I find Omar in a small cafe in the bustling medina of Mutsamudu, where he has ordered us some special Comorian tea and a jug of freshly-squeezed guava juice. I had heard mysterious tales of clandestine boats leaving the shores at night here on Anjouan—one of the four Comoros islands located off the coast of East Africa, midway between Madagascar and Mozambique—and I was curious to find out more. After some tentative inquiries, I was given Omar’s number. He is one of the countless thousands who have made this dangerous journey before, and someone whom I had wrongly referred to as a “refugee.” “We are not refugees,” he retorts fiercely. “They on Moare (Mayotte) are our people.”
The situation between these tropical islands is complex. Three of them—Grand Comore, Moheli and Anjouan—gained independence from France in 1975 to become the fledgling country of Comoros, now known as The Union of the Comoros. The fourth island, Mayotte, has repeatedly refused to join its brother islands in their short, conflict-ridden history as a nation, choosing instead to remain under French control despite the Comoros government’s insistence (with the support of the UN) that Mayotte was illegally annexed. There are still four stars on the Union of the Comoros flag, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon.
While the Union of the Comoros has endured political instability, corruption, inter-island conflict and more than 20 coups or attempted coups, Mayotte has flourished in comparison—a tempting island of stability and prosperity, just a short boat ride away. An uneasy co-existence between the independent islands and the stubbornly French outpost took a turn for the worse back in 1995, when the French government decided to put an end to visa-free travel from the other islands. This decision separated families and made legal passage to Mayotte all but impossible for the majority of Comorians, leading to a surge in illegal migration—mostly in those clandestine boats from Anjouan.
Over the years the dispute has continued to intensify, leading to a complete suspension of visas in 2018 while the “white bulls”—as the boat traffickers from Anjouan like to call themselves— played their deadly game of cat and mouse with the French Coastguard, night after night, year after year. It is estimated that up to 10,000 Comorians have lost their lives on the crossing since 1995, with local observers citing far higher numbers.
Under this backdrop, residents of Mayotte have repeatedly voted for even closer ties to France, officially becoming the 101st French department in 2011 and creating a new EU frontier 10,000km away from Paris. This official integration and the benefits that it brings—funding for hospitals and schools, minimum wages, unemployment benefits and so on—has left the 270,000 residents of Mayotte with a standard of living over 50 times higher than that of the other three Comoros Islands.
Thus, the lure of Mayotte is incredibly strong, particularly for those on Anjouan, from where the bright lights of Mayotte are visible on a clear night. But despite the risks that people take to get there— financial, legal and physical dangers lurk in the rough channel between the islands— disappointment and difficulties often await.
“Mayotte is about getting a better life, having a job, easy access to the hospital,” Omar explains. “Mayotte is an El Dorado for many of us, but all of this is not true if you’re a clandestine person. You can’t get a proper job without papers, and you are always worried that the police are going to catch you and send you back.”
This is exactly what happened to Omar. He took the journey in 2014, making it successfully across the channel after spending his life savings to secure passage. However, he failed to find a job or a place to stay and was arrested and sent back after just 12 days.
“When you are clandestine in Mayotte and you do find a job somewhere, most of the time it’s working in houses for people; mainly construction, gardening, things like this,” he continues. “But those employers often don’t pay you, and they threaten to call the migration police if you complain.”
This grim reality isn’t enough to deter people from attempting the perilous crossing, however, usually onboard expensive, rickety, and overcrowded boats known as kwassa kwassa. Omar says that every family in Anjouan has a kwassa kwassa story to tell, and it is usually a sad one. “The sea is a cemetery,” he says. “Thousands and thousands of people have died trying to get to Mayotte, and most of the people that do make it across are usually sent back here in a few weeks.”
However, the arrival of COVID-19 in Mayotte has seen a bizarre reversal of the kwassa kwassa migration route. “The kwassa kwassa have changed direction,” Omar wrote to me in a recent update on the situation. “The world has truly gone mad.”
With the virus rapidly spreading on the French island, the Comoros Navy is now patrolling the coast of Anjouan, intercepting boats of people fleeing in the opposite direction. “The Comorian coast guards, whom France has been asking in vain for years to fight against the departure of kwassa kwassa towards Mayotte, are now mobilized against arrivals from Mayotte,” reports Le Journal De Mayotte, with exasperated irony. “Suddenly, Mayotte has become French in the eyes of those who previously denounced it as an annexation.”
At the time of writing, Comoros has no recorded cases of COVID-19, but with kwassa kwassa now coming back clandestinely from Mayotte (it is difficult to be precise on the number, but with some boats intercepted, it is safe to assume that at least a few have passed through already), it seems only a matter of time. “Passengers disappear into the wild,” the newspaper continues. “Ironically, like when they arrive in Mayotte, the kwassa kwassa unload their passengers and leave without being seen.”
It is yet another dark chapter of the kwassa kwassa, tragic symbols of death and dashed hopes which continue to haunt Comorians. With a vulnerable population, high levels of poverty and no real healthcare system to speak of, Anjouan and the rest of the Union of the Comoros face an uphill battle to keep the cursed boats from returning to their shores with an unwanted passenger—the dreaded virus.
The whole chaotic, divisive and fraught situation sums up the recent history of the Comoros Islands, a glorious volcanic archipelago rich in history and diverse culture that is still suffering from the complex aftermath of colonialism. Each island is unique in many ways and the idea of an overall Comorian identity is struggling to take root, with the exceptional case of Mayotte muddying the waters further still.
“The Union of the Comoros has missed yet another opportunity to assert the greatness of a nation,” Le Journal De Mayotte concludes. “First, by failing to express its solidarity with the Comorian brothers in Mayotte affected by the epidemic, then by neglecting to negotiate coordinated means of transport for those who wanted to return to their island of origin.”