Trapped in Paradise:
How rejected asylum seekers live and resist imposed immobility in Mayotte
ELENA IWANSKI | 26 MARCH 2023
View from Mont Choungui, July 2019. Photo by Elena Iwanski.
In the past two decades, a growing number of rejected asylum seekers, especially from Eastern Africa, have been trapped on Mayotte, a de facto French island in the Comorian archipelago situated in the Indian Ocean, as the French authorities neither repatriate them nor offer resettlement programmes. Whilst the island is paradise on earth to some, it has become an open-air prison to others.
When Fabrice* arrived in Mayotte, having survived the perilous journey from Rwanda, he was full of confidence that he would receive the refugee status and ultimately find safety in mainland France. However, his hopes were soon shattered. The French authorities rejected his initial asylum request, several re-examinations, as well as other attempts of regularisation. Even his requests for voluntary repatriation to Rwanda were denied. At the time of our interview in 2020, Fabrice had been living on the island for 14 years, without legal documentation. After years of enduring in vain, Fabrice has lost faith in a brighter future for himself. He is one of many to experience this struggle.
The fact that today one can request asylum from the French state in the middle of the Indian Ocean and that the European border regime operates as far away is the result of France’s colonial activities. When the Union of the Comoros gained independence in 1974, Mayotte auto-declared itself to remain part of the French Republic, thereby violating the 1960 UN Decolonisation Declaration which demands the conservation of pre-independence territorial integrity (Sellström 2015, 307–308). Although the legitimacy of France’s presence in the Indian Ocean remains controversial, the lived reality today is that French laws and regulations govern the island and Mahorians have French nationality.
Since the early 2000s Mayotte has increasingly established itself as a migration route to Europe, especially amongst refugees from East Africa but also from as far as Yemen, Syria or Cameroon. They risk their lives during the perilous journey, yet the hardship is not over once they arrive. Most of the people I interviewed during my research trip in 2020 waited 2 to 3 years for a response to their initial asylum request. Waiting in uncertainty, they led a life on hold, only to then receive a rejection.
A daily scene: Waiting line in front of the Prefecture in Mamoudzou, which is locally in charge of immigration matters, August 2019. Photo by Elena Iwanski.
In the absence of alternatives, many spend years in asylum re-examination procedures or try to get regularised through other mechanisms. Despite their efforts, most of them stay without official residency for several years, as Fabrice's case illustrates all too well. Moreover, the island’s location as well as the inaccessibility to travel documents make onward migration virtually impossible. Whilst France conducts regular expulsions to the Comoros and Madagascar, rejected asylum seekers from other countries of origin are trapped in irregularity on an island of only 376 km2.
Without regularised status, the concerned face numerous social borders, which remain invisible but have very tangible and violent impacts on their lives. The asylum rejection, the administrative battles for regularisation, the constant risk of police arrest and detention, the inaccessibility to formal employment or public services, the insecurities of the informal labour market, and so on, produce a continuum of institutional violence and are the manifestation of repeated practices of exclusion.
The growing scepticism towards, and the rejection of, asylum seekers is not specific to Mayotte or France, it is part of a broader political trend in Europe and elsewhere (Bohmer and Shuman 2018, 5). Access to international and legal mobility has become a privilege reserved to a small part of the world’s population and today’s European asylum regime is the living proof thereof. De Genova (2016, 351-52) concludes: ‘[T]he European asylum system is precisely not a system for granting asylum to refugees’, rather it is ‘a regime for the production of migrant ‘illegality’’.
Despite the unfavourable conditions, my interviewees developed a range of strategies of resilience and resistance. Personal resources such as faith, play a vital role, just as the ability to establish and maintain a social network. Some of the women I spoke to in the context of my research assure their economic survival by living with a “sponsor”, mostly elder white men. Whilst social relations are a powerful resource for securing livelihoods, they can produce social dependencies and be the source of exploitation and abuse. Others, like Natacha, a professional hairdresser from the DRC, turn their home into their workplace in order to minimise the risk of being arrested by the police. Although the French authorities do not deport people from Mayotte to continental Africa**, the border police (PAF - Police aux Frontières) still regularly arrest and detain rejected asylum seekers, only to release them a few days later, thereby maintaining the constant fear of expulsion and undermining their ability to establish stable living conditions.
Although my informants’ practices of resilience and resistance demonstrate their individual agency, the power relations between rejected asylum seekers and institutionalised forces, such as the French authorities, remain asymmetrical. As a French overseas territory and an EU Outermost Region, Mayotte has simultaneously become a gateway and a gatekeeper to Europe and pursues a policy of deterrence at the expense of individuals’ life prospects. Prevented from leaving the island and deprived from the access to basic rights, rejected asylum seekers in Mayotte have become the embodied evidence of the inequalities in access to global mobility. They are caught in an in-between space: They are neither inside nor outside the “Fortress Europe”. Or as Fabrice puts it: ‘Here, you cannot die and you cannot live.’
*For the protection of my informants all names are fictitious.
**This article is based on research conducted between July 2019 and April 2020. Up to July 2020, the French authorities on Mayotte did not execute expulsions to destinations other than the Comoros and Madagascar. Due to the pressure of the Mahorian population, the French government did however announce a tighter immigration regime in August 2019, including the expansion of deportation schemes (Operation Shikandra). According to a former informant I spoke to over the phone in January 2023, the French border police recently stopped a boat and deported all passengers, including East Africans and a Syrian refugee, to Madagascar. A shift in practice by the French border police is thus to be observed.
Elena Iwanski completed the European Master in Migration and Intercultural Relations (EMMIR) and worked as a social worker with unaccompanied minor refugees in Switzerland for several years. She currently lives in Uganda.