At least 22 people died after their boat sank off the coast of Madagascar on Saturday 11 March. The boat was packed with 47 people, who were trying to reach the French island territory of Mayotte. Only 23 were saved, while two more people remained missing.
Many refugees drown each year in small fishing boats called kwassa-kwassa as they attempt to reach French soil from Madagascar or the Comoros Islands. There are no viable statistics on how many people have lost their lives in attempting such crossings. A French senate report published in the early 2000s estimated that, at that time, around 1,000 people were dying each year.
The crossing to Mayotte from Madagascar and the Comoros Islands has been labelled “the world’s largest marine cemetery“, and France has blood on its hands. Rather than providing a safe haven for refugees, the state has ploughed the waters with interceptor boats. It detains and deports those it catches. In 2021 alone, more than 6,500 people were detained trying to enter Mayotte. And in December 2022, French interior minister Gérald Darmanin pledged to step up the fight against illegal migration into the French territory.
The New Humanitarian has reported that:
Mayotte is exempt from certain French immigration laws, and the border police do not always respect those that do exist. In a report last year, France’s human rights commission condemned the quick deportations in Mayotte, where most migrants don’t even see a lawyer or a judge before expulsion.
The publication reported that seeking asylum on Mayotte is “mission impossible”.
The decolonisation myth
The islands of Mayotte are part of the Comoro archipelago, which were colonised by France in 1912. However, while decolonising from the region in the 1970s, France used underhand tactics to ensure that it didn’t in fact decolonise at all.
When the Comoros islanders voted for independence from France in 1974, the colonising state took the results and interpreted them island by island. This way, it knew that it would be able to keep hold of Mayotte, which had voted against independence. The New Humanitarian wrote:
In splitting the Comoros, France violated a UN mandate and an agreement with the Comoros to respect existing boundaries during decolonisation.
In 2011, France added Mayotte to its list of ‘departements’. Yet the UN does not recognise French sovereignty over Mayotte. Nor, unsurprisingly, does the independent Comoros nation.
France has a military base on Mayotte, which is strategically located close to the east coast of Africa. The base houses hundreds of Foreign Legion troops, maintaining France’s neocolonial presence in the region.
Despite Mayotte’s transition to a French department, the islanders live in the worst conditions in all of the French territories:
Compared to metropolitan France, two to four times more people lived under the income national poverty line in the “old” overseas departments… and this rate increased to five times more in Mayotte. Poverty affects people with no employment or qualifications, young people and single-parent families most of all. Social benefits accounted for household revenue to a much greater degree than in metropolitan France.
Those who have arrived by boat, without official papers, can’t work. They’re left with no access to accommodation, food or water. For people seeking asylum, they’ve had no option but take to the streets in protest at their dire situation.
It is unsurprising that France is using the usual European rhetoric of blaming ‘illegal immigrants’ in order to cover up for its own incompetence and neglect in the region. After all, for as long as it can turn people against each other, it knows its neocolonialism can continue untouched.
Meanwhile, thousands more people will die on perilous crossings from Comoros and Madagascar to Mayotte. To France, these people are just statistics – a convenient enemy to keep out. But these people had hopes for a better life, and France needs to be held accountable for each and every death.
Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse
Featured image via ClaraMD/Pixabay