“I can assure you that if elected… we will work to ensure a fair settlement of this long-standing dispute,” wrote William Hague to a supporter of the Chagossians’ right of return, shortly before the general election in 2010.
Last December, following the majority decision by the judges at the European Court of Human Rights when the Chagossians appeal was ruled inadmissible, Hague made a statement in which he welcomed the “end of this legal process”. Although there was no formal apology, the Foreign Secretary expressed “regret” about “the wrongs done to the Chagossian people over 40 years ago”. He went on: “Now that this litigation is concluded, the Government will take stock of our policy towards the resettlement of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), as we have always said we would. There are fundamental difficulties with resettlement in BIOT, but we will be as positive as possible in our engagement with Chagossian groups and all interested parties.”
Six months later the Foreign Secretary was as good as his word. A review into BIOT policies was established on 26 June. Dr Sangeeta Ahuja, head of the review team, announced that she and her colleagues would conduct face-to-face meetings with selected stakeholders, and invited written submissions by 31 July.
Significantly no date has been set for a final report. Indeed, Mark Simmonds, the FCO Minister responsible for Africa and the BIOT, was circumspect when announcing a new feasibility study on 8 July. “It is important that we take this forward carefully. The last feasibility study 10 years ago took eighteen months. The new study is unlikely to be concluded any more quickly. I will update the House once the initial consultation has been concluded.” With political will the Review should deliver its report in time for Ministers to consider and implement the recommendations well before the next general election.
An accurate assessment of the size of the current Chagossian population, and where they are dispersed is clearly an important base for the study. Journalists and other commentators reporting on Chagos have usually relied on a figure for the native population of the Archipelago of between 1500 and 2000.The UK government accepted in 1972 that 1483 islanders were forcibly removed from their homeland. But research published in 2012 in the journal Population & Place by Richard Dunne and Richard Gifford puts the figure higher than that. The authors show that between 1328 and 1522 native islanders, who were born or lived on the Chagos Islands, known then as “Ilois”, were exiled to Mauritius, and a further 232 to the Seychelles. So the number of islanders who were displaced from the Chagos Archipelago by the UK authorities was somewhere between 1560 and 1854.
The Chagos Refugees Group (CRG) believes that today there are around 700 native islanders alive in Mauritius and the Seychelles, down from 850 in 2002. As a result of the British Overseas Territories Act 2002, all Chagossians born in the Islands and their children were granted British citizenship. The current CRG estimate for those who claim to be Chagossian is 6000. This might be an overestimate, but it is probably not far off.
In 2010, I was informed by the then BIOT Administrator, Joanne Yeadon, of WikiLeak fame, that approximately 1710 British passports had so far been issued by the British High Commission in Mauritius, and a further 181 passports up to 2006, the last date figures were available, by the High Commission in the Seychelles. The overall trend, at least in Mauritius, was a decline in the number of passports issued over time.
It would be wrong, however, to assume that all of these passport holders have come to the UK. It needs to be borne in mind that possession of a British passport is a source of considerable status and pride for Chagossians living in the Indian Ocean. The best guesstimate is that around 1200 or so British passport holders have travelled from Mauritius and the Seychelles to the UK. Most have settled in the Crawley area of West Sussex, where the availability of jobs at Gatwick Airport and in local retail outlets, especially supermarkets, is an attractive option for those of working age without higher level educational qualifications. Other “pull” factors, especially for some older Chagossians, are better housing, pension and healthcare provision in the UK than that available in Mauritius or the Seychelles.
Drawn by better employment prospects elsewhere some UK-based Chagossians have relocated from Crawley to Manchester and Greater London. Furthermore, around 150 Chagossians in recent years have settled in other European countries, such as France and Switzerland, and a further 50 or so have moved to Canada. For reasons of employment, family, culture and climate a few Chagossians have returned, either temporarily or permanently to Mauritius and the Seychelles.
Wherever Chagossians have settled the number within different local populations is determined by the relative number of births and deaths. As the Chagossian population in the UK has a significant proportion of young families, it is to be expected that the population has shown some growth since the first settlers arrived in 2002. Allowing for the small number of migrants who have left and settled in other countries, a reasonable estimate is that around 1400 first, second and third generation Chagossians are currently resident in the UK, roughly 25 per cent of the global population. Assertions by the Chagos Conservation Trust (CCT) that around half the global population of Chagossians live in the UK is exaggerated, but then the CCT has its own motives for talking up this figure. The majority of Chagossians still live in Mauritius, and it is probably they who will be keenest to resettle in Chagos. A further 250 Chagossians live in the Seychelles, mainly on Mahé, Praslin and La Digue.
Dr Sean Carey is research fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of Roehampton
* Published in print edition on 16 August 2013