Comoros Islands: Drowning in pursuit of the European dream

Immigration to Mayotte and Europe from Anjouan is a secretive and dangerous affair


Through a snaking labyrinth of streets, at the top of a hill in a concrete house with no windows, Issouf Toybina closes his eyes, breathes in shakily and recalls the death of his eldest son. “You cannot begin to imagine,” he exhales.

Aged 18, Mohamed had just finished his final exams when he left his homeland in the dead of night to board an illegal smuggler boat. This would be a journey from which he would not return. By the time his family realised he was gone, he had already drowned.

For years, all eyes have been on the Mediterranean immigration crisis while the death toll on the other side of the Equator rapidly rose to five figures and eluded the European gaze. Hidden in the Indian Ocean, about 200 miles off the southeast African coast, lies the largest marine burial ground in the world: a 70km strip of lethal shark-infested waters between two islands, one of which is African, the other European. It is estimated that 30,000 people like Mohamed have died attempting the passage, their bodies lost at sea.

These two islands – Anjouan and Mayotte – form part of the Comoros, a remote archipelago clustered between Mozambique and Madagascar discovered by early Arab traders who christened them the moon islands. As the legend goes, the wise king of Israel Solomon requested a precious ring be taken to his lover, the Queen of Sheba, but the courier accidentally dropped it in the ocean on the way, creating a blazing halo in the waves that was to become the Karthala volcano which would in turn give birth to Grande Comore, the largest of the Comoros islands.

Perfume Isles

Today, the raven-black volcanic coastline gives way to a tropical rainforest landscape and idyllic patches of sandy white beaches. A melange of Swahili traditions and French culture, their former colonial masters, the Comoros, are known as the “Perfume Isles” in homage to the scent of cloves and vanilla that hangs in the air.

It is also one of the only Islamic matriarchies in the world, where matrilineal traditions coexist with a patrilineal system inherited from Islam. There is a strong sense of solidarity among inhabitants and the locals consent that no one is without a home, no one without food, and you see far fewer inhabitants asking for charity than you would in some of the richest European capitals.

And yet the islets are some of the poorest nations in the world, depending on the export of cloves and the ylang ylang flower (better known as the essence of Chanel) for almost all of their earnings. The islands have lived in the shadow of political instability suffering 20 coups in the past three decades.

The latest disturbance, in 2008, put Anjouan, the least developed island, at the eye of the political hurricane when the neighbouring islands’ forces staged an armed incursion to oust the then president, Col Mohamed Bacar. Due to this history of extreme political unrest, foreign states warned their citizens to stay away, an alert which plunged the islands into a tourism crisis from which they have not recovered.

Migratory flux

This goes some way to explaining the colossal migratory flux from the Comoros to their French counterpart, Mayotte. At the dawn of independence, Mayotte made the remarkable decision to remain under their colonial wing, becoming the 101st department of the Republic.

As a French overseas department, this makes it the most eastern point of Europe. This decision meant that Mayotte benefited from better standards of healthcare and education as well as a stronger economy. It also meant freedom of movement between the islands was suspended.

With the possibility of a better life and the outline of the island of Mayotte on clear days taunting the islanders, many of them resort to paying about €500 a head to make the trip aboard small fibreglass boats known as the kwasa kwasa. “Between 35 and 40 per cent of the families of Anjouan have lost someone at sea,” says Moustali Mouhoudhoir, a local guide and lifetime resident of the island. But they are by no means the only people attempting the crossing. People come from as far and wide as Tanzania, Madagascar and the Congo in the hope of reaching Europe.

A single boat can carry up to 100 people but the more passengers, the more dangerous it is. The boat operators disguise themselves as fishermen and leave in the middle of the night. “They take off like birds, a little everywhere,” says Yssouf Ahmed Ali, director of the regional police force. “They usually bring along a teenager who will take the fall if the boat is intercepted as minors get less jail time.”

Death toll

There are countless stories of loss and every dawn brings news of more casualties. Because of the extreme death toll, family structures are constantly being dissolved and remade, aunts become mothers, brothers become fathers, women remarry.

Sandati Ibrahim’s husband attempted the crossing in 2014. She heard through the grapevine that the boat had encountered rough seas and all but one passenger had perished. A sole woman had turned up on the coast of Mayotte seven days later clutching her baby. Most families wait by the phone for news. If the phone doesn’t ring, they know their loved one hasn’t made it.

Issouf Toybina, who lost his son, gives some insight: “Despite the tragedy, they keep doing it. They think that in Mayotte there is life. Everyone wants to go to Europe to savour this life. No one thinks about death.” With no bodies to bury, the mourning process is disrupted and death becomes disembodied, unreal. These islands may seem like paradise incarnate to outsiders but, for the inhabitants, the scenery is quite ordinary.

“These families spend a month mourning and then one of their own is off again. It’s incomprehensible” says Mohamed Mounir, the chief inspector at Anjouan’s port. There is also a pervading sense that the Comorians, particularly the women, are bored. With an economy that relies on only three job choices – teacher, fisher or agricultor – it’s not hard to see why.

European dream

They have been sold the greatest advert ever conceived: Europe. “The grass is always greener” literary trope is being enacted in real life leaving unprecedented casualties in its wake. Europe is the modern, continental, American Dream, a holy grail sold to Africa to maintain the status quo.

“It is our El Dorado,” says Hassan Hussein, the immigration deputy chief. Just like the American Dream once did, the European dream has lured thousands of all nations to its shores. The real, quieter tragedy is that by the time the man behind the curtain is revealed, the yellow brick road has been submerged.

While there is virtually no crime on the island of Anjouan and its Comorian siblings, Mayotte is beleaguered by gang crime and violence. Close communal bonds give way to disillusionment and alienation.

Europe is hardly any better. It has been one great experiment sold as the land of promise to a globalising society. A dream so powerful it could overcome fears of death. Whereas the American Dream stressed the importance of the accumulation of personal wealth and independence, the European Dream accentuates the need for quality of life and interdependence.

Yet with the backdrop of the Mediterranean immigration crisis, it is a dream riddled with hypocrisy, its weaknesses glaringly apparent: a true advert of our time.

Immigration to Mayotte and Europe from the island of Anjouan remains a secretive affair, shrouded in mystery. Although the Comoros may seem like a Shangri-La, the ghosts of all those who have died haunt the postcard-perfect place. The land is unblemished save for the carcasses of rusting, abandoned cars littered across the scenery, as if they were the skeletons of those whose bodies will never be recovered. * This article and photofeature was supported by a grant from the Simon Cumbers Media Fund

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