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The Road from Yemen: Part 4

Mayotte: ‘Asylum in France for less than $1,000’

This blog is written by guest author, Peter Bouckaert, who is the acting director of the Global Observatory on Human Rights at Sea, a Barcelona-based initiative to monitor maritime migration routes and violations of human rights at sea.

Mayotte, a 375-square kilometre island located in the southern Indian Ocean off the coast of Mozambique, may seem like an unlikely location to find Yemeni asylum seekers. But in the past two years, dozens of Yemenis have made a dangerous 300 kilometre sea journey from Madagascar to Mayotte for one simple reason: to seek asylum from the desperate humanitarian crisis escalating back home in Yemen. 

The Yemeni men I interviewed in Mayotte explained to me why they were forced to flee their homes, the perilous journeys they took trying to seek refuge in parts of Africa and even Asia, and what life is like for them now on Mayotte.   

A path to Europe

Most of the men I spoke to told me that they had never even heard of the French territory until stumbling across it on the internet, or hearing about the destination from fellow Yemenis in places like Khartoum or Cairo, where they had previously fled. Suddenly, a path to Europe appeared that allowed them to avoid the brutality of Libya and the often-fatal crossing of the Mediterranean Sea, where thousands have drowned over the past few years. Websites in Arabic titled “asylum in France for less than $1,000” offer detailed instructions on how to reach Mayotte, overlooking the dangers of the route.

Almost all the Yemeni asylum seekers I spoke to had first tried, and failed, to seek safety inside Yemen, before attempting many other destinations, including Djibouti, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and Morocco. But their visas had expired, or they had been expelled, had been unable to find employment, or had run out of money. The tiny island of Mayotte, a French department located 8,000 kilometers from Paris, seemed like the only option left to reach Europe.

Forced to flee Yemen

The brutal conflict in their home country left many of the Yemeni asylum seekers in Mayotte with little choice but to flee abroad. Many described forced recruitment by various militias and, when they fled to other cities in Yemen to seek safety, they often faced similar forced recruitment attempts by other groups, or suspicions that they were spies. Internal exile proved virtually impossible.

Ameen, 43, was a worker in Saudi Arabia who returned to Yemen in September 2016 to visit his family. As soon as he reached his home in the capital Sana’a, Houthi officials came and ordered him to join them as a fighter. When he refused, they forced him into their vehicle which transported him to a Houthi training camp. After just two weeks of training, he was sent to the frontlines to fight, but he managed to escape by saying he had to use the toilet and running away. He hid at his in-law’s home in Sana’a, where a Houthi rebel leader came to look for him, saying he didn’t care if he found him dead or alive. 

After a week in hiding, Ameen, disguised as a woman, fled the city and returned to his work in Saudi Arabia, but in April 2018 he was part of thousands of foreign workers expelled from Saudi Arabia. On his return to Sana’a, he was surprised to learn the Houthis were still searching for him, and immediately went into hiding, obtaining a new passport and then travelling by plane to Khartoum. It took him months to finally make his way south to Madagascar, with a number of costly failed attempts setting him back in his tracks each time. Then he took a boat to Mayotte. He spent an estimated $14,000 on the journey, his entire life savings.

Abdul Ghani, 27, left his native Aden for Sana’a in 2017 for love, not war: he wanted to marry a neighbour’s daughter, and his parents didn’t approve. But the war pursued him in Sana’a, when a Houthi recruiter demanded he become a spy for them in early 2018. Abdul Ghani refused, but the Houthis wouldn’t take no for an answer: a short time later, someone tried to firebomb his home. 

He fled back to Aden to escape being recruited but, almost immediately, was detained by the Ansar al-Sharia militia in control of Aden and interrogated. He told them he had fled attempts by the Houthis to recruit him, but Ansar al-Sharia insisted he had to come fight for them and made him complete an “application” to join their movement. Desperate to escape, he lied to them that he first wanted to take his young wife to her in-laws, and instead flew to Khartoum, the only destination he knew that didn’t require visas for Yemenis.

Like many other Yemenis, Abdul Ghani embarked on a desperate journey across the Sahel to reach Europe, find safety and a way to provide for his family in Yemen. First, he crossed the Sahara from Mauritania, western Africa, and made a failed attempt to jump the fence between Morocco and the Spanish territory of Melila, only to be imprisoned and tortured in Algeria. His wife then sold her wedding jewellery to allow him to travel across the continent to Madagascar and travel by boat to Mayotte.
 

Abdul points on a map the border fence that divides Morocco and Spain, where he managed to arrive before being arrested by Moroccan police, and the French island of Mayotte, where he has been for the last 9 months.
Abdul points on a map the border fence that divides Morocco and Spain, where he managed to arrive before being arrested by Moroccan police, and the French island of Mayotte, where he has been for the last nine months. Photo: Santi Palacios. 

A deadly maritime route

The ancient Arabs who first came to Mayotte as traders centuries ago named the island Jazirat al-Mawt, the Island of Death, because of its surrounding ring of treacherous coral reefs and its tempestuous seas, which caused many shipwrecks. Today, the seas surrounding Mayotte continue to claim victims, but most are migrants and asylum seekers trying to reach safety from the nearby Comoros islands and, from farther-away, Madagascar, in rickety, overloaded skiffs known as kwassa-kwassa.

According to a French Parliamentary report, an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 Comorians and other migrants lost their lives on the passage between Comoros and Mayotte between 1995, when the French instituted a mandatory visa requirement for Comorians to visit Mayotte, and 2012. This estimate was only for the 70-kilometre-long passage between Anjouan island of the Comoros and Mayotte: the journey from the Nosy Be archipelago in Madagascar to Mayotte is more than four times longer, at least 300 kilometres, in waters that have almost no presence of rescue ships and are rarely patrolled.

All of the Yemeni asylum seekers said that the boat trip from Madagascar to Mayotte, which takes a minimum of 20 hours but often stretches into days because of bad weather and engine breakdowns, was the most terrifying experience of their journey. Also, the maritime trip between Madagascar and Mayotte is expensive: Yemenis told us they paid upwards of $3,000 per person for the trip. One man told us, “Even if someone had been meeting me at the beach in Mayotte with a French passport for me, if I had known how bad the sea journey was going to be, I would have never gotten on to that boat. Every minute, I was certain I would die.” 

Majid, a 19-year-old student from Yemen, told us that he had spent three days at sea trying to reach Mayotte. His boat was packed with five Yemenis, nine Africans and Malagasy, and a two-person crew, and lacked seats and life jackets. At sea, they experienced an engine breakdown that took more than 24 hours to repair. “We all were sure we would die in the sea. There were lots of waves and the boat moved very violently.”

Life on Mayotte

What the Yemeni asylum-seekers heading to Mayotte had not anticipated is that they would arrive in the midst of a migration crisis of a different nature for France: the annual arrival of tens of thousands of undocumented Comorian migrants in Mayotte, who are now estimated to make up some 40 per cent of the total population of the island. 

The large number of migrants has led to a sharp rise in xenophobia in Mayotte, and occasional outbreaks of vigilante violence against migrants. While the xenophobia is mostly manifested against Comorian migrants, many of the Yemeni asylum seekers also complained of hostility from local residents, and often avoided going out alone at night. 

For many of the Yemeni asylum seekers in Mayotte, life is a daily struggle. Support from the French government is non-existent, and no camps exist to house them. Most depend on assistance from a hard-working non-governmental organisation, Solidarite Mayotte, which provides legal support and humanitarian assistance. But the support given is limited because of Solidarite’s small budget: the most asylum seekers can expect is one month of housing and six months of food coupons worth 30 Euros per month, on an island where living costs are significantly higher than in mainland France. Most had exhausted their savings, and were relying on relatives and friends for occasional money transfers and loans.

Some of the asylum seekers we met sleep on the streets every night, depending on the kindness of strangers and fellow asylum seekers for an occasional shower. Two young Yemeni men shared a tiny balcony that had been turned into a “room” by enclosing it in plywood, paying 200 Euros a month for the makeshift space. They told us that in the summer months, the high heat turned the room into a furnace filled with mosquitos, and that they were unable to sleep.

For those with severe medical conditions, little help is available. One man suffered from sickle cell anemia, his legs so severely swollen that he often couldn’t walk, and said that sleeping in the street had badly deteriorated his health. Another man suffered from severe irritable bowel syndrome, and his room mates told us that they would often have to pin him down when he was screaming in pain but had not found any hospital willing to treat him. “They ask us for his social security card, and when we say we don’t have, they turn us away,” one of his roommates explained. 

Yemeni youth kill time at a house where 6 of them reside, in the French island of Mayotte, waiting to receive documents and permission from the authorities to leave the island.
Yemeni youth kill time at a house where six of them reside, in the French island of Mayotte, waiting to receive documents and permission from the authorities to leave the island. Photo: Santi Palacios.

One theme was constant in our interviews: time and time again, the Yemenis we met described how they had been turned away in other countries, and still found it hard to believe that their journey had ended up in a tiny island in the midst of the southern Indian Ocean. With the ongoing civil war in Yemen creating one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, we must find safer and more appropriate paths to asylum for Yemenis who are forced to flee.

This blog series is part of a broader project researching the relationship between internal displacement and cross-border movements along the displacement continuum, based on research with the Migration Governance and Asylum Crises (MAGYC) consortium and IDMC’s Invisible Majority thematic series. In case you missed them, read part one from Berlin here, part two from Greece here and part three from Djibouti here. Coming soon will a thematic discussion of internal displacement issues in Yemen.