This blog is part of the COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum.
There are still a few countries that have yet to report a coronavirus case, most of them small island nations, and one of them is the Union of the Comoros, off Africa’s east coast. Nevertheless, on 18 March the government placed restrictions on events such as marriages, funerals and Friday prayers, and on 23 March the country’s borders were closed.
The restrictions were imposed partly because one of the four islands in the Comoro group, Mayotte, which remained French at independence and is thus not part of the Union of the Comoros, has so far reported more than 200 cases and three deaths. As a French department, and a part of the EU, Mayotte has long been a desirable destination for migrants from the other islands. Controls on the freedom of movement between the islands were imposed by the French administration in 1995. Since then, unable to obtain visas, most of those travelling to Mayotte from the neighbouring islands have done so in small, overloaded speedboats known as kwasa kwasa. These sink regularly and the mortality rates on this 70 km stretch of water are high. It is estimated that a third of the population of Mayotte are undocumented.
Lockdown and outflow from Mayotte
On 17 March, along with the rest of France, Mayotte was locked down. During the lockdown those wishing to leave their homes were, at least initially, required to download, print out and sign an attestation, even to seek water (30% of dwellings have no internal water supply). Although the rules have now been relaxed to allow smartphone versions and handwritten copies, the former assumes a smartphone and the latter assumes that non-French speakers will be able to find a copy online (20% of the population have no internet access), obtain a sheet of paper, copy out the text and tick the relevant box. As one might imagine, not everyone who moves about has an attestation, and even for those who do the French state does not consider informal roadside sales to be essential professional activities.
In Mayotte most unskilled and semi-skilled workers are irregular migrants, and this includes the agricultural and fisheries sector. If in normal times irregular migrants heading for the fields were always at risk of being picked up by the border police (anxious to meet their annual target of 25,000 deportations), with the heightened surveillance in place such movements are close to impossible.
As a result the informal economy, a significant source of income for a large part of the population, whether it be through the production or the sale of food, has all but ground to a halt, and of course local food supplies suffer accordingly. Were this not enough, the French border police have decided that their surveillance equipment is unable to distinguish between fishing boats and kwasa kwasas and fishing is now also banned, with further repercussions on local food supplies and incomes.
It is unclear whether their concern is justified. The lockdown has triggered reversed migration from Mayotte – “off course”, as the local press puts it. For the past two weeks the kwasas have been bringing people back from Mayotte and the Comorian authorities find themselves in the unusual situation of having to police a frontier whose existence they deny (and, according to some, thereby granting it de facto recognition). The police on the neighbouring island of Ndzuani have been intercepting kwasas where possible and placing those they detain in quarantine.
The gates to Mayotte are still open
Nevertheless, kwasas continue to bring people to Mayotte. Even though life is hard in the locked-down island, if undocumented migrants are caught infringing the confinement rules there is little that can be done. Borders with non-EU states are closed, so irregular migrants can no longer be deported; they cannot be detained either, since the island’s detention centre has been closed. With neither money nor papers, neither fined nor detained, they will just be told to go home.
So there is a plus side, of sorts. Since irregular migrants cannot be deported, those who wish to travel to Mayotte may do so, confident that they will not be arrested and returned to Ndzuani, leading the local deputy to lament what he sees as an open door for clandestine migrants; and some of these people are travelling to Mayotte out of fear that the epidemic has indeed reached the independent islands and that the government is lying – rumours that the virus is present have emptied at least one local hospital, and things weren’t helped by a report that the ministry of health was refusing to send samples for analysis. The health care system on Mayotte, although severely strained, is still better than anything on offer in the independent islands.
Iain Walker is a Research Associate of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology.