Djibouti - A government ultimatum for clandestine foreign workers to leave Djibouti by the end of this month is causing consternation among bourgeois citizens who wonder who now will clean their houses, cook and mind their children.

In this little country of 500 000 people in the Horn of Africa, low-wage workers from Somalia, Ethiopia and elsewhere do most of the thankless and physical work.

Djibouti enjoys relative prosperity because of the presence of French and American military bases, enough for many people to be able to afford to pay monthly wages between $110 (about R800) and $170 for a foreign worker.

Residents of the former French colony are torn between the desire to hold on to their comfortable situation and the legal requirement to settle the wages of their foreign employees and let them depart.

"I shall never let go of a woman who has helped me for the past 10 years," said Anissa Mohamed, a housewife in her 60s.

Even if they think the number of illegal immigrants is too high, and that they are too visible, residents are anxious to keep "their" foreigners and are in a race against the clock to legalise their situation by obtaining documents, real or fake.

Some even enter into marriages of convenience or slip a bribe to a bureaucrat in return for a long-term visa.

As a result, Interior Minister Abboulkader Doualeh Wais warned Islamic judges, or cadis, that they themselves could face prosecution if they solemnise a marriage between a Djibouti citizen and a foreigner.

He said people "complain about insecurity and the large number of illegal immigrants who threaten to upset the nation's ethnic balance, but they refuse to let go of their cleaning woman or their watchman".

Some senior officials, who asked not to be identified, said the presence of US bases dictated the decision to expel the foreigners.

"We are under an obligation to control our frontiers to know who is entering and who is leaving," one official said.

Without their domestic servants, Djibouti citizens "will have to learn to wash, to cook, go to market," said one resident, Farah. A union activist, Hossein, welcomed the departure of the foreigners because it would relieve unemployment among citizens.

But many of the foreigners who work here as day labourers or as street vendors say they will seek to evade the expulsion order. They can send money back to their families on what they earn here, and they are afraid that if they return to Ethiopia, they will be pressed into the army. - Sapa-AFP