By Dr Sean Carey
Yesterday, the European Court of Human Rights ruled by a majority decision that the case concerning the right of return of the Chagossians was inadmissible
On Monday, Chagossians in Mauritius, Seychelles and the UK learned that one of the stalwarts of the struggle for the right of return to their homeland, Charlesia Alexis, had died in Crawley.
Her birth certificate reveals that she was born at 8 AM on 8 September 1934 on the island of Diego Garcia, then classified as a ‘Dependency of Mauritius’. So how had the 78-year-old woman from the other side of the Equator ended up living in a council flat in West Sussex? It’s a long story.
In the 1960s at the height of the Cold War the US, fearful of what the Soviet Union would get up to in the Indian Ocean if left unchecked, selected Diego Garcia as the location for a base. Like some of her compatriots, Charlesia was prevented from returning to the Chagos Archipelago, after she and the rest of her family had accompanied her husband to Port Louis to receive medical treatment in 1967. The rest of the 1500 or so islanders were then forcibly removed by the British authorities between 1968 and 1973, and dumped at the quaysides in Mauritius and the Seychelles. The exile of an entire population was unprecedented. Little wonder that the late Robin Cook maintained that the episode was “one of the most sordid and morally indefensible I have ever known”.
Like many Chagossian women forced to eke out an existence in the slum areas of Port Louis, Charlesia was not one to accept her fate quietly. Along with Lisette Talate and Rita Bancoult, she founded the Chagos Refugees Group. Demonstrations and hunger strikes were organised in the late 1970s. The campaign had the desired effect. In 1982 the then British government led by Margaret Thatcher paid compensation to the islanders in “full and final settlement” of all claims. Many illiterate and Creole-speaking Chagossians, desperate for money, signed the English-language legal document with a thumbprint without realising that they were signing away the right of return to their homeland on which their African slave ancestors had lived since the late 18th century. They felt betrayed.
Thus began in 1998 a marathon legal battle in the British courts led by electrician Olivier Bancoult, the newly appointed leader of the Chagos Refugees Group. Although the judges in the lower courts unanimously found in favour, in 2008 the Law Lords decided against the Chagosssians’ right of return by a narrow 3-2 majority. The case was taken to the European Court of Human Rights, with the islanders receiving support from the former British High Commissioner to Mauritius, David Snoxell, bestselling author, Philippa Gregory, and conservationist, Ben Fogle.
In the meantime, Chagosssians and their descendants had been granted British citizenship in 2002. Some came to the UK and created what is today a 1500-strong settlement in Crawley near Gatwick airport. Charlesia arrived in 2004. By all accounts hers was an odd existence – she had a council flat, some material comforts unavailable to her in Mauritius, and yet she could not read and could only speak a few words of English.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, Charlesia always dreamt of returning to her homeland – three of her children are buried in Diego Garcia – but was prevented from doing so because of the length of the legal process. Nevertheless, there are still around 700 or so native-born Chagos islanders still alive.
Yesterday, the European Court of Human Rights ruled by a majority decision that the case concerning the right of return of the Chagossians was inadmissible.
Dr Sean Carey is research fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of Roehampton
* Published in print edition on 21 December 2012