- While the European Union (EU) is spending large sums to stop illegal migration via the Canary Islands, over the Gibraltar Straits and over the Mediterranean, a new EU destination is growing in "popularity". The French Indian Ocean island Mayotte is an integrated part of the EU, and now sees a booming number of "boat people" arriving.
A new tragic boom in African illegal migrations to Europe is just about to be discovered by the French public, surely to make it a political issue in France's upcoming presidential elections. Only one day after Interior Minister and probable presidential candidate for the French right, Nicolas Sarkozy, made the new migration flow public, the extreme right party National Front (FN) today "demands" heavy action.
The numbers presented yesterday by Minister Sarkozy were surprising and reflect a humanitarian disaster. Newest French statistics showed that around 45,000 "illegals" now lived in Mayotte, constituting about one third of the island's total population.
And the numbers are only growing. According to Mr Sarkozy, French authorities had registered a 134 percent increase in persons being caught while trying to illegally enter the island. While the Minister used the statistics to prove that border controls had become more effective, the opposition sees the same numbers as proof that the migration flow to Mayotte is booming and "demands" that islanders and France be "protected against" this flow.
In Mayotte, however, the reaction is more balanced. Indeed, most "illegals" have the same nationality as islanders as Mayotte geographically and historically belongs to the Comoran archipelago, but residents voted against joining the nation of Comoros at independence. Until 1995, when the economic situation between the two entities had become very different, residents from other Comoran islands were free to travel to Mayotte without a visa. Since that, Comorans are "illegal immigrants".
Still, it is mostly Comorans travelling illegal to their neighbour EU island, but other African nationalities have also increasingly been registered among Mayotte's underground population, causing fears a new major migration route may be in its establishment.
Most worryingly, the "illegals" use the most rudimentary boats - locally termed kwassa-kwassa - to reach the relatively rich island. According to Noël Mamère, a member of the French parliament representing the Green Party - mortality is extremely high on these illegal boat trips to Mayotte.
Ten years after the island's border were closed, Mr Mamère says that between 2,000 and 5,000 persons have died trying to reach Mayotte illegally. According to him, UN statistics put the number at at least 200 drowning in the attempt each year, while local sources had indicated an annual death rate of around 500. Overseas Minister François Baroin claims there are no French statistics to underpin these estimates, but admits that "clandestine immigrants run considerable risks crossing the barrier reefs" off Mayotte's coast.
Mr Mamère last year urged Paris authorities to look at the historic ties between Mayotte and other Comoran islands, consider the humanitarian disaster caused by the dangerous migration and thus re-establish visa-free movements for Comorans "so that this phenomenon of 'boat people' can cease." Minister Baroin answered it was "by no means in the intention of the government" to ease visa restrictions as this would lead to a boom in migration and "destabilise" Mayotte.
Last year, Mayotte expelled around 8,000 illegal immigrants, most of them coming from Comoros, according to Mayotte MP in the French parliament Mansour Kamardine. This year, taking in account the increase reported by Minister Sarkozy, numbers could be closer to 20,000. Comorans are still dominating, but other nationalities are increasingly present among migrants.
In addition, a large percentage of those trying to reach Mayotte are pregnant women, many of whom are not physically in shape for a fatiguing and dangerous trip with a kwassa-kwassa. The reason for their travel is simple: Any child born in Mayotte automatically has the right of local citizenship, which in turn can give rights to a French and EU citizenship.
The French far right already has an answer to this illegal migration stream, which is boosting control and changing citizenship laws to make it far more difficult to obtain a French passport to stop this "insupportable insecurity," according to the FN.
The issue of illegal immigration to Mayotte is therefore set to become an issue in the French presidential elections - when it is duly discovered by politicians. At a Euro-African ministerial conference on migration in Libya today, the issue was still defined to Spain's Canary Islands and Italy's Lampedusa island. French politicians will be glad to find they have their own Canary Island in the electoral campaign.
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