Claiming their rights: Mayotte's asylum seekers demonstrate in the streets Accounts from the Demonstrations
Authors: Elena Iwanska, Malek Shumasi, Stéphanie-F. Lacombe, Celina Wald
(This article was originally published in German and French online here. Elena Iwanska is a graduate of EMMIR Cohort 8. Read more about her thesis and experiences in Mayotte here and here)
In the French overseas department Mayotte, hundreds of asylum seekers, mainly from the Great Lakes Region in Africa, are sleeping and protesting in the streets since October. Exposed to tropic rain showers, heat and angry neighbours, they are protesting for the respect of French asylum law. Malek and Bertrand, two asylum seekers, share their impressions from the protest site.
In Mayotte, work permits are inaccessible for the majority of asylum seekers, and the unemployment rate on the island is high in general. The Corona measures put in place by the French government since March 2020 have had a major impact on the economic survival of many asylum seekers on the oversea territory (as we reported in this article in June). Now, the local authorities of Mamoudzou, the capital of Mayotte, declared street hawking (vente à la sauvette) illegal in September. With this official ban on hawking, they are left with no source of income at all. Indeed, many of the asylum seekers depend on occasional jobs in Mamoudzou’s streets as a means of subsistence. Bertrand*, one of the participants in the demonstrations, explains: “Before we could sell goods in the centre of Mamoudzou. We were selling onions, garlic, vegetable and fruits. Then the mayor told us, I don’t want this anymore. We have to obey that law, but street hawking helped us pay the rent and have something to eat.”
These latest restrictions were the last straw. The state of emergency, desperation and anger made the asylum seekers go into the streets at the end of October. Amongst them are pregnant women, mothers with children and elderly. They have been staying in the open with little more than some old mattresses and a shared cooking stove. Many of the concerned have not been able to pay their rent and have lost their housing or are about to do so. They are being pushed from already precarious living conditions into even worse ones. This exposes them all the more to risks of infection with the Coronavirus.
“They consider us as good-for-nothing.”
While the asylum seekers have fled from their homelands because of war, violence and/or persecution and were hoping to find peace and safety on French territory, they now, as Bertrand, feel let down by the French authorities: “They consider us as good-for-nothing.”
The hawking ban is only the latest manifestation of an ongoing unequal treatment that pushed the protestors to the street. Malek, an asylum seeker himself, says: “Our patience is over. If the authorities of the island don’t want us to work illegally, they should give us the rights we are entitled to, such as accommodation, food, health and education. So far, these rights are not given to us.”
In theory, the asylum legislation in Mayotte and mainland France is the same. As part of the French National Reception Scheme (Dispositif National d’Accueil) registered asylum seekers have the right to accommodation, financial support and health care services. In practice, asylum seekers in Mayotte are systematically denied these rights: no accommodation is provided by the authorities and the financial support system is non-existent (except for some token food vouchers of 30 Euros per month during the first 6 months after arrival).
As both Malek and Bertrand explain, the protesters primarily demand equal treatment to those of asylum seekers in mainland France. The protesters are well aware that it might not be possible to satisfy all their demands, at least not in the immediate future, for instance re-housing. As Bertrand highlights, it is therefore even more important to allow asylum seekers to work and give them realistic employment opportunities, thus allowing them to earn their own livelihoods instead of being trapped in dependencies. Malek, who holds a Master Degree in English and Linguistics, points out: “There are so many asylum seekers who are highly skilled and have amazing professional qualifications in various fields. All of those professionals are abandoned and their skills neglected. Instead of being able to use their competencies, the authorities leave them with no choice than to do jobs such as informally selling fruits and vegetables in order to make a living.”
"As an asylum seeker, how can you survive if you are neither allowed to work legally nor receive any financial support, as they are non-existent in Mayotte?"
Local NGOs have been following the current protests with increasing concerns. In the press release of La Cimade Mayotte, the authors highlight the paradoxical situation the authorities have created. On the one hand they make it impossible for asylum seekers to work and secure their own livelihoods, on the other hand they deny them access to state financial support: "As an asylum seeker, how can you survive if you are neither allowed to work legally nor receive any financial support, as they are non-existent in Mayotte?"
Slow reactions of the authorities
So far, the local authorities have been reserved in their reaction to the demonstrations. After a couple of days spent in the open, 40 people considered especially vulnerable (mostly women with young children) were temporarily accommodated in the youth and culture centre of M’Gombani. This consequently led to major discontent and protest amongst the local population.
A delegation of representatives of the protestors was received by the Prefecture of Mayotte on October 23th in order to put forward their claims. However, as Bertrand reports: “The Prefecture said “we will give you an answer”. But they did not give us an indication of a date. So we are still here, waiting, without any follow up. We don’t know what to do.”
This corresponds to the extensive waiting times during asylum procedures, as Bertrand and Malek also mention. Many asylum seekers’ life is on hold and full of uncertainties for two or even more years on the island before their procedure is completed. Malek observes: “People start to feel so depressed, frustrated and disappointed. I personally know a few people who need a session with a psychiatrist every month or two because of the so-called Long-procedure of the CNDA. It is like a phobia for us.” Not too long ago, in summer 2019, a young Congolese committed suicide after receiving a rejection of his asylum application (insert link). In a most tragic way, it illustrates how administrative violence can turn into physical harm.
Currently La Cimade Mayotte is campaigning for the inclusion of the overseas territories in the revision of the guidelines on the reception and integration of refugees that the French national assembly will be discussing soon. Should this succeed, it would mean a fundamental change in the asylum policy in the overseas territories. However, in light of the increasingly restrictive management of asylum, the prospects of success are questionable. National political solutions for the unjustified unequal treatment of asylum seekers between mainland France and the overseas territories are still pending.
“We will keep protesting until they give us the rights allowing us to live a peaceful life.”
Despite the uncertainty about a move towards politics that are more favourable for asylum seekers, the protestors have shown that they are well aware of their rights and are ready to stand up for them. Malek emphasises: “We will keep protesting until they give us the rights allowing us to live a peaceful life.” Yet, not all join the movement. Some are afraid of potential consequences of their participation in the protests on their asylum procedures, others fear verbal intimidation as well as physical aggression from the local population – which has become a daily reality. Others again, primarily rejected asylum seekers, avoid the streets due to the police presence and the risk of being arrested and thus do not even get to express their political claims publically.
Nevertheless, the current protests illustrate the potential of uniting forces, forming networks of solidarity and resisting the oppressive migration regime. Mayotte, unlike continFrance, does not face a heavy second Covid-19 peak (yet). A second lockdown might jeopardise the continuation of the protests. However the demands and hopes remain: “If France can support us, it will help us to live, it will help us to be, not merely to exist but to be, just like the others.”