Mayotte is eight thousand kilometers from Paris; also called the ‘Lampedusa of the Indian Ocean’. The tropical island between Madagascar and Mozambique is one of France’s overseas departments: a piece of the European Union off the East African coast.
Every year thousands of people try to reach the island in rickety boats, hoping for a better future. Many die in the process. Just a month ago, 34 migrants died when their boat ran into trouble north of Madagascar.
To combat migration to Mayotte, the French government wants to start one of these days with ‘Operation Wuambushu’, which means ‘take over’ in one of the local languages on the island. The country wants to deport 20,000 migrants without a residence permit and to ‘clean up’ part of the slums where many migrants live. An additional five hundred French soldiers have been called up to assist local agents in the operation.
Slum dwellers hold their breath. In a slum in the capital Mamoudzou, some homes have already been marked. “We live in constant tension,” Fatima tells the BBC, “This place is being razed to the ground, we have no choice.”
The number of people boarding a boat to Mayotte is increasing. Half of the more than 300,000 inhabitants of the island now come from abroad. Most come from the nearby Comoros, especially from the nearest island of Anjouan. Much of the rest comes from Madagascar. But people from much further away countries, such as Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, are also reporting, OFPRA, the French government organization that deals with asylum applications, told NOS.
Most of the same rules apply in Mayotte as in the rest of the European Union, but it is not part of the Schengen zone. Traveling to other EU countries is therefore not possible. Only a few get the chance to travel to France to work or study. Nevertheless, Mayotte is an attractive destination for migrants in the region. The island is a lot poorer than Europe, but richer than the surrounding African countries.
According to the French government, the large number of migrants on the island is causing many problems. Especially in the slums there would be a lot of violence and poverty would increase. There are also too few schools and hospitals.
France is trying to combat illegal migration by patrolling by boat and from the air. On the shipping lanes around the island, border guards regularly send back boats of migrants. In recent years, about 24,000 people a year have been deported by France, mainly to the Comorian island of Anjouan. Operation ‘Wuambushu’ is now on top of that.
Human rights organizations express their concerns about the announced operation. The French Human Rights Commission CNCDH asks the Minister of the Interior and Overseas Territories, Gérald Darmanin, in a letter to refrain from the mass expulsion. And UNICEF asks special attention for the children who will suffer.
Demonstrations against the operation will be held in several French cities this week. Activists believe that France should not interfere with the migrants on Mayotte, the country would behave in a neo-colonial way.
Activist and journalist Maeva Amir follows developments closely and is present at demonstrations:
Suivez le assemblyment de Paris contre l’opération à Mayotte à l’appel du Collectif Stop Uwuambushu ⬇️ https://t.co/r9QhHlYhp1
April 16, 2023
The Comoros archipelago, to which Mayotte once belonged, is also angry. The authorities have asked France to call off the operation. It would violate human rights and be bad for the relationship between France and the Comoros.
At the same time, local migrant and human rights organizations are less vocal. They fear a repeat of the situation in 2021, when rioters blocked the office of La Cimade, a refugee organization that helps migrants in Mayotte.
The question is whether France will achieve its goal with ‘operation Wuambushu’. Previous deportations have also not led to less migration. Because despite the risks, somewhere, on the Comoros, Madagascar or even further away, people are already planning their trip to that little piece of Europe in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
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