Outside the imposing mayor’s office in Saint-Laurent, a small town on French Guiana’s border with Suriname, a group of twenty men and women have gathered in the searing heat. From the bored looks on most of their faces, it is clear that this is not the first time they have waited outside the building. The Surinamese are queuing up for highly valued residency permits, which are even more sought after than French passports.

They are part of a massive wave of cross-border migration on the European Union’s only South American frontier: as an overseas department of France, French Guiana is a de facto part France. “Every year, 13,000 people, mainly Surinamese, apply to us residency for permits. About a third of these applications are approved,” explains sub-prefect Hamel-Françis Mekachera. “It is the start of a long process, which eventually leads to the granting of French nationality seven years later.”

But the EU is making it increasingly difficult to pass through this door into its territory: “Paris has sent us an order to reduce the number of people we accept,” says Mekachera, “but this region is not perceived as a frontier by local people, who regularly cross the Maroni [the river that marks the border between French Guiana and Suriname]. It is not easy for us Europeans to deal with this, because there are no specific measures about it French law.

River crossing with a long history

The blurred border is responsible for a host of problems, not least the informal trade across the river: at the market in Saint-Laurent, the Surinamese language, Sranan, is widely spoken, and many of the traders wear T-shirts emblazoned with the flag of the former Dutch colony. At the same time, crime is a growing problem: armed robberies are frequent, and the perpetrators usually seek refuge on the Surinamese side of the river.

For years, French Guiana has also served as refuge for Surinamese displaced by conflict in their home country. The first wave of refugees arrive in July 1986, following the outbreak of a civil war which lasted until 1991. During the conflict, which pitted the forces of Suriname’s military junta led Dersi Bouterse against the Jungle Commando guerillas led by Ronnie Brunswijk, 15,000 Surinamese sought refuge in Saint-Laurent.

Mayor Léon Bertrand was there to welcome them. “They were mainly women and children. We had the feeling that we were at war too. There was a Surinamese army patrol boat firing at anyone trying to cross the river. I saw Albina [the Surinamese town on the other side of the Maroni] burned to the ground with my own eyes.”

The vast majority of Surinamese refugees from that period have never made the sad crossing back to their country of origin. The civil war and the Bourterse military government brought about a rapid deterioration in the economic and social climate in Suriname and opened up a development gap with neighbouring French Guiana that has continued to widen.

"We never refuse to accept anyone"

The Surinamese have continued to come knocking on the door of the French overseas department. Of the 217,000 population of French Guiana, 70,000 are originally from Suriname. And many Surinamese have chosen to move to Metropolitan France.

Surinamese immigration has had an obvious impact on the hospital in the centre of Saint-Laurent where Dr Gabriel Carles has worked for thirty years. “We never refuse to accept anyone, not only is not humane but it’s also illegal. From time to time, we turn a blind eye to cases where certain patients are on the point of giving birth, which we register them as emergencies. And yes, their children are given birth certificates that enable them to apply for French nationality when they are aged between 13 and 18.”

According to Carles, the Surinamese who cross the Maroni to gain access to free good quality medical care account for half of the annual budget in the hospital, where 50% of newborns are of Surinamese origin.

In Korou, which is 100 kilometres from Saint Laurent, we met with 44-year-old artist Franky Amete, who has lived in French Guiana for two decades. “Many Surinamese have come here for the euro and the better quality of life,” he told us. “I also came here to work. At the time, life was very hard in Suriname. I wasn’t able to earn a living as an artist in my own country, but I can do that here.”