Known for its coral reefs and beautiful beaches, Seychelles, a tropical paradise located off the coast of east Africa, is visited by thousands of tourists. Yet, beyond the country’s multi-million dollar tourist industry, BBC Africa Eye shines a light on its heroin epidemic.
In a new investigation by BBC Africa Eye, Seychelles, Heroin and Me pieces together a complex picture of how political and socio-economic factors including poverty and a lack of rehabilitation centres, are contributing to what is now a drug epidemic.
According to Seychelles’ Government, based on population, Seychelles – which is made up of 115 islands – has the biggest heroin problem in the world, with around 10% of Seychellois dependent on the drug.
Presented by Joseph Fady Banane, the Seychellois support worker was one of the 10%. Now free of heroin, he uses his experience and role as a support worker to show viewers the true extent of the drug epidemic, whilst confronting his own painful past and reconnecting with the people he loves.
Meeting drug users, dealers, government officials and the communities caught in the middle, the film captures Fady’s journey as he gains first-hand access to their stories.
Seychelles heroin epidemic
He told BBC Africa Eye how he was introduced to drugs: “I was 27 when I first took heroin. Business was not picking up, sitting outside I decided to try my first couple of smokes, and that was it for five years. I still don’t know why I started smoking heroin, but part of it was just because I could – drugs were everywhere.” He added: “I became a stranger to my own mum, and my son was taken away.”
Throughout the film, individuals share details on the gruelling ripple effect of drugs in their communities and families.
Ravinia Jean, a mother, shares the impact of her son’s death Tony, who was heroin-dependent and a friend of Fady’s. “It is hard…it’s very painful.” She revealed her second son, Jude, is also using heroin and has been in and out of prison, where he is still able to buy the drug on credit. She said: “Parents have to pay for it because they will send people to collect the money…Of course you’re scared, they threaten you, they said they will kill him.”
However, there is still hope for drug-users like Jude. The documentary follows Jude’s journey towards recovery as he finally visits a counselor with hopes to recover from heroin-dependency.
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The documentary also captures the common reality of drug-dependency passed from parents to children. Two brothers, Stefan and Roy (not their real names) are heroin-dependent – so was their mother. Stefan’s drug usage started from around the age of 12. He said: “I was looking after the drugs for somebody else… we said we were going to try it just for one day. We continued taking it until we ran out of drugs and that’s when I started getting sick. It was the drug withdrawal making me sick.”
Many people told the programme that drugs are used to escape the trauma of poverty. 25% of residents live below the poverty line, and in the last few years, use of crack cocaine in Seychelles has also increased. Latest figures show police seizures of cocaine have increased by almost 3,000% since 2018.1
Despite the scale of the problem, there is lack of support for heroin users due to the closures of all of the country’s residential rehabilitation centres which is contributing to the problem.
Revisiting the rehabilitation centre in Les Canelé that saved his life, which is no longer open to heroin users, Fady reflects on the consequences of the closures. “Back then, these rehab centres were helping hundreds of people. Rehab saved me from heroin, but with these programmes now closed – there’s not much help for anyone else, and many users have to fight their dependency alone.”
The only consistent support left for many users is a free methadone programme, a heroin substitute which can be used to detox.
The BBC Africa Eye investigation also revealed many women are resorting to sex work to aid their heroin-dependency. One woman told BBC Africa Eye: “No one will give you anything for free, so you have to do something.”
It is estimated two tonnes of heroin comes into Seychelles every year, which are mainly smuggled from Afghanistan via Iran through the Indian Ocean.2 In response, the government has resorted to a “war on drugs” approach, and the documentary explores whether this approach risks further alienating the drug-using community.
BBC Africa Eye obtained an exclusive interview with Seychelles President Wavel Ramkalalwan to understand the “war on drugs” approach. He said: “Communities, villages cannot be controlled by the drug lords, by drug addicts. This is why we have we have taken the approach that we need to disrupt those activities. It’s an all-out war on drugs in order for me to save our people.”
On what was being done to address the lack of rehabilitation centres, he revealed: “We have received a grant from the UAE to build a proper rehabilitation centre. And, and so we are going in that direction.”
BBC Africa: Seychelles, Heroin and Me is available on the BBC Africa YouTube channel on Monday 6 March 2023, here.