Studying migration at postcolonial edges: the French island of Mayotte (Nina Sahraoui)
Studying migration at postcolonial edges: the French island of Mayotte (Nina Sahraoui)

Studying migration at postcolonial edges: the French island of Mayotte (Nina Sahraoui)

Photo credit: JORDAN AJOUAOU

Since March 2019, children born in Mayotte, a French department in the Indian Ocean, cannot access French citizenship under the same conditions as children born elsewhere in France. Indeed, a new immigration and asylum law that was voted for in 2018 rendered the right to become French as a teenager (aged 13 at the earliest, on condition of continuous residency since the age of 8) conditional on the legal status of one of the parents at the time of birth – but only for children born on this island 8,000 km distant from Paris. The amendment stirred up vivid debates between proponents of this restriction and deputies who believed such an exception to violate the Constitution. In spite of the fragmentation of French nationality legislation that this amendment introduced, the French Constitutional Council (responsible for reviewing whether legislation respects the Constitution) found that the specific situation of Mayotte justified such an exception. The justification of the decision is based on the fact that 48% of the 265,500 inhabitants of Mayotte are foreigners, half of whom are considered to be undocumented, according to French national statistics. The Council decided to support the legislator in its claim that this amendment was necessary to combat irregular migration, in spite of the fact that over 60 representatives in each of the chambers composing the Parliament (National Assembly and Senate) foregrounded that the new law violated the principle of equality before the law and introduced a discrimination based on ‘origin’.

Mayotte’s case, that of a postcolonial periphery, is particularly revealing precisely because it is geographically distant, economically marginalized and politically neglected. The recent reform of French nationality law is inscribed in a series of exceptions that govern migration management in this ‘overseas’ department, shedding light on the many layers of differentiation that run through the supposedly ‘indivisible republic’, as notoriously described in the first article of the French Constitution.

In 2017 I conducted research in Mayotte with Comorian women (95% of migrants in Mayotte come from the neighboring Comorian islands) and metropolitan and Mahoran healthcare professionals in perinatal and maternal health services. Insights from previous research as well as from my study suggest that this restriction won’t curb immigration to Mayotte, an aim which was a key argument for proponents of this new law. The hypothesis behind the law is that Comorian women come to Mayotte to give birth so that their children will become French. Yet interviews with undocumented Comorian women reveal far more complex life trajectories, in which mobility is caused by family ties as well as economic aspirations, and pregnancies follow from social and cultural norms.

Rather than representing recent arrivals, many undocumented women in Mayotte remain in an administrative limbo for many years. The 40 women I interviewed had on average been living in Mayotte for 10,7 years and 21 of them were undocumented. At the same time, Mayotte displays the highest numbers of forcibly removed persons, with over 27,000 deportations in 2019, which represents one in ten persons living on the island, as noted by a migrants’ rights NGO, La Cimade. As observed by the Defender of Rights, an independent institution that aims at ensuring access to rights, this politics of numbers conceals the fact that many of those removed are deported several times, disregarding migrants’ right to appeal, while not reducing the number of undocumented persons on the island in the long run. In line with this argument, insights from my research indicate that the very difficult and costly regularization procedures are engendered both by a series of Mayotte-specific legal restrictions and by the malfunctioning of state services attending to foreigners on the island. The new law furthers the production of illegality over generations by endangering the future socio-legal inclusion of children born in Mayotte, which might well exacerbate the island’s socio-economic inequalities and tensions.

Publications stemming from this research can be found in Social Science and Medicine (English) and Plein Droit (French).

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