Aug 16, 2023

French bulldozers begin slum

Koungou (France) (AFP) – Police and bulldozers moved in to clear a slum on the French Indian Ocean island of Mayotte on Monday, marking the start of a long-promised operation against substandard housing and illegal migration.

Issued on: 22/05/2023 - 18:54

Since April, France has deployed hundreds of police officers in Mayotte -- the country's poorest region -- to prepare for a slum-clearing initiative called Operation Wuambushu ("Take Back" in the local language).

After weeks of legal delays and diplomatic tensions with the neighbouring Comoros Islands, diggers started destroying sheet-metal shacks in the Talus 2 slum in the Koungou area at around 7:30 am (0430 GMT) on Monday, AFP journalists saw.

Police wielding crowbars entered homes to check no one was inside before the destruction began, while the electricity and water supply was cut.

Mayotte's top state official Thierry Suquet said on the scene that there were "162 shacks slated for demolition".

"Today, half the families who lived in this neighbourhood have been re-housed," he added.

Many said they had been left without shelter, however.

"I have nowhere to live for the moment," said Fatima Youssouf, one of the oldest people in the shanty town at 55.

She added that she had been unable to remove some of her possessions from the home, where she invested all her savings.

Another resident, Zenabou Souffou, wept at the sight of the construction machines, telling AFP she had been living in the area for 25 years and brought up seven children there.

Her husband, a demolition worker, had to be taken to hospital when he fainted as the work reached the door of his own mother's house, she added.

Mayotte is composed of two islands that voted to stay part of France in 1973, while the others in the surrounding Muslim-majority archipelago sought independence, becoming the Comoros Islands.

Thousands of Comorans fleeing the poverty and corruption of their homeland make the trip across to Mayotte in search of higher living standards every year.

This influx has caused major tensions, with many locals on Mayotte complaining about crime and the strains that the rapidly growing population places on overloaded state infrastructure.

Out of Mayotte's estimated 350,000 residents, half do not possess French nationality.

Preparations for Operation Wuambushu initially triggered clashes between youths and security forces, and caused a diplomatic spat with the Comoros government, which refused to accept its deported nationals.

Claiming it would not cope with the influx of its nationals, the Comoran government suspended docking authorisation for boats arriving from the French islands.

After a face-to-face meeting in Paris in early May between President Emmanuel Macron and his Comoran counterpart Azali Assoumani, the Comoros government has since said it will take in its nationals returning on a "voluntary" basis.

Some associations have denounced Wuambushu as a "brutal" measure violating the rights of migrants, but local elected officials and many islanders support it.

France's Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin wrote on Twitter that his "political initiative is paying off".

Suquet also insisted that evicted families were being provided for, saying the state's "balanced" policy would offer "appropriate lodgings" to "French citizens and regularised foreigners living in these conditions".

Mayotte has an unemployment rate of around 30 percent and by far the country's lowest per capita annual income in France -- around 3,000 euros ($3,240) compared with a national average of nearly 22,000 euros.

© 2023 AFP