“We deserve special consideration from the UK government”

The fate of Chagossians in Crawley worries Olivier Bancoult

By Sylvia Edouard-Gundowry

Olivier Bancoult is very concerned about the situation of the Chagossians in the UK. Last week, the leader of the Groupe Réfugiés Chagos (GRC) met Henry Smith, MP for Crawley, to make some suggestions that he hopes will help improve the lives of the 1500 or so Chagossians who have settled in the town, which is located near Gatwick Airport in West Sussex. Bancoult believes strongly that Chagossians, who were granted British citizenship in 2002, deserve better treatment from the UK government as “our situation is special so we need special consideration”.

The main problems faced by the Chagossian community in Crawley relate to housing, health and education, according to Bancoult. The language barrier is at the heart of these difficulties. The GRC leader explains that many Chagossians are finding it hard to acquire suitable accommodation not only because housing in Crawley is very expensive, but also because many cannot speak English and are therefore at a considerable disadvantage in negotiating with private landlords and estate agents.

As regards health issues, Bancoult regrets that many Chagossian people are unable to communicate effectively with the health professionals and are not getting the right kind of help for their needs. The leader of the GRC is also saddened that many children of Chagossian origin are not making satisfactory progress at school, and makes an interesting comparison between the situation in the UK and Mauritius. “Mauritius is introducing Kreol in schools and this will definitely help pupils,” he explains. “Our children in Britain would benefit from learning through their mother tongue; they would have a better chance.”

Bancoult thinks that the setting up of a special support unit for members of the Chagossian community would be the right place to start. More specifically, he believes that the British government should provide free language classes for Chagossians and, in this context, he very much regrets that the ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) courses offered by UK local authorities are only free for those who are entitled to the Income Support benefit. “The Chagossian people who are working and do not get Income Support need to learn English too — they should be exempt from this restriction,” he argues.

The leader of the GRC said that MP Henry Smith showed great interest in the issues raised and promised to look into them. Nevertheless, Bancoult also made it clear to Smith that he was very upset with the attitude of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Coalition government. “I told Mr Smith that asylum seekers in the UK are better treated than Chagossians,” he recalls.

The issue of the Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the Chagos Archipelago, which was unilaterally declared the world’s biggest marine reserve by the previous Labour government on 1 April 2010, and includes a ban on commercial fishing, was also on the table. Bancoult spelt out the CRG’s position to the Conservative MP that the protection of marine species in the British Indian Ocean Territory cannot be allowed to override the fundamental human rights of Chagossians.

Meanwhile, Olivier Bancoult has also had meetings with the Crawley branch of the GRC. The big issue on the agenda was preparation for the impending decision of the European Court of Human Rights regarding the Islanders’ right of return to the Chagos Archipelago, where they lived until they were forcibly removed by the UK government between 1968 and 1973 to make way for the US base on Diego Garcia.

Bancoult is hoping that a decision is reached before the end of the year and for that reason he has been on a short visit to Strasbourg to arrange accommodation and other facilities for a visit by a delegation of Chagossians from Mauritius and the UK. “It’s important that we go as a group,” he says. “We want to attract attention and our presence in front of the judges is very important,” said Bancoult. The leader of the GRC is “100 per cent” optimistic for a positive outcome from the European Court of Human Rights. “We have a very strong legal case. We will never give up.”

Sylvia Edouard-Gundowry

* Published in print edition on 28 October 2011

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