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IMMIGRATION

The illegal migrants leaving ‘paradise’ for a slice of France

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.

The illegal migrants leaving 'paradise' for a slice of France
A Comoran beach. Photo: David Stanley, via Flickr

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.”

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.

 

POLITICS

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.

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