There are thousands of slum-dwelling illegal immigrants on theFrench island of Mayotte, off Africa,with human rights concerns over how the problem's being tackled.
Last Thursday, a new part of France was officially created. It's the island of Mayotte in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa. Not many people know about this tiny state, but its new status comes with a familiar and controversial problem. The island's detention centre is crammed with immigrants seeking a better life in France itself. But as Nick Lazaredes reports, the dreams of these boat people may never come true.
REPORTER: Nick Lazaredes
At a small, but highly secure, detention centre on the island of Mayotte, a French military truck delivers its pitiful human cargo.
PATRICIA ROUX, MIGRANTS RIGHTS ACTIVIST: Seeing all those women, children and husbands locked in trucks, I was very shocked. I thought it was like medieval age.
These poor, undocumented migrants come from the neighbouring Comoros islands. They're known locally as clandestines or illegals, and their plight is an ugly secret that the government in Paris would rather keep hidden.
PATRICK VILLEDIEUX, MEDECINS DU MONDE: They don't understand. They cannot understand. Even in the French newspaper, French TV or whatever, Mayotte doesn't exist.
It's a long way from Europe, but after a century and a half as a French colony, the island of Mayotte has been left with a distinctly Gallic character. In the port of Mamoudzou, the luxury cruising yachts hint at Mayotte's relative wealth compared with its African neighbours. But on the hills around Mamoudzou, a sprawling shantytown called Kawini provides a stark contrast to Mayotte's shimmering tourist facade. This is where most of the island's illegal immigrants end up. It's the first step on a journey they hope will take them to mainland France but, ironically, despite the risks they undertake, that is rarely achieved and for most this impoverished urban ghetto is as good as it gets.
ERIC TRANNOIS, GUIDE (Translation): So on that side of the road are Mayotte businesses, so it's the economic centre. The other side is where the illegal immigrants are;.
My guide to Mayotte is Eric Trannois, a long-time resident and one of the island's few independent journalists.
ERIC TRANNOIS (Translation): and in that part of town at night, things can heat up a bit, because there are a lot of 'Illegals' who deal to make a living. They deal in different things mainly what they call bangue...Marijuana
Incredibly, almost half of Mayotte's population of 200,000 are deemed to be illegal immigrants. The maze of tin shacks here, provide shelter to those trying to stay under the radar, but it also allows for Third World squalor and disease.
ERIC TRANNOIS (Translation): I think that French people;The mainland French, visited this neighbourhood here -They would be very shocked to realize that there are places like this in France.
Half of the so-called illegals here are under 16 years old and international relief agencies have stepped in to avert a brewing child health crisis. Because not only are these undocumented residents the French republic's poorest, unlike those in mainland France they're virtually cut off from government social welfare and health care.
In the centre of the ghetto, the French aid agency Medecins Du Monde treat children as a priority. Frightened of being arrested, parents are reluctant to visit the island's health clinics, according to Medecins Du Monde's medical coordinator Patrick Villedieux.
PATRICK VILLEDIEUX: People don't go to doctor or they go only when it's emergency case.
REPORTER: So you must have seen an increase in emergency cases?
PATRICK VILLEDIEUX: Yes. Yes. Even in the last month we have more and more children coming really at the last moment that we have to refer to hospital.
Patrick says the health crisis amongst the island's illegals is made worse by the heavy-handed tactics of the police.
PATRICK VILLEDIEUX: They enter in the house in the day. They enter in the house in the night. The people can't sleep, afraid of everything. So the police pressure is 100 % here.
The numbers of those arrested and expelled from Mayotte are staggering - more than 25,000 people in 2010, almost double the number of expulsions from the whole of mainland France.
PATRICK VILLEDIEUX: You can imagine what is the environment here with police everywhere, with this truck, with cage, metallic cage, where you can see people inside with children in their arms and so on. It's disgusting.
This is where the illegals are held before being deported - Mayotte's immigration detention centre. I wasn't allowed to film here, but this secretly recorded video was released by Amnesty International. It reveals squalid conditions and overcrowding and has brought international condemnation. Patrick Villedieux says that, despite a barrage of worldwide protest, nothing has changed.
PATRICK VILLEDIEUX: We know that what is happening there is totally insane. There is a place for 60 people and a few days ago there were 160 people with children. It's the shame of the France. Really what is happening in Mayotte is the shame - the shame for France, real shame.
HUBERT DERACHE, MAYOTTE PREFECT (Translation): I don't think there's any other approach, because just as in Australia where as I understand it - you have a quite strict policy, it's the price of making our new status work;.
The French government's chief representative in Mayotte, Prefect Hubert Derache, is the man responsible for implementing the tough immigration measures.
HUBERT DERACHE (Translation): in 2009, we turned back nearly 20,000 at the border, and in 2010 we turned back 26,000, so we have made a major effort, both in intercepting boats at sea, which represents about 25% of those turned away at the border, mostly back to Anjouan, but also 75% of interventions on land, with people who are already here.
With such massive numbers of deportations, immigration policy has become the most divisive issue on this troubled island and street protests like this one last month are designed to attract international attention. But it's the lives lost each year as a result of the dangerous ocean crossing to Mayotte that has angered these people. They send an empty coffin floating out to sea in a symbolic gesture to remember the up-to-500 mostly women and children who are lost at sea each year.
HUBERT DERACHE (Translation): Rather than saying the shipwrecks are France's fault that there are shipwrecks, we should ask what the Comorians are doing to stop them. Why do these people come? Why don't they develop their country so these people can stay where they are?
Mayotte is one of four islands in the Comoros archipelago. They were all French colonies until the mid-'70s when three of the islands voted for independence becoming the union of the Comoros. The residents of Mayotte chose to remain a French territory despite repeated UN condemnation. In 1995, France introduced a compulsory visa system.
PATRICIA ROUX: I mean it's a very big scandal what is happening here, in terms of human rights.
For activists like Patricia Roux, the visa system has effectively divided peoples who have moved freely between these islands for centuries.
PATRICIA ROUX: So this visa has really created something - a very big social issue here. And I think if this visa was taken away, if you would change the system, you wouldn't have this problem.
Each week, hundreds of illegals are taken from the detention centre and deported back to the Comoros islands. They're loaded on to this commercial ferry, which also carries regular visitors on the journey to the island of Anjouan, part of the Comoros Union. On board, there are Comorians all around me but in a sign of the sensitivities involved - the ship's captain threatens to have me arrested if I speak to any of the deportees.
I've come to Anjouan to see for myself the origins of Mayotte's immigration crisis. This island is the launchpad for tens of thousands of poor Comorians looking for a better life. The Union of the Comoros has suffered more than a dozen coup d'etats over the past 20 years. Amidst the grinding poverty and political instability, at least one industry has thrived.
ERIC TRANNOIS (Translation): So here we're in a suburb of Mutsamudu, we are in a factory that makes boats.
Eric shows me one of more than a dozen boat factories here that churn out the small fibreglass boats used for the dangerous 100km crossing to Mayotte.
ERIC TRANNOIS (Translation): A boat like that is for carrying 8 people but in fact when people go across from Anjouan to Mayotte, and sometimes between 25 and 40 people, so clearly that's way beyond minimum safety standards. In other words, they take an enormous risk, because there's the weight issue, but also the state of the sea.
We have left Mutsumudu, the capital of Anjouan, about in the middle of the north coast and now we are going towards the coast that faces Mayotte - so that is the east coast.
As we make our way across Anjouan's mountains, a rudimentary roadblock gives another indication of how impoverished these islands are.
ERIC TRANNOIS (Translation): So they have stopped us to ask us for a little money because they're redoing the road, so they want a contribution to help repair the road - we'll give them a few coins.
Emerging at a beach on the southern flank of Anjouan, we soon discover a small group of men discussing plans for their journey to Mayotte.
AHMED ABDALLAH, COMORIAN JOURNALIST (Translation): He's explaining that he has no choice but he's well aware of the danger. He's going to risk his life because his family is poor, he was 15 when he first went in a boat to Mayotte. His father is handicapped, his mother has nothing, so the only solution is to cross the sea, and try his luck again.
Comorian journalist Ahmed Abdallah relates one man's claim of abuse by the French authorities on Mayotte.
AHMED ABDALLAH (Translation): The police caught him and handcuffed him, he resisted at first so they cuffed him behind his back. He stayed there and was humiliated by the police and by-passers-by saying "œLook, they've caught an Anjouanese"
Here in one of Africa's poorest areas, dozens of small boats are tied up and stored ready for the deep ocean crossing. It's an intractable problem but for local journalists Eric and Ahmed it's important to widen the debate about this ongoing humanitarian catastrophe.
ERIC TRANNOIS (Translation): It's not just about France - the Comorians have some responsibility too. France's part of the responsibility is that it tempts them. It's as if you put some beautiful bread in the shop window, someone who's hungry will steal it -, that's obvious.
AHMED ABDALLAH (Translation): The thorny problem here is that the Comorians see this as a political problem - Even if there are people dying every day, they don't want to solve this problem of "œillegal" immigration, quote, unquote because even now, the Comorians don't see it as illegal.
MARK DAVIS: You can watch Amnesty International's video of the immigration centre in full on our website and read more background for that story.
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3rd April 2011