Claiming their rights: Mayotte’s asylum seekers demonstrate in the streets - Accounts from the demonstrations

, by Celina Wald, Elena Iwanski, Malek S, Stéphanie-Fabienne Lacombe

Claiming their rights: Mayotte's asylum seekers demonstrate in the streets - Accounts from the demonstrations
“France has forgotten the asylum seekers” - Protestors facing the police in Mayotte (private)

In Mayotte, work permits are inaccessible for the majority of asylum seekers, and the general unemployment rate on the island is high. The Coronavirus measures put in place by the French government in March 2020 have had a major impact on the economic survival of many asylum seekers on the overseas 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, vegetables 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.”

Protest camp (private).
Protest Camp

These latest restrictions were the last straw. The state of emergency, desperation and anger forced the asylum seekers onto the streets at the end of October. Amongst them are pregnant women, mothers with children and elderly people. They have been living without proper shelter, 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. They are being pushed from already precarious living conditions into even worse ones, exposing them all the more to risks of infection with the Coronavirus.

While the asylum seekers have fled their homelands because of war, violence and/or persecution and were hoping to find peace and safety on French territory, they now, like Bertrand, feel let down by the French authorities: “They consider us as good-for-nothing.”

Sit-downstrikes in Cavani (Private).
Sit-down strikes in Cavani

The violation of French asylum law continues

The hawking ban is only the latest manifestation of ongoing unequal treatment that pushed the protestors out onto the streets. 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. They 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 dependency. Malek, who holds a Master’s 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.”

Local NGOs have been following the current protests with increasing concern. 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 on the streets, 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’ lives are 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 the summer of 2019, a young Congolese man committed suicide after receiving a rejection of his asylum application. In the most tragic way, it illustrates how administrative violence can turn into physical harm.

Keeping hope alive

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 soon discuss. Should this succeed, it would mean a fundamental change in asylum policy in the overseas territories. However, in light of the increasingly restrictive management of asylum, the prospect of success is questionable. National political solutions for the unjustified unequal treatment of asylum seekers between mainland France and the overseas territories are still pending.

Cooking in the rain. (Private).
Cooking in the rain

Despite the uncertainty about a move towards policies 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 police presence and the risk of being arrested, and thus do not even get to express their political claims publicly.

Nevertheless, the current protests illustrate the potential of uniting forces, forming networks of solidarity and resisting the oppressive migration regime. Mayotte, unlike continental France, does not face a strong 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.”

*Name changed to preserve anonymity

Images: All images are private and are credited to the authors.

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