France launches military operation Wuambushu in Mayotte to dismantle shanty towns, expel irregular migrants and combat delinquency amid polarised debate with reactions ranging from NGOs’ concerns to calls to murder from an official. The operation shines a light on systematic practices including deportation of people and parents taken away from their children.

France launched the military operation Wuambushu (“take back” in Mauritian) on 23 April. Allegedly, the operation aims to dismantle shanty towns – which make up 40 per cent of the housing in Mayotte, expel irregular migrants and combat delinquency. French authorities plan to destroy 1,000 shanties over two months. Those who will be able to prove their French citizenship or residence permit will be re-housed in temporary accommodation – although it remains unclear if such housing is available in sufficient quantity – and those without such proofs are to be expulsed to Comoros. With this operation, the authorities “hope” to arrest between 250 and 280 irregular migrants every day, when the average was around 80 before the start of the operation. Unsurprisingly, the beginning of the operation did not go smoothly, “despite” the 1,800 members of the French security forces that have been deployed specifically for the operation, including hundreds sent from mainland France. Le Monde writes that on Sunday 23 April “the CRS 8 unit, recently introduced as the spearhead of the new generation of riot police, used no less than 650 tear gas grenades, 85 sting-ball grenades, and 60 rubber bullet gun shots.” Médiapart reports that a child was shot in the leg by the police and held in custody for 48 hours where policemen threatened to deport his parents. Inhabitants describe an atmosphere of psychosis: “People are scared. People stay a little hidden in their homes. People avoid going out (translated)”.

Comorian authorities have initially refused to accept people deported from Mayotte’s shores. “As long as the French authorities decide to do things unilaterally, we will take our responsibilities. No expellee will return to a port under Comorian sovereignty (translated),” said Comorian interior minister, Fakridine Mahamoud. The Union of the Comoros initially prevented the docking of boats carrying people expulsed through the military operation, claiming that the country cannot cope with such a large intake. On 27 April, the Comorian authorities announced that ships could now dock at their ports, but only people with Comorian identity papers will be allowed to board the ship. On 1 May, France Info reported that Comoros was taking extra steps to prevent forced returns that could be disguised as voluntary.

Responses to Wuambushu varied greatly, between some organisations voicing clear concerns and a French official calling for murder.  UNICEF fears that the operation will violate the rights of many children as many could be left on their own after their parents are deported. The Ministry of the Interior already estimates that between 3,000 and 4,000 were deprived of their carers before the start of the operation. The French Fundamental Rights’ Defender expressed worries about the operation’s infringements on fundamental rights and called for an “unconditional respect” of fundamental rights. Many NGOs and rights defenders have also called Wuambushu brutal and discriminatory. Meanwhile, during an interview, Salime Mdéré, the vice-president of the Mayotte Department and accordingly a French official stated that “at a certain moment, it is necessary to kill some”, referring to the “thugs” and “terrorists” he holds responsible for Mayotte’s delinquency. The Human Rights League has initiated a lawsuit against Mr Mdéré.

Wuambushu has exposed a number of other underlying troubles. Three-quarters of French expulsions are carried out from the administrative detention centres in Mayotte. In 2022, data showed that more than 32,000 people including 3,000 children were detained there, and more than 26,000 were deported from the centre, mainly to other islands in the Comoros archipelago. The police in charge of the centre explained to Le Monde that isolated minors get arbitrarily “attached” to an adult to get expulsed from the French territory at the same time, a systematic practice for which France was condemned by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Since the beginning of 2023, almost 10,00 people have already been placed in the detention centre or in other temporary detention facilities. The annual report on detention centres from five NGOs, including ECRE member Terre d’Asile, highlights that the quick turnover of the Mayotte detention centre – people are generally detained there less than two days when the French average is of 23 days – jeopardises their ability to legally appeal the expulsion order. The report reads: “People who are protected by law against expulsion because of their private and family life, their state of health, or even their minor status, are illegally expelled from the territory without having been able to assert their situation before the administrative and judicial authorities (translated).” According to Eurostat, France is the EU country that delivers the most orders to leave the territory. French authorities do not arrest, detain and expulse Comorians solely. Those born in Mayotte but who do not have French identification papers are at constant risk of being arrested and deported. Yet, for the French authorities, they are considered undocumented migrants who have a home and country to return to.

Mayotte, a French archipelago in the Indian Ocean located between Madagascar and the Mozambican coast, is a remnant of the French colonial past. Historically, Mayotte belonged to a larger archipelago composed of three main islands (Anjouan, Mohéli and Grande Comore), which France colonised in the 19th century. After more than 100 years of French colonial rule, an auto-determination referendum was organised in 1974. All, except Mayotte, voted in favour of independence.  Despite the UN’s plea to respect the archipelago’s territorial integrity, France decided to recognise the results separately. Mayotte remained French and the other islands went to form the Union of the Comoros, which still claims Mayotte as its territory. Today, Mayotte is the poorest French department, with more than 80 per cent of its population living under the poverty line and lack access to functioning public services. 40 per cent of the housing is made up of shanties. For years, French authorities have blamed the situation on irregular migration from the Comoros. It is estimated that about half of Mayotte’s 300,000 inhabitants are not French nationals, although one-third of foreigners are born on the island. An investigation conducted in 2012 estimated that between 7,000 and 12,000 persons had died or gone missing since 1995 while attempting to cross from the Comoros to Mayotte. This made it the deadliest migratory route at that time. Since then, no numbers have been made public, although media sources periodically report on the victims of overcrowded sinking kwassa-kwassas – small traditional Comorian fishing boats. Over the course of 2022, French authorities claim to have “intercepted” 571 kwassa-kwassas carrying 8,000 passengers.

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