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Africa Specific: The Power Of A Passport

Who gets to be a tourist, and who has to take a boat in the dark?

It’s a big, wide, complicated world out there. And for most of us, it’s impossible to keep track of everything that’s going on. We get ground down. We get distracted. We get on Snapchat and spend half an hour making our friends look like lions. It happens.

Meanwhile, out in the world, there’s a lot happening. But for a range of reasons — including racism, the lingering effects of colonialism, and a mass-media culture that ignores a continent of 1.2 billion people — you probably haven’t seen much about Africa in your news feeds lately.

This is a series about the African continent, because what happens in Niger or Nigeria has implications for all of us, and vice versa. This is just a slice of what’s out there, so keep reading and keep learning. This is Africa Specific.

If a boat leaves from the shores of Mozambique on Africa's east coast and heads toward Madagascar, it will pass four volcanic islands. Three of those make up one of Africa’s smallest states: The Comoros, home to 788,000 people.

The Comoros gained its independence from France in 1975, but the economy still struggles, relying mainly on vanilla, cloves, and ylang-ylang, the flower that builds the base of perfumes like Chanel No. 5. For many citizens, getting connected to basic services like electricity is an ongoing challenge. Forty percent of residents in Grande Comore, the largest island, don’t have regular access; on Moheli, the smallest island, that number jumps to 80 percent. Understandably, without electricity, it’s not exactly easy to get online either.

So why have the governments of the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait — two wealthy Persian Gulf countries — worked so hard to get Comorian passports for their own residents? Why would those residents be told that they should become citizens of a country they’ve never seen before? The answer is a complex one, but it has everything to do with immigration — from the islands of the Comoros to the Middle East and even to France — where governments are trying to draw a line between citizen and noncitizen, with solutions that are just as dangerous and impractical as building a wall.

Ayah Belal

In the United States, there are around 10 million undocumented immigrants. They face xenophobia and the threat of deportation, but if their children are born in the U.S., those children are citizens. Not so in Kuwait or the UAE. Countries in the Gulf have thousands of residents who have never received (and are unlikely to ever get) citizenship. They’re referred to as bidoon — a label meaning “without nationality.”

Some bidoon have lived in Kuwait and the UAE since before those countries became independent; others came in recent decades from around the world — India to the Philippines to Ethiopia — as workers, nannies, or housekeepers, and some as victims of human trafficking. Now, their children and grandchildren still can’t access citizenship, despite having been born and raised in Gulf states. In these countries, citizenship is passed down through fathers, not mothers. As a result, if an immigrant woman living in Kuwait or the UAE has a child out of wedlock (a not infrequent occurrence, given that many single women come to work in the Gulf, where they face barriers to getting protection and where reporting sexual assault will only end in punishment), that child may be considered stateless. Since all nonmarital sex is illegal, the mother may subsequently be imprisoned and deported — but the child is often left behind, forced to grow up in an orphanage without any of the protections of citizenship.

Bidoon can’t be granted marriage or birth certificates, nor can they officially enroll their children in public schools. In 2012, protests broke out across Kuwait as bidoon demanded access to public utilities and the right to become full citizens. The UAE faces similar challenges — 85 percent of Emirati residents aren’t Emirati citizens. The UAE came up with an odd solution to the country’s growing problem with stateless people, and now it looks as though Kuwait may be going down the same road: Comorian passports.

Why pursue such a strange idea? “What the Comoros needs is money, and roads, and bridges, and infrastructure," Professor Pardis Mahdavi, a researcher on labor migration in the Muslim world at Pomona College, told MTV News. “And what the UAE and Kuwait need are passports for their increasing stateless population. What the UAE and Kuwait have an abundance of is money, and the ability to develop a country very quickly. They have the know-how and the capital.”

In 2008, the UAE agreed to give the Comoros $200 million in return for passports for an initial group of 26,000 stateless residents. As of 2016, at least 60,000 bidoon in the UAE are thought to have Comorian passports. Now, reports are emerging from Kuwait, home to more than 100,000 bidoon, of stateless people being told that they must leave Kuwait within a year — and that their only hope of a passport is one from the Comoros.

What does it mean to be a Comorian? Depends on where you live.

It’s not clear whether any bidoon have been — or will be — expected to move thousands of miles from their homes to the Comoros. Some stateless people have been told that Comorian passports will let them stay in the Gulf, while others are worried about deportation. But the project raises a larger point: The power of a passport varies dramatically depending on what country’s name is on the cover. There’s a big difference between entering the United States with a passport from Rwanda and entering with a passport from Sweden. In a global index that tracks how much travel freedom citizens receive with each country’s passport, the U.S. is ranked fourth, while the Comoros is ranked 90th.

In short, if you’re living in Kuwait and you’re handed a Comorian passport, it isn’t so much an ID as a marker of permanent outsider status in the country you call home.

For the bidoon, the idea of possibly being forced to move to a country they’ve never been to (or even heard of) is stressful, to say the least. “As you would imagine, it’s incredibly anxiety-provoking,” said Mahdavi. “These are people who are already vulnerable, given their precarious stateless position. ... The prospect of being shipped off is really daunting.” And on the Comorian side, Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, a writer and researcher who has reported extensively on economic citizenship deals in the Comoros, told MTV News that “the bidoon are not particularly welcome [in the Comoros], even if they have Comorian passports.”

If Kuwait, where some government officials have denied the existence of a deal with the Comorian government in the first place, wants to move forward, it doesn’t exactly have a role model in the UAE. The Comoros took some of the group that launched the UAE deal to court in 2015 for not delivering more than $16 million of the funds they had promised to the Comorian government. There’s ample evidence that Kuwait would be building on a very questionable foundation.

The Comoros and France are thousands of miles apart — and right next door.

The uncertain status of the bidoon is far from the only discussion focused on what it means to hold a Comorian passport in 2016. Migration from Africa to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea has been widely covered, but in the Comoros, people are taking the same kinds of risks — and losing their lives.

In 1975, the Comoros emerged from its colonial past without its fourth island, Mayotte. As three islands marked their independence, the residents of Mayotte, which was colonized years before the others, started a four-decade-long journey (encouraged by successive French governments) to become a fully integrated part of France. Residents of that island use the euro and have French passports. “If you’re a citizen of Mayotte and you have got enough money, you can go to France and you’re traveling within your own country,” Professor Simon Massey, an African politics lecturer at Coventry University, told MTV News.

As a result of this postcolonial division, Comorians who move across the 63-mile stretch of water between the island of Anjouan and Mayotte are technically traveling from East Africa, through a French border, and into the most remote part of the European Union. As Massey puts it, “you have people from an African nation moving into a part of Europe which is thousands of miles away from the European continent.”

The restrictions facing Comorian passport holders within their own island chain is a tangible reminder of how complicated it can be for a small state to emerge from colonial entanglements. Until 1995, Comorians could move freely between the four islands to see friends and family, do business, and look for work. At the moment, they need to pay a 100 euro ($112) fee and apply for a visa to set foot on an island that both the UN and international law recognize as a part of their own country. And as Professor Massey wrote in 2009, Comorians aren’t exactly pleased that travel without a visa to Mayotte is considered “clandestine migration” by the French government.

Timothy Cipullo

Comorians still take the risk of migrating to Mayotte covertly, and those making the trek face real danger. In the two decades since visa-free travel between the four islands ended, thousands of people have died after their metal fishing boats or wooden kwassa-kwassa capsized between the Comoros and Mayotte. These boats are often driven by smugglers, who overload their vessels and charge each passenger as much as they can. Yet with Mayotte’s average yearly income being eight times higher than that of the Comoros (which is just $1,430), Comorians seeking a better life continue to attempt the journey.

Survivors of the crossing face systematic discrimination and even violence. This year, hundreds of Comorians who live in Mayotte “sans papiers” have literally been chased from their homes because of where they’re from — by people whom many still see as their fellow Comorians. And what the government of the Comoros regards as the “circulation” of Comorian citizens between the four islands, France sees as illegal immigration, with residents in “une situation irrégulière.” Al Jazeera estimates that up to 40 percent of the population of Mayotte are Comorians who live without documentation. More than 15,000 people were deported back to the Comoros from Mayotte in 2014.

From their archipelago in the Indian Ocean, people in the Comoros have a clear view of the human cost of the reckless and often arbitrary attempts being made to “solve” the challenges of migration in 2016. At present, there are residents of the UAE and Kuwait who are technically Comorian, while people who were born and raised in the Comoros often aren’t welcome on the island next door.

These two very different limitations, now both associated with holding a Comorian passport, raise an important set of questions: Who gets to move freely and who doesn’t? Who decides? Who can live in their home country legitimately, and who has to take a passport from somewhere they have never visited? Who gets to be a tourist, and who has to take a boat in the dark? In France, and in the Gulf, people have answered these questions by creating a status quo of perpetual marginality for bidoon, and life in the shadows for Comorians who make the crossing to Mayotte.