Mamoudzou, France (AFP/APP): France on Monday refused to halt a controversial planned operation to expel migrants from its Indian Ocean island territory of Mayotte, despite opposition from neighbouring Comoros and clashes between locals and security forces sent by Paris.
The operation, called Operation Wuambushu (“Take Back” in the local language), aims to expel migrants from urban slums in Mayotte to improve living conditions for local residents in France’s poorest department.
Some 1,800 members of the French security forces have been deployed for the operation on Mayotte, including hundreds sent from Paris, with young locals and police clashing in the district of Tsoundzou outside the main town of Mamoudzou since Sunday.
An official said the number of migrants trying to reach the French territory from Comoros by sea had also reduced since the beginning of the operation to flood the area with security forces.
“Since we have increased reinforcements, there are no more kwassas (small boats) that have been spotted,” Camille Chaize, spokeswoman for the interior ministry, told France Inter radio.
Comoros, whose three islands lie to the northwest of Mayotte, said Monday it had refused to allow a boat carrying migrants from the island. Most of the illegal migrants being deported are Comoran.
It also said it had suspended passenger traffic at a port where deported migrants usually land.
“As long as the French side decides to do things unilaterally, we will take our decisions,” Comoran Interior Minister Fakridine Mahamoud told AFP, adding that none of the deported migrants “will enter a Comoran port”.
The country’s maritime services company also said that the Mutsamudu port was suspending passenger traffic from Monday until Wednesday.
The plan is for those without papers to be sent back to the Comoran island of Anjouan, 70 kilometres (45 miles) away from Mayotte.
“We will not stop the operations… to fight against delinquency and unsanitary housing, with their consequences on illegal immigration,” the most senior Paris-appointed official on Mayotte, prefect Thierry Suquet, told reporters.
He said he hoped to “quickly resume” boat deportations to Anjouan and hoped the standoff would be resumed through “dialogue”.
“We have common interests with Comoros, in particular the safeguarding of human life at sea and the control of illegal immigration,” he said.
But he added: “The aim is for there to no longer be any slums on Mayotte… (these) are dangerous for the health of those who live there”.
- Diplomatic tensions –
The first expulsions from the slums are expected to start on Tuesday morning, beginning with a settlement near Koungou.
But Comoros already last week warned that it would not accept migrants expelled under the plan.
Intense negotiations between Moroni and Paris in recent weeks had raised the possibility of a last-minute deal.
But Comoros’ leader Azali Assoumani, who holds the rotating presidency of the African Union since February, said he hoped the operation would be abandoned, admitting Moroni didn’t have “the means to stop the operation through force.”
In 2019, France pledged 150 million euros ($161 million) in development aid as part of a deal to tackle human trafficking and ease the repatriation of Comorans from Mayotte.
Around half of Mayotte’s roughly 350,000 population is estimated to be foreign, most of them Comoran.
Many African migrants, especially Comorans, try to reach Mayotte illegally every year. These crossings risk ending in tragedy when the “kwassa kwassa” — the small motorised fishing boats used by people smugglers — are shipwrecked.
Mayotte is the fourth island of the Comoros archipelago that France held on to after an initial 1974 referendum, but it is still claimed by Moroni.
In March 2011, Mayotte became the 101st French department, or administrative area, in accordance with another referendum two years earlier.
On Friday, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin confirmed the operation would take place but declined to give a date for its start.
He added on Monday that France was taking “resolute action” against crime and gangs on Mayotte “with exceptional resources” and 26 people had been arrested this weekend alone.