This week, some 1,800 French police and gendarmes began a massive police operation in the Indian Ocean archipelago of Mayotte, a French department, to demolish informal settlements and expel large numbers of undocumented migrants.
Destruction of slums and summary expulsions of undocumented migrants by French authorities in Mayotte are not new. But the magnitude of the police operation, long-planned but only officially acknowledged last week, is unprecedented.
French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin has billed the operation as an effort to combat crime, improve public health, and tackle irregular migration – playing to prejudicial associations of migration with disease and delinquency. The operation’s name, Wuambushu, means “reclaim” or “take back” in Shimaore, Mayotte’s most commonly spoken language, implicitly suggesting the islands face existential risk.
In fact, Mayotte’s history and location mean that migration, particularly from Comoros, less than 70 km away, has always been part of the islands’ social makeup. Language, religion, and family ties closely link Comorians and Mahorans.
And although the operation’s first few days probably did not go as French authorities planned – a court order briefly suspended the first demolitions, and Comoros closed its ports to boats carrying people who were expelled – these developments are unlikely to diminish French authorities’ determination to carry out their task. The significant security presence on the islands and Darmanin’s suggestion that the operation will last for months have generated considerable fear.
There’s no question that France has work to do in Mayotte, the country’s poorest department. Nearly 80 percent of people live in poverty. School enrollment and completion rates are abysmal, and more than half the teachers are on temporary contracts and receive insufficient training.
Destroying people’s homes and separating families through summary expulsions won’t address these or other pressing social needs, including public safety concerns. Authorities should instead focus on better protecting the right to housing and ensuring that people live in dignified conditions.
But the abusive expulsions are all too consistent with legal exemptions and failed policies that deprive people in Mayotte of basic rights and expose foreigners to serious violations in an enduring legacy of colonialism.
French authorities could have directed their energies toward fulfilling the economic and social rights of people living in Mayotte. They still could.
However, it’s all too likely that they’ll press forward with their destructive course of action, whatever the human cost.