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The illegal migrants leaving 'paradise' for a slice of France

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A Comoran beach. Photo: David Stanley, via Flickr
15:04 CET+01:00
In her house made of palm tree leaves and plywood rotting from the humidity on a tropical Comoros island, Aicha has hanging on the wall a map of her El Dorado, Mayotte.

Pregnant, she's ready to risk her life to make the clandestine journey across 70 kilometres (40 miles) of the Indian Ocean to the French overseas territory, where she wants to give birth.

Comoros goes to the polls on Sunday for the first round of its presidential election, with the struggling economy a key issue, but Aicha says she won't vote because "that won't change anything".

Instead, like many Comorans she has her sights set on Mayotte and plans toleave "before Ramadan," which starts in June.

But she still needs to find 500 euros ($550) for the trip. She has no work and her husband is a civil servant whose salary is in arrears.

While the massive flow of migrants crossing the Mediterranean and the Aegean to Europe has grabbed global headlines, illegal immigration from poor countries to prosperous ones takes place worldwide.

Among the island nations of the Indian Ocean, Mayotte, consisting of two main islands and numerous islets, is a major though little reported destination for migrants looking for a better life.

As a French overseas "department", Mayotte is considered part of the European Union member, and is more economically successful than neighbouring Comoros.

The gross domestic product of Mayotte is around 7,900 euros per person, compared with 725 euros in Comoros -- a former French colony that opted for independence rather than remaining part of France in 1975.

Many Comorans make the trip to Mayotte in their traditional fishing boat, the kwassa-kwassa, a short but perilous journey. Local police earlier this month recovered three bodies of would-be migrants.

 - 'Cemetery for Comorans' -

Aicha has slipped into Mayotte illegally several times before. She gave birth there to her two oldest children, who have French birth certificates but not yet nationality and currently live in Comoros.

Every time she goes, she gets expelled. And each time, she returns.

"I want to go to Mayotte so my baby will have a French birth certificate and to give my children a better education. I can do housework. Here that pays nothing," she said in her shack on the island of Moroni.

The number of people from Comoros, and also Madagascar, living illegally in Mayotte "could be several tens of thousands," according to the French government auditor.

One top candidate in Sunday's poll, Vice President Mohamed Ali Soilihi, told AFP that "Mayotte will always be an option as long as there is no free circulation of goods and people" among the islands of the archipelago.

"There will always be frustration and this area of the sea will remain a cemetery for Comorans."

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Zainaba, who acts as an intermediary for the operators transporting the illegal migrants, lost a friend two months ago in the sinking of a kwassa-kwassa, but is still determined to send her son to the French island where he was born.

Children born in Mayotte to foreign parents automatically get French nationality at age 18 if they reside in French territory at that date and live there for at least five years on a continuous basis.

"If I find two or three clients, they will take my son for free," she said.

But getting there is only half the battle. Authorities in Mayotte are on the lookout for illegal arrivals to send them back -- nearly 20,000 migrants were made to leave in 2014.

 

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