Mayotte protests cast cloud over Comoros migrant departure point

Mayotte may be poor in European Union terms, but the Comoros are one of Africa's poorest countries.

Feb 19, 2024 - 16:32
Mayotte protests cast cloud over Comoros migrant departure point
Residents gather for a meeting to create a neighbourhood association and organize patrols to ensure safety in the Kaweni district of Mamoudzou on the French Indian Ocean island of Mayotte, on 18 February 2024. Picture: AFP

MAYOTTE: The village of Kangani is the last stopping off point on the Comoros before a perilous ocean crossing for would-be migrants trying to reach the French island of Mayotte.

But in recent weeks, the kwassa kwassa -- small wooden fishing launches inadequate for the 70-kilometre (43-mile) Indian Ocean journey -- have remained tied up on the shore.

Mayotte is France's 101st and poorest administrative region and anti-immigrant groups have launched protests against new arrivals despite a vow from Paris to tighten citizenship rules.

Part of the Comoros archipelago, Mayotte voted to remain part of France in 1974, when the other three islands sought and won independence.

The current state, the Union of the Comoros, maintains a claim on the French island and many here resent the ever-stricter immigration rules.

Mayotte may be poor in European Union terms, but the Comoros are one of Africa's poorest countries.

Thousands of would-be migrants from the Comoros or mainland Africa try to make the journey every year and are now estimated to make up just under half of Mayotte's 310,000 population.

This has proved too much for some of the locals, who have set up barricades on the streets to demand action from the state to rein in undocumented migration.

In Kangani, a small town of a few thousand souls on the easternmost Comoros island of Anjouan, this has disrupted the migrant smuggling business and other covert trade.


Even with its unemployment and social unrest, Mayotte has better infrastructure -- schools and hospitals -- than its neighbour.

According to a local official, "when everything is going well", between five and six kwassa kwassa skiffs set off every day for northwest Mayotte.

Now, migrants are piling up, alongside cigarettes and even livestock -- in Kangani, the entire economy of the village turns around the Mayotte route and business is conducted in wads of euros.

"The roadblocks affect us all, there are no more kwassa kwassa departures until things get back to normal," said Chadhuli Tafsir, a man in his 30s from the village itself.

Among the migrants held up waiting for their first crossing there are also tattooed youths, who have already been expelled from French soil.

They are recognisable by the dyed blonde streaks of hair, a fashionable hairdo on Mayotte.

They're keen to go back, but the situation is tense, and many locals refused to speak to AFP or turned their backs when reporters approached.

France's latest initiative to dissuade migrants from making the trip was a proposal to strip children born on Mayotte to non-French parents from having the right to claim citizenship.

Interior Minister Gerard Darmanin's shock proposal of a constitutional amendment has yet to appease the protesters on Mayotte, but it has added to frustration in Kangani.

"Abolishing the law of the soil is a bad idea for everyone concerned," muttered Tafsir, as a group of men gathered to discuss the decline in trade.

Ousseni, a small man in his 50s, would only give his first name, but describes himself as a fisherman-smuggler.

He charges travellers between 400 and 500 euros ($430 and $540) a head to cross the strait to Mayotte, four or five times the average monthly salary on this archipelago of 870,000 people.

The protest groups, he complains, are costing him "time and money", just like the Comoros coastguards who, he alleges, shake him down for 200 euros per trip.


"The last time I was carrying a sick person. We were prevented from crossing and I had to come back to dry land. The guy died shortly afterwards," he said.

Sometimes he supplements the people trade with cigarette shipments -- and that's not all.

"Some people on Mayotte are waiting for a cow to celebrate their marriage. It cost them 10,000 euros. It's a lot but still cheaper than over there," Ousseni said.

Often, the boats must turn back because of heavy weather. Sometimes they don't make it to land at all. No records are kept but thousands are thought to have drowned.

"No-one would take the risk of getting to Mayotte if we had any choice," said another young man, Jeansi, who is glumly awaiting the next departure. "Taking to sea is our only option."