The French Indian Ocean island territory of Mayotte is enjoying an uneasy calm, after a month of protests and roadblocks that culminated in the visit to the département by Overseas Territories Minister Annick Girardin on 12-13 March. The protests were triggered by the frustration of local residents at what they see as the consequences of large-scale illegal immigration from the nearby independent Union of the Comoros. Following consultations with local citizens and officials during her visit, Ms Girardin called for calm and announced a suite of measures to address residents’ concerns. The only real – and mutually beneficial – solution is for living standards and incomes on the independent islands to undergo a marked improvement.
The arrival of illegal Comorian immigrants has been a long-standing problem on Mayotte, with the Mahorais blaming their Comorian brethren for much of the crime and social ills of their département. Compounding that is the fact that the local hospital is now reportedly among the busiest in France, with many Mahorais saying that they are unable to use its facilities because it is treating large numbers of illegal immigrants, particularly in the maternity wing.
In the latest round of tensions, matters reached a crescendo on 20 February, when, after a gang attack at a school, a coalition of citizens and union leaders launched “Operation Escargot”: a concerted campaign of strikes, road blockages and the blockade of ports on the two islands that constitute Mayotte. The measures were designed to force Paris into addressing their concerns more forcefully. In response, Ms Girardin was despatched to Mayotte.
Despite having to navigate road and ferry blockages, Ms Girardin used her latest visit to the territory to hear concerns firsthand. Afterwards, she announced a suite of measures, including the temporary deployment, until the end of the school year, of an additional sixty gendarmes, together with further, permanent, reinforcements for the police and paramilitary gendarmerie forces.
Among the measures designed to counter illegal immigration are the immediate dispatch to Mayotte of a naval patrol vessel, ahead of the arrival of new interceptor craft later this year, and increased helicopter patrols. Together, the measures are to enable round-the-clock monitoring and enforcement of the approaches to Mayotte from Anjouan, the closest Comorian island.
Also proposed was the appointment of a liaison officer, to be posted to the Comorian Ministry of the Interior, to better facilitate co-operation between the two governments. While a potentially valuable step forward, the approval and effectiveness of any such appointment will be entirely up to the Comorian Government, as an independent sovereign state.
Locals were unconvinced by Ms Girardin’s visit and the additional security measures. The protests and blockades continued and a vigilante group began taking suspected illegal immigrants to the police. From Paris, Ms Girardin called upon the people of Mayotte to resume dialogue and to let the security services do their work.
Mayotte has the highest unemployment rate and the lowest per capita income level of all 101 départements. It also experiences the highest rate of population growth in France, growing by an average of 3.8% per year from 2012 to 2017. At a rate of 693 people per square kilometre, the population density of Mayotte is second only to the Paris/Île de France region. Despite those pressures, the residents of Mayotte nonetheless enjoy vastly better medical care, educational facilities and earnings – up to thirteen times greater – than those available in the Comoros. Many of the clandestine arrivals make the perilous and often fatal journey across the 70-kilometre stretch of water between Mayotte and Anjouan, in small craft known as kwassa-kwassa.
According to the most recent official estimates, the population of Mayotte is 259,200; forty per cent of whom are foreigners. Of the foreign-born population, 95 per cent are estimated to be Comorian. Birth rates and immigration are such that half of the territory’s population is aged 17 years or less and six out of every ten Mayotte residents are aged 25 or under.
Schools are groaning under the numbers. With around 90,000 students currently enrolled in the 229 schools on Mayotte – a school population that has experienced annual increases of five per cent in recent years – numbers are such that children attend school in half-day batches, rather than for full days. That number will continue to increase as Comorians seek better lives for themselves and their children. Upon reaching the age of 18, those children have the right to become French citizens under the principle of jus soli – or droit de sol, in French – by virtue of being born on French soil. In a somewhat controversial move, Ms Girardin has proposed that the Mayotte maternity hospital be excluded as an immigration zone, but that may only have the effect of forcing desperate mothers-to-be to give birth in unhygienic conditions.
Keeping pace with the funding demands of schools, hospitals and housing will be a major drain on the French budget and will require increased social spending. There will also be additional expenditure on more police, gendarmes and military deployments. But that, of course, leaves Mayotte in something of a bind, as improved health and education services will only add to its attraction, regardless of any increased difficulties in making the crossing that may result from greater security measures.
Ultimately, the only real long-term solution is for health, educational and income levels in the Comoros to experience such significant improvements that making the risky voyage to Mayotte is no longer worthwhile. Unfortunately, in the absence of such improvements and with little to attract foreign investors to the Comoros, living standards there are unlikely to rise. Consequently, the antipathy of the Mahorais towards Comorian immigrants is unlikely to abate.