It’s one of those complex issues to which, as far as I can see, there’s no satisfactory solution. So I’ll simply lay out the facts and let you decide.
- In 1975, the four Comoros Islands were French, but in a referendum that year, three of them voted for independence. The fourth, Mayotte, chose to remain French.
- The three Comoros Islands, now independent, form a single country which is among the poorest in the world.
- In 2011, Mayotte became a French department, and though poorer than the rest of France, the gap between the two in economic terms is less than the gap between Mayotte and Comoros.
- Until 1995, the inhabitants of Comoros were able to travel freely to Mayotte. But since then, a visa has been required, which is difficult and costly to obtain.
- In their desperation to improve their lot, the Comorians queue up to sail the 45 miles separating Comoros from Mayotte. They cross by night in small, unstable boats called kwassa-kwassa. The term refers to an African dance and it means ‘It rocks’. But in this case, when they rock, they capsize.
- It’s estimated that in the past 20 years, since the visa requirement was introduced, a minimum of 12,000 people have died trying to reach Mayotte.
It isn’t, of course, a problem unique to Mayotte. We regularly see it elsewhere in the news. Mayotte is Lampedusa; those 45 miles of sea are the Rio Grande; those flimsy kwassa-kwassa are the stifling lorries queuing to get into Greece.
What are the options?
- Return Mayotte to the Comoros Islands (as has been called for in several UN resolutions). But this won’t happen: the process is irreversible, Mayotte becomes more French every day, and the gap between it and Comoros grows wider.
- Lift the visa requirement. Instead of drownings, there’d be a huge rush of Comorians to Mayotte, which already lacks the infrastructure to deal with its present population. Besides, in the current climate, opening the borders of Europe to a massive influx of immigrants, Muslim to boot, would be political suicide.
- Continue to clamp down. This is the current policy: intercept the kwassa-kwassa, cram the Detention Centre, send the illegal immigrants back home. And as soon as they have enough for the fare, they try again and the drowning continues.
Mayotte. Beautiful beaches. A divers’ paradise. And a terrible flashpoint where two different worlds come together.