At night, you can clearly see the lights of Mayotte, a French island in the Indian Ocean, from Mramani, a rundown coastal village without electricity on the neighbouring Comoran island of Anjouan. For most, the view across the water promises a brighter future.
Comoros is one of the poorest countries in the world while Mayotte, 70km away, is part of the European Union (EU) and is rich. With the economic disparity between the two islands widening, an increasing number of impoverished Comoran migrants are braving the ocean swells in search of a better life.
The voyage in rickety wooden vessels, known as kwassa-kwassa, is not without risk: Although there are no reliable statistics, most estimates put fatalities at between 200 and 500 a year.
“Many children try to get across, often alone - they are sent by their families. Some are as young as 10 or 11 but it is worth the risk, because here [Mayotte] they can have a life,” Hamada Bouhoutane (not his real name) told IRIN.
Many of those risking the crossing are pregnant women; a child born on Mayotte is granted local citizenship, opening the door to the bigger prize of French and EU citizenship. About 7,400 babies are born on Mayotte every year, 5,000 of them at the hospital in Momoudz, the capital, which has the highest birth rate in the EU.
Bouhoutane, originally from Grande Comore, the largest of the three islands in the Union of Comoros, made his way to Mayotte via Anjouan on a kwassa-kwassa in 2002, when he was aged 17. “One of the main reasons people from Comoros come here is for medical attention – I was sick and could not get better on Grand Comore. In Mayotte there are hospitals and doctors,” he said.
“I left Grand Comore and stayed for a day [in Anjouan]. I found a kwassa-kwassa that would take me to Mayotte and we waited for it to get dark. There were 18 of us on the boat and we each paid the equivalent of €100 [US$148],” Bouhoutane said. Traffickers charge up to double that for a spot on a boat but can bring the price down to pack as many bodies as possible on board.
“We left at around seven and got to Mayotte at about 11 in the evening. Three hours later I was in the hospital,” he added. Bouhoutane was treated for a lung ailment and has since fully recovered.
While one island is kept afloat
Geographically, culturally and historically Mayotte is part of the Comoros archipelago. The four stars in the Comoros Union flag represent the islands of Grande Comore, Moheli, Anjouan and Mayotte. But in a move that remains controversial, after a combined four-island vote led to independence from France in 1975, Mayotte unilaterally held a referendum and chose to remain under French control.
In the past, Comoran citizens were allowed to travel to and from Mayotte freely, but while Mayotte prospered, the post-independence history of the three islands in the Union of Comoros was characterised by separatism and some 20 attempted or successful coups.
In 1995 visa requirements were introduced, restricting travel between Mayotte and the Union islands, and many Comorans already on Mayotte became “clandestine” or “illegal migrants”.
Official estimates from France put the number of “clandestines” on Mayotte at 45,000, but the Red Cross believes the figure could be as high as 60,000 and estimated the total population of the island at between 165,000 and 200,000.
Mayotte, like the Union islands, is far from self-sufficient and has become heavily dependent on French financial assistance delivered mainly via social benefits and subsidies, making it the envy of the island chain. Most “clandestines” are unwilling to leave once they have set foot on Mayotte.
“After 24 hours I was let go from the hospital but I never went back [to Grande Comore] because here I could go to a good school and there would always be a hospital,” Bouhoutane said.
The others are sinking
Years of political instability on Comoros brought a steady decline in standard of living and, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), gross domestic product (GDP) has fallen by –0.5 percent annually since 1990 to just $640 per capita in 2005.
“In the villages you only see children and old people. There is no one to do the work - all the young strong people have left,” Elyachroutu Mohamed Caabi, a former Union vice-president, now an economic and social advisor to the semi-autonomous government of Anjouan, told IRIN.
According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Official Development Assistance (ODA), on which the country is heavily dependent, plunged from around $60 million a year in 1990 to $25 million in 2005. Comoros is also burdened with debt of $297 million, amounting to 63 percent of its GDP.
"We need a solution because the people are suffering. Poverty is increasing, there is no development, there is no investment, no economic activities, no employment, and the international community will not start helping until we have stability," Caabi said.
In the UNDP 2006 Human Development Report the country’s ranking slipped from 132 in 2004 to 134. “For over 30 years since independence, the economy of Comoros has stagnated,” said Opia Kumah, the UN Resident Coordinator in the Comoros. “In many areas it has actually regressed.”
Individual island elections in June 2007 reignited hostility between Anjouan and the Comoros Union government. With the prospects of a peaceful resolution to the political impasse ever less likely, the economic situation seems set to deteriorate, driving more and more people to try their luck on a crammed boat headed for Mayotte.
“We try and stop people from leaving in the kwassa-kwassa because it is so dangerous, but we can’t stop everyone. If they see us coming they just run away and go from another beach,” said Fahar Chabalan, a policeman in Mramani.
“There are no jobs here. The only work that is done is the building of the new mosque,” he said. The village already has six mosques, and many streets are now lined with abandoned houses.
“All the young people have gone ... but I understand people trying to leave. I am one of the lucky ones because I have a job,” Chabalan said.
The grass is not always greener
Not all Comorans who make it to Mayotte are better off. Without legal status or documentation, and forced to operate in the informal sectors of the economy, Mayotte’s unofficial population has become increasingly vulnerable to exploitation.
Fatihia Raissa (not her real name), 24, came to Mayotte in 2003. Her brother, who has local citizenship, refused to help her and she married a local cattle farmer, becoming his fifth wife after he promised he would help her obtain the necessary legal documentation to stay on the island.
She has since been confined to his farm, where she spends every day cleaning, cooking, tending to animals and taking care of the other wives’ children. “My family is still in Grande Comore. I feel lost, like a prisoner,” she said.
“I have never known a happy moment in my life,” Raissa said. “I had nothing, so I got married to a man from Mayotte. I have no papers and he said that if I left him he would report me to the authorities. They would surely deport me, and I would have to leave my one-year-old baby. I have no choice.”
Most “clandestines” find work in agriculture and the fisheries but Red Cross figures indicate they only earn an average of €250 ($370) per month, in sharp contrast to the €647 ($958) local citizens are paid.
Still, Bouhoutane considers himself lucky: “Here [Mayotte] people can be poor too, but not so poor that they don’t have food or water, like back home.”
Having found work as a gardener and at a restaurant, Bouhoutane said he earned about €100 ($148) per month. “It’s enough, and it’s at least eight times more than what a person in Anjouan makes.”
Keeping the door closed
Ahmed Rama, Chef de Cabinet of the Collective Department of Mayotte (French overseas collective), noted that “clandestine migration from Comoros is a huge problem for Mayotte – it has always been high but since 2006, 2007 the number of migrants has been increasing every day.”
The French response to the “boat people” has been twofold: the authorities have invested in keeping people out, stepping up patrols between the islands and installing a third radar station; and more and more of those already on Mayotte are being arrested and deported.
“We have tried to put everything in place to limit a massive flow of people coming to Mayotte, but kwassa-kwassa with illegal migrants on board still make their way here every day,” Rama commented. “It is impossible for us to catch 100 percent of them.”
The authorities claim that the number of people caught trying to enter illegally rose by over 130 percent in 2007, but whether this points to more effective policing or greater flows of “clandestines” is not clear.
Rama said there were no figures to shed light on the exact number of people coming to Mayotte illegally. “We deport up to 20,000 a year now,” he said, but because many find their way back within a few days the same person is often sent back several times.
Bouhoutane said he had been very fortunate because he had never been deported. “I have friends who have been deported up to eight times. They always come back, but it is very expensive. I would do the same.”
According to Rama, there is not much the Comoran Union government can do to halt the exodus of desperate people seeking a better life on Mayotte. “They [Union government] are now not interested in limiting these flows; they have other problems to deal with now.”