Mayotte is a volcanic island north of Madagascar known for its vanilla and tea plantations. Far from the postcard setting, social tension has been brewing on the island for years. The centrale government in mailand France launched an operation to carry out mass expulsions, destroy slums and eradicate violent gangs.
Nearly one month since the start of operation Wuambushu in Mayotte, tension remains high on the island. France’s government has sent 2,000 troops and police to carry out mass expulsions, destroy slums and eradicate violent gangs.
Just as the police contingent arrived from mainland France, a court blocked expulsion, and neighbouring Comoros at first, refused to welcome the migrants back.
The operation has raised concerns of abuse, aggravating tensions between local residents and immigrants from the Union of the Comoros.
It has also laid bare tensions over the island's status which is part of the Comoros archipelago but a French territory.
Those who define themselves as “Mahorais” or Mayotte residents, and the population of Comorian origin 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.
Powerful pull despite poverty
Even though Mayotte is by far the poorest department of France, its average annual income of around 3,500$ is still more than double that in the Comoros.
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.
The French government says it has deported an average of 25,000 Comorians per year since 2018.
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.
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 (May 13), 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.
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 Mayotte residents feel the migrants arriving from The Union of the Comoros deprive them of potential development and of their right to live in peace.
Living in fear
“How can they imagine for a second that (the operation) will make things better?” asked Momo, a father of five from The Union of the 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.
Indeed, anti-migrant collectives are active on Mayotte and starting to take things into their own hands.
Some are blocking a hospital treating foreigners and disrupting shipments of medicines and goods to Comoros and threatening to destroy slums if the authorities don’t get there first.
Comorians like Momo, 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.
Human rights concerns
According to France's overseas affairs minister, the European country gave Comoros 150 million euros between 2019 and 2022 to try to fight illegal migration.
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 some 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.”
“Operation Wuambushu,” which means “reclaim” or “take back” in Shimaore, Mayotte's most commonly spoken language was initially launched for two months but it is expected to be extended.