This surely is an unprecedented era of recurrent refugee crisis. Another tragedy has gone almost unreported on the east coast of Africa between Mozambique and Madagascar.
French-owned Mayotte – famously named the “Island of Death” by ancient Arab soldiers whose ships reached to grief at its shores – is at the centre of a crisis unfolding in the Indian Ocean.
Since visas to enter Mayotte were introduced in 1995, thousands of islanders from Grande Comore, Anjouan and Moheli have drowned trying to get there.
They largely travel in small boats known as kwasa-kwasa, which are prone to capsizing on the 43 mile journey from Anjouan to Mayotte.
To date, the governor of Anjouan claims that over 50,000 people have drowned since 1995. French estimates are much lower, between 7,000 and 10,000.
“The sea separating Anjouan and Mayotte has become the widest cemetery in the world, as up to now about 10,000 innocent Comorans have died. Out of them, the majority are women and children”, Diplomat and researcher, Ahmed Thabet told Al Jazeera World.
The French government estimates that as many as 40 per cent of Mayotte’s population is made up of what it calls illegal residents, referring to them as being in “une situation irreguliere”. Ibrahim Aboubacar, the French MP for Mayotte, says that “foreigners” on the island are a burden on both healthcare and education facilities.
The immigrants’ living conditions are undoubtedly poor. They live in fear of the French authorities and deportation and can suffer different forms of discrimination.
Taher – a migrant in Mayotte who lives inconspicuously in fear of deportation – laments that “even though we [Comorans] are one people”, the people of Mayotte “don’t consider us as their brothers”. He says: “When some of them hear a kwasa-kwasa boat has sunk, they celebrate rather than feeling sad”.
French visa rules require Comorans to pay 100 euros (£77) to visit Mayotte but many prefer to pay premium rates (around £139) to the kwasa-kwasa owners, and remain under the radar of the French authorities. This puts them at the mercy of these corrupt operators, who amount to people smugglers, and has led to a rise in the numbers trying to get to Mayotte but dying in the process.