On 16 September 2002, a group of 19 people, who were born in the Chagos Archipelago, picked up their suitcases from the carousel at Gatwick Airport and, having passed through immigration, walked into the South Terminal. Declaring themselves homeless they then began a sit-in. It ended three days later after West Sussex County Council offered the islanders bed-and-breakfast accommodation for six months in the nearby town of Crawley.
Today, Crawley hosts around 1500 Chagossians and their dependents. They live in the borough’s poorer wards, such as Bewbush, Broadfield and Ifield. But the largest population of Chagossians, perhaps 2500 (or more depending on who is included through ties of kinship) live in or near Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius. Another 300 or so people live in the Seychelles.
The story of the Chagossians is not very well known. However, with well-known supporters such as British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, broadcaster Ben Fogle, novelist Philippa Gregory, and poet Benjamin Zephaniah, this is beginning to change. The Chagossians are, in fact, the descendants of African slaves who for several centuries worked on the coconut plantations in the Chagos Archipelago, a group of 55 islands which lie halfway between Tanzania and Indonesia. By all accounts they lived contented lives.
But between 1968 and 1973, at the height of the Cold War, around 1500 islanders were forcibly removed from their homeland by the UK authorities, and most were dumped at the quayside in Port Louis to make way for the strategically important US base on Diego Garcia, the largest and southernmost island in the Archipelago.
The results of this deportation of mainly illiterate, small island people to the urban slums of a much larger, but still relatively impoverished Indian Ocean island, were predictable – unemployment, malnutrition, mental health problems, and serious alcohol and drug habits. Some of the younger women became sex workers.
Not surprisingly, the exile of the Islanders in Mauritius has been challenged. Since 2000, Mauritius-based electrician Olivier Bancoult, who left the islands aged five and is now leader of the Chagos Refugees Group, won a series of spectacular victories establishing the right of return in the UK’s lower courts but lost his case in the House of Lords in 2008 by a narrow 3-2 majority. However, Bancoult and his formidable team of lawyers, which includes Lebanese-British human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, have made an unprecedented appeal to the UK Supreme Court to overturn the Law Lords’ ruling. The judgement is due any day now.
Political pressure in the UK has also been growing for some time. Concern amongst parliamentarians from all parties about the failure to put right what had happened to the islanders almost half a century ago, as well as disquiet about the Law Lords’ judgement, led to the formation of the Chagos All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) in 2008. Until a few months ago its chair was the new Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who continues to keep a keen interest as honorary president.
But the feelings of the APPG were neatly summed up in a debate at the end of last year in Westminster Hall by the Scottish National Party’s Dr Paul Monaghan, who drew a direct parallel between what happened in Chagos and the Highland clearances in his own constituency of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. He said: “To the utter shame of every UK government and 17 foreign secretaries, this ethnic cleansing of an entire people has been variously ignored, glossed over or actively misrepresented. It is a chronicle of abuse, naked greed and bullying.”
Meanwhile, the need for the UK and US to agree a 20-year extension to the previous 50-year agreement which expires on 30 December, for the continued use of the Diego Garcia base is top of the agenda.
Although formal discussions have yet to start there is no doubt that an extension will be nodded through not only because Diego Garcia is such an important element in the US-UK “special relationship” but also because the US wants to keep an eye on the oil-rich Persian Gulf and the new rivalry between China and India as the two emerging superpowers fight for supremacy in controlling the sea lanes carrying commodities and consumer goods between Africa and Asia.
However, to be able to look other governments (and human rights organisations) in the eye, in 2012 former UK Foreign Secretary William Hague commissioned KPMG to conduct a feasibility study on resettlement in Chagos. The report, published over a year ago, concluded that there were “no fundamental legal obstacles that would prevent resettlement” and suggested a variety of differently costed scenarios. The minimum was £63 million over three years, the maximum £414 million over six years.
The concern of many Chagossians is that the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) consultation exercise was simply a device to allow the UK and the US to agree terms on the continued use of Diego Garcia, while those who make up the Chagossian diaspora will remain in exile forever. But David Snoxell, former British High Commissioner to Mauritius (2000-2004) and coordinator of the APPG, thinks that the Hague initiative may yet bear fruit, irrespective of the forthcoming decision of the Supreme Court. “After nearly 15 years of resistance the FCO seems at last to be in favour of trying out some sort of resettlement although it is not easy convincing some penny-pinching, short-sighted ministers.”
In fact, the decision on the islanders’ future will probably be made by Prime Minister David Cameron, who appears to be in favour of resettlement, before the summer. Furthermore, a positive resolution of one of the most shameful episodes in recent British colonial history can also benefit the US. “Resettlement of the Chagossians would also be seen as part of President Obama’s legacy,” says Snoxell. “It’s a unique opportunity to rectify this relic from the Cold War and put right the wrongs of the past.”
Dr Sean Carey is honorary senior research fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester
* Published in print edition on 8 April 2016