Island of Death
Mayotte is a magnet for Comoros islanders who risk their lives crossing hazardous seas in search of a better life.
Filmmaker: Doaa Al Ashkar
Against the backdrop of today’s refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, another tragedy has gone almost unreported on the east coast of Africa between Mozambique and Madagascar.
Mayotte, one of the four islands in the Comoros archipelago, used to be a French Overseas Territory but now is part of France, the 101st departement of the Republic. But it is also at the centre of a crisis unfolding in the Indian Ocean. Mayotte covers almost 400 square kilometres and has a population of about 214,000, the majority of whom are Muslim. It is surrounded by coral reefs and the ancient Arab sailors whose ships often came to grief on its shores named it the “Island of Death”.
Most recently, the racial tension on Mayotte boiled over resulting in anti-immigration groups deporting hundreds of Comorans from their village homes as they protested what they called “clandestine immigration”.
Since visas to enter Mayotte were introduced in 1995, thousands of islanders from Grande Comore, Anjouan and Moheli have drowned trying to get there.
They largely travel in small boats known as kwasa-kwasa, which are prone to capsizing on the 70-kilometre journey from Anjouan to Mayotte. Reliable casualty figures are hard to come by. They are also disputed, with the governor of Anjouan once claiming that more than 50,000 had drowned since 1995. French estimates are much lower, between 7,000 and 10,000.
The sea separating Anjouan and Mayotte has become the widest cemetery in the world. Because up to now about 10,000 innocent Comorans have died. Out of them, the majority are women and children.
The Mayotte immigration problem and the discrepancy between the different death toll estimates are partly rooted in the colonial history of the archipelago. To understand why so many people see Mayotte as offering a better life and risk their lives trying to get there, we follow the stories of four men, Taher, Mohammed, Matar Yacoub and Ahmad Ibrahim, each of whom is at a different stage of that journey.
Taher heard that life was good on the island, but discovered that the reality was quite different. He arrived in Mayotte illegally and he and his family live as inconspicuously as possible to avoid deportation.
Mohammed arrived legally 20 years ago but is still waiting for his asylum application to be processed.
Matar Yacoub was detained in a holding centre in conditions that a 2008 Council of Europe human rights report described as “unacceptable”. The body appealed to the French authorities to ensure that “human rights and dignity” were respected in such centres. Matar talks about overcrowded boats, rough seas and alleges that French ships deliberately flood the small kwasa-kwasa so that they sink.
Finally, Ahmad Ibrahim is planning his journey to Mayotte, desperate to provide his family with more than is on offer on Anjouan.
The French government estimates that as many as 40 percent of Mayotte’s population is made up of what it calls illegal residents, referring to them as being in “une situation irreguliere”. Ibrahim Aboubacar, the French MP for Mayotte, says that “foreigners” on the island are a burden on both healthcare and education facilities.
The immigrants’ living conditions are undoubtedly poor. They live in fear of the French authorities and deportation and can suffer different forms of discrimination.
Taher laments that “even though we [Comorans] are one people”, the people of Mayotte “don’t consider us as their brothers”. He says: “When some of them hear a kwasa-kwasa boat has sunk, they celebrate rather than feeling sad.”
Island of Death looks at the Comoros’ colonial past and why Mayotte split from the other three islands.The French presence in the archipelago goes back to 1841. The four islands became a French colony in 1912 but were granted a limited form of independence in 1961. In 1974, a referendum was held in which a majority of islanders voted for complete independence. France refused to ratify the result – so the Comoros announced unilateral independence in July 1975.
France ignored the proclamation, although five months later it did recognise the independence of Grande Comore, Anjouan and Moheli – but not Mayotte.
In February 1976, France held a second referendum on Mayotte, which voted heavily in favour of retaining its French connection. Ahmad Thabit, a diplomat and researcher, argues that the referendums were “organised, controlled and supervised” by France.
There was a coup in the independent Comoros later in 1976, followed by a counter-coup two years later carried out by French mercenaries led by the soldier of fortune, Bob Denard.
This triggered an almost 20-year period of coups and political instability on the three independent islands.
This took a heavy economic toll on the independent Comoros and relegated them to among the poorest countries in the world by the start of the new millennium. Today, many islanders accuse their central government in the capital Moroni on Grande Comore of failing to provide for the basic needs of its people.
French visa rules require Comorans to pay 100 euros ($110) to visit Mayotte but many prefer to pay premium rates (around $200) to the kwasa-kwasa owners and remain under the radar of the French authorities. This puts them at the mercy of these unscrupulous operators, who amount to people smugglers, and has led to a rise in the numbers trying to get to Mayotte but dying in the process.
In Island of Death, we see how the people of the independent Comoros are still affected today by their colonial past and why so many risk their lives in this way – like Ahmad Ibrahim who leaves for Mayotte but mysteriously goes missing on the way.