Anti-migration operation on French African island of Mayotte stirs tensions, exposes inequalities

·6-min read

CHIRONGUI, Mayotte (AP) — Facing a migration quagmire on the French island territory of Mayotte, off Africa’s east coast, France’s government has sent in 2,000 troops and police to carry out mass expulsions, destroy slums and eradicate violent gangs.

But the operation has become bogged down and raised concerns of abuse, aggravating tensions between local residents and immigrants from the neighboring country of Comoros. It is also laying bare entrenched poverty among both communities, tensions over the island’s status — and deep inequalities between Mayotte and the rest of France.

While Mayotte is a part of France, Comoros — 100 kilometers (60 miles) to the northwest across a strait in the Indian Ocean — was also once a French colony but has been independent since 1975. Mayotte is by far the poorest corner of France, but its average annual income of around $3,500 is still more than double that in Comoros. This has created a powerful pull.

“How can they imagine for a second that (the operation) will make things better?” asked Momo, a father of five from Comoros who has lived in Mayotte for 30 years and is opposing efforts to expel him and his family from this island.

He is among those who say a lack of attention from the French state is at the core of Mayotte’s problems. Like most people who spoke to The Associated Press, Momo fears having his full name published for fear of reprisals or expulsion.

Meanwhile, anti-migrant collectives on Mayotte, a volcanic island north of Madagascar known for its vanilla and tea plantations, are starting to take things into their own hands.

Some are blocking a hospital treating foreigners, disrupting shipments of medicines and goods to Comoros and threatening to destroy slums if the authorities don’t get there first.

Youth gangs are fighting back, and resisting efforts to make peace. Military forces and police are struggling to keep Mayotte under control.

Both communities are majority Black and trace their origins to a chain of islands whose status is the source of historical dispute.

In 1841, France bought Mayotte from its self-proclaimed sultan in exchange for protection. French colonization then extended to the other three main islands of the Comoros chain. As independence movements emerged after World War II, tensions arose among the populations of the different islands.

In a 1974 referendum, three islands supported independence and became the new nation of Comoros, but Mayotte voted against and remained French. Comoros still claims Mayotte as part of the same chain.

While development in Mayotte remains far behind that of the French mainland, Comoros is wracked by corruption and struggles to provide even basic public services. Mayotte is seen by Comorians as a land of refuge where people can at least get medical care and children can go to school.

Since 1991, the population of Mayotte has almost quadrupled to around 260,000, according to the French statistics agency Insee — and many other immigrants are believed to remain uncounted. Many people arrive so that their children are born with French residency. Insee says that of the 10,600 children born on Mayotte in 2021, 46.5% had two parents who weren’t French.

But once they turn 18, these young people have few job options. Those with only a residence permit can’t travel to mainland France. Many turn to the underground economy. Crime has flourished.

That's the backdrop for “Operation Wuambushu,” launched on April 24 for two months. It’s expected to be extended because of setbacks suffered by the French government and Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, the architect of the operation and the driving force in France’s overall efforts to stem migration.

Just as the police contingent arrived from the French mainland, a court blocked expulsions, and Comoros refused to take the migrants back. French President Emmanuel Macron hosted Comoros President Azali Assoumani last week to try to break the deadlock.

Many residents welcome the security surge. Earlier this month, more than 1,000 people demonstrated in Chirongui in southern Mayotte in support of the operation, and to express their attachment to France.

On Sunday, people in the village of Tsimkoura in southern Mayotte compiled a list of “foreigner settlements” and sent it to the mayor, demanding that he expel the residents by the end of the week.

“Otherwise, we will take care of it,” said Kourati Youssouffa, a public servant with the local administration of Mayotte.

In the isolated village of Hagnoundrou, a printed message circulating this week warned of an imminent “hunt for migrants.” It warned, “Don’t forget your children, they are part of your luggage." Local authorities banned any such move.

There is little room for moderation or neutrality, and tension is worsening between those who define themselves as “true Mahorais” or Mayotte residents, and the population of Comorian origin.

Many Mahorais feel the arrivals from Comoros deprive them of potential development and of their right to live in peace.

Comorians like Momo, meanwhile, are well-anchored on Mayotte, but now live in fear of military patrols coming to mark their home with red paint to indicate the bulldozers are coming — or violence by anti-Comorian militant ‘’collectives.’’

If the police “don’t manage to carry out their mission, it’s the collectives who will do the work. They have warned us,” said Momo, who has submitted documents to try to obtain property rights as a longtime resident of a neighborhood of shanties in the town of Majikavo.

Some of his neighbors are giving up hope, and are demolishing their houses themselves to recover the materials and build elsewhere.

The French government has deported an average of 25,000 Comorians per year since 2018. It gave Comoros 150 million euros between 2019 and 2022 to try to fight illegal migration, according to France's overseas affairs minister.

But despite the risky sea journey, thousands of those deported return from Comoros. The policy has broken up families and left children and teens unaccompanied, pushing many to join gangs.

Operation Wuambushu enjoys the support of politicians like Mayotte lawmaker Mansour Kamardine, who decries threats and violence against local officials. He said Friday that “it’s a matter of days’’ before the situation explodes, pleading for tougher police action.

But human rights defenders worry about the fallout.

Among critics are the U.N. children's agency UNICEF, which warned that a surge in arrests and expulsions would increase the risk of children being separated from their parents. In a statement, it called on the French government to ensure housing for families expelled and mental health support for children whose homes are razed.

French refugees' rights groups CIMADE warned that the surge would “aggravate the precariousness of the population and exacerbate the social tensions it's claiming to fight.”

For now, security forces are acting as a buffer between gangs and anti-migrant militias, while the population, split in two, girds for new tensions as the operation unfolds.

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Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.

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Follow AP migration coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/migration.