development, tourism and defence issues, all stakeholders – in France, Comoros and Mayotte – could benefit in a “win-win relationship”. Essentially, helping Comoros’ development, the argument goes, will help Mayotte.

Goldberg believes that the declaration of friendship signed between Presidents Ikililou Dhoinine of the Comoros and François Holland of France in June is a pleasing sign of progress. With piracy a danger in the area, Goldberg identifies military cooperation as a key way to build a better relationship.

But while defence cooperation is a positive first step for Franco-Comorian diplomatic relations, Goldberg suggests that it is only when the development of the Comoros islands is made as high a priority as illegal immigration and piracy that the issue will truly be solved. Until this happens, it seems hundreds of Comorians each year will continue to do all they can to escape their troublesome paradise for the French suburb across the sea.