The Another

    ‘In Mayotte, Comorians are not foreigners’



    Majicavo, in the commune of Koungou, on the French island of Mayotte, on April 24 before the Wuambushu operation

    The French Interior Ministry started its Operation Wuambushu on Monday, April 24, in the overseas department of Mayotte, in the Indian Ocean. This large-scale action to destroy shanty towns and expel migrants – the vast majority of whom are from the neighboring independent Comoros islands – is once again shining a spotlight on the island territory of Mayotte, which was the only one among the colonized archipelago not to have chosen independence in the 1970s, and which became a French department in 2011.

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    Ethnologist Sophie Blanchy, a specialist in Comorian and Malagasy societies, recalls the history of migration in the region, and its necessity in resourceless island territories.

    How do you view the large-scale deportation operation of illegal Comorian migrants launched by the French government in Mayotte?

    The government is choosing to respond to a migration situation deemed intolerable, and incompatible with the development of Mayotte, with destruction and a show of strength. But it is faced with one and the same population. It is difficult for me to speak of “foreign migrants” as far as the Comorians in Mayotte are concerned. These populations, whether they were born in Mayotte, Anjouan or Grande Comore, share the same language, practice the same religion, have the same concept of kinship, and continue to intermarry. There is nothing to distinguish between them, except that some find themselves in a territory with French nationality and others do not.

    This path of building walls and borders seems unjustifiable to me. For islands with few resources, migration has always been a necessity. Mayotte attracts people because it has more resources, just like Madagascar did during the colonial period. Comorians’ work allows for the transfer of money to other islands, but it is also an essential part of the economy of Mayotte, where the informal sector remains important.

    Paris claims to be responding to a request from the Mahoran people, who point to a continuing rise in delinquency and crime.

    This is a reality, but it is not just the Comorians – 80% of the population of Mayotte is in poverty. Mahorais are poor, uneducated and difficult. Mayotte is the poorest department in France, with a per capita allocation three to four times lower than in mainland France. The problem is the lack of development of this island – whose population is no larger than that of a medium-sized city of 350,000 inhabitants – but to which the State does not give the means in accordance with its status as a department.

    On Monday, the Comoros refused to allow a ship carrying about 60 people to dock in Anjouan. But evictions regularly take place to this island, which is the closest to Mayotte. What happens to these people once they arrive in Anjouan?

    Most of them gather in the suburbs of Mutsamudu, the capital of Anjouan. The expulsion is seen as a shameful failure, which prevents them from returning to their families. Often, they wait to be able to leave again to pursue their migratory dream. This migration is that of the little people, both rural and urban dwellers, people who have always been crushed by the economic and political systems in place, including the colonial system. This is particularly true in Anjouan, where the two main colonial companies appropriated all the land, leaving nothing for the villagers to do but become agricultural laborers.

    These populations are fleeing a country that offers them few prospects.

    Yes, Comoros remains a fragile state. It should not be forgotten that not so long ago [in 1997] Anjouan and Moheli wanted to secede from Grande Comore. The centralization of authority and services in Moroni, the capital, remains a source of conflict. The two large islands, Anjouan and Grande Comore, are rivals, while Moheli is the loser. At the end of the secession crisis, power was granted on a rotating basis to a representative from each of the islands, which was a step forward, but President Azali Assoumani has put an end to this. Democracy is now just a facade.

    Mayotte’s solution was to stick with France. Some of its elites – politicians and civil servants – are from populations that came from the Malagasy island of Sainte-Marie at the end of the 19th century. They had no interest in joining the older Comorian elites, who held a stronger position. The Mahorais have always been regarded with some contempt by the ruling groups of Grande Comore and Anjouan. Attachment to France gave Mayotte a different destiny, but at the cost of a growing rupture with its environment.

    Assoumani is calling for Mayotte’s return to the Comoros on the strength of multiple United Nations resolutions. Isn’t this a purely formal request?

    This is an unavoidable political speech for a Comorian leader and it is well-founded, given the way Mayotte’s independence was granted. Is this just a rhetorical statement? In any case, everyone is aware that the current situation is an impasse and cannot be final.

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    Is a regional approach to developing the solution?

    The Comoros were always a neglected colony. And France has been equally inactive in the post-colonial period. Even during the time of Ahmed Abdallah Abdéremane [1978-1989] when it did what it wanted in the Comoros, aid was never sufficient. After that, it almost disappeared and just a sprinkling of programs remain.



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    A real policy of co-operation is certainly needed, but this comes at a cost. We should not ignore the difficulties that arise in the implementation of such actions, when the leaders of the Comoros think primarily in terms of the interests of their community and not those of the country.

    Translation of an original article published in English on; the publisher may only be liable for the French version.

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