In a desperate attempt to escape grinding poverty, thousands of Anjouanese continue to risk everything to make the perilous journey from the Comoros to the nearby island of Mayotte. An estimated 40 people a day are smuggled to the relatively well-off French-administered Mayotte, often in overcrowded rickety fishing boats that struggle to cope with the Indian Ocean's swells. Earlier this month 35 people drowned after an overloaded 'kwaaza-kwaaza' (motorised fishing boat) capsized off the east coast of Anjouan. Local NGOs say the tragedy was the latest in string of accidents in recent years. The Anjouan-based Observatory for Clandestine Emigration (OCI) has calculated that in the past five years around 500 people have drowned trying to make the 150 km crossing to Mayotte. Despite these dangers, thousands of Anjouanese still take to the sea in search of a better life. "The living conditions on the island are extremely difficult and are getting worse every day. As long as poverty remains high, people will continue to risk their lives - the least we can hope for is that the unscrupulous smugglers limit the number of people they accept onto their boats," OCI director, Ahmed Soulaimane, told IRIN. The desperation of the poor, the frustrated and the ambitious has spawned a lucrative trade. Soulaimane counts at least six well-established networks of racketeers forging passports for migrants, arriving on Anjouan from as far away as Burundi and Rwanda, on their journey to Mayotte. "The smugglers are very aware that people - not only from Anjouan - desperately want to a better life. In Anjouan the situation is quite tragic, especially when families have to reduce their meals for a period of time so that one family member can afford the KMF 30,000 (US $85) boat ticket [to Mayotte]," Soulaimane said. POLITICAL UPHEAVEALS DEEPENS POVERTY Economic hardships on Anjouan, at 250,000 inhabitants the most densely populated island in the archipelago, exemplify some of the worst problems facing the Comoros. With few natural resources, except for vanilla, ylang-ylang (perfume essence) and cloves, the Indian Ocean island state is considered one of the poorest countries in the world. It relies heavily on foreign grants and technical assistance, with agriculture contributing 40 percent of the GDP. Rice, the main staple, accounts for the bulk of imports, illustrating the economic fragility of the island. While the three islands in the Union of Comoros - Grand Comore, Moheli and Anjouan - share similar socioeconomic problems, analysts note that years of political unrest have deepened poverty on Anjouan. On 3 August 1997, after months of protests and clashes with security forces, the island unilaterally declared independence. The secessionists wanted a return to French rule, arguing that independence from France in 1975 had brought economic disaster and political chaos. Moheli, the smallest island, also seceded, but France refused to support the secession of either island. President Mohamed Taki's forces attempted to retake Anjouan in September 1997, but failed. In 1999, Azali Assoumani led a coup, overthrowing the government on Grande Comore. After years of aborted peace talks, a new constitution was approved in March 2002, and the three islands were reunited in the Union of Comoros. Today each island has its own president and is largely responsible for its own security and tax collection. But, years after the attempt to secede, the people of Anjouan still look with envy at the fourth island in the chain, Mayotte, which chose to remain under French control when the three other islands became independent in 1975. With unemployment at nearly 75 percent and little or no access to electricity, piped water or adequate medical care, it easy to see why so many Anjouanese risk their lives. In the main trading area of the capital, Mutsamudu, roads are strewn with solid waste, and livestock jostle with clapped-out vehicles along the thoroughfares as traders and hawkers try to sell goods imported from China and Malaysia. While fear prevents Zaina Bacar from making the journey to Mayotte, she admits it is the life-long dream of many in her village. She lost two cousins last year when a boat heading for Mayotte from Anjouan caught fire, but told IRIN that already her nephew, his wife and their two children were planning to make the trip. "I cannot go because I am scared I will die ... But there is nothing here for us. My cousins who died last year were very ill and could not find the medicines they needed in Anjouan, so they decided to take the boat. I am sorry they died, but it is all perhaps in the hands of God - we all have to die at some time," the petite 32-year-old confided. For the ambitious, like schoolteacher Nassub Dhoiffir, Mayotte represents economic freedom. "Schoolteachers have not been paid for five months now, and it is extremely hard to feed our families. I trained in Uganda and Congo to become a teacher, but it is all worthless now. We are lucky we have our families here, who understand our situation and from time to time offer us help, but this cannot go on forever," Nassub said. "I think many people in Anjouan want to remain Comoran, but we also want to see our lives improving, like our brothers and sisters in Mayotte," he added. MAYOTTE - THE PROMISE OF A BETTER LIFE Even for the Anjouanese who make it safely to Mayotte, daily life is still a struggle. In an effort to curb the flow of illegal Anjouanese into the country, the government has toughened policing along the coast and routine checks are carried out in major towns. Illegal immigrants often find themselves on the lowest rung of the employment ladder, holding jobs that ordinary Mahorais - as the inhabitants of Mayotte are known - do not want. Maria Assoumani, a cleaner at one of Mayotte's main hotels, said although it was difficult to get ahead in Mayotte she still earned much more than she could ever dream of on Anjouan. "It's been only two years since I have been in Mayotte and my life is already better. Back home there wasn't any work for me and I depended on my father for everything, but that has changed - I have money to buy myself food and clothes, and even save a little," she told IRIN. Maria and her brother Mohammed were among a group of 20 people who made it to Mayotte in 2003. IRIN learnt that most of them had found work, either as domestic help or labourers. "I would like to go back one day, and maybe I will, but I must be sure that I have a future in Anjouan. Right now I am still young and don't want to work my whole life for nothing. I think many people on Anjouan want to come here, but it is very hard because they don't have the money," she commented. Indeed, Mayotte is a far cry from Anjouan. Although Comoran customs, culture and dress are still the norm in daily life, Mayotte is quintessentially French: its citizens enjoy free medial care, and education is highly subsidised by Paris. The main city, Mamoutzou, has all the modern conveniences and is serviced by a working port and road system. The Mahorais population is generally in favour of being a French overseas department - not least because of the generous subsidies - but the issue for Comorans still stirs controversy. COMORAN OR MAHORAIS - TWO SIDES OF THE SAME COIN Mayotte is one of the four main islands in the Comoros archipelago, once part of the French colony of Comoros. The government of the Union of Comoros claims Mayotte - one of the four stars in the Comoran flag represents the island - and its claim is backed by the UN and the African Union (AU). The special situation of Mayotte goes back to 1975, when the Comoran parliament suddenly passed a resolution declaring unilateral independence from France, despite an agreement to wait until 1978. The MPs representing Mayotte protested and reached an agreement with France to organise a referendum on the status of the island. In the 1976 plebiscite more than 65 percent voted to retain the link with France. Opposition to independence was orchestrated by the commercial class, adversely affected by the move of the colonial capital in 1962 from Mayotte to Moroni, the principal town of Grand Comore. Richard Cornwell of the South African-based Institute for Security Studies noted that there was also an appeal to cultural sensibilities - the longer association with France and the subsequent Creolisation and Christianisation of much of the Mahorian population. He, however, stresses that chief among the deciding factors was that Mayotte had more natural resources and a smaller population, and so thought it more likely that independence would condemn its people to share the poverty of the other three islands. HOW TO KEEP ANJOUANESE AT HOME According to Comoran sociologist Mohammed Said, the best way to combat illegal immigration is to fight poverty and under-development on Anjouan. "It is an obvious assessment but right now, apart from [increased] finances, there isn't any concrete plan in place to reduce poverty," Said told IRIN. "What is needed are better schools; a broad effort to create more jobs - this would do much to stop people going abroad." Meanwhile, discontented Anjouanese continue to dream of a better life in a wealthier country. "They can do whatever they want [the Mayotte government] - people won't give up," said Omar Mohammed, an Anjouanese civil servant who was expelled from Mayotte last year, told IRIN. "Unless everyone - the Anjouanese, Mahorais and the international community - work together to end this misery, we will have people jumping on boats to seek a better life."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions