Chagossians in the UK: On the margins of British society

It looks like they are destined to remain there

By Sylvia Edouard-Gundowry  

While the case regarding the right of return to their homeland in the Chagos Archipelago is likely to be heard at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg next month, many of the Chagossian people who have migrated to the United Kingdom from Mauritius since 2002 are struggling to reconstruct their lives.

It is estimated that more than 2000 Chagossians now live in the town of Crawley, in West Sussex. With language as the main obstacle, many find it hard to find jobs and access essential services.

Settling in a new country is no easy task and the journey seems even more challenging for those who have very little or no English. However, a number of Chagossian people have enrolled on the English for Speakers of Other Languages programmes (ESOL) in Crawley.

“I am trying but I can’t find work. Everywhere I go, I’m told I have to learn English.” Raymond, 41, is desperate. He arrived in the UK eight months ago and still has not found a job. This stonemason, a former resident of Cassis, who left school when he was 11, is now learning English in an ESOL centre in Crawley. Raymond is hoping that the courses will help him improve his English and thereby gain access to the local job market.

Like Raymond, Edwina, 38, left school at the end of primary education after she twice failed her leaving exams. This mother of two arrived in the UK in 2006. She has brought up her two children on her own ever since her husband died when the children were very young. Her vulnerability in her new homeland seems to have been exacerbated by her poor English language skills. Indeed, she is very frustrated that she cannot become more involved in her children’s education. “They come home with letters from school but I don’t understand what they say. I always have to ring people I know and ask for help,” she explains. Edwina knows that she is very lucky to have a good friend, who acts as a translator, to accompany her to all of her appointments.

Sheila, 32, is less fortunate. Having no one to help her, she was unable even after two years in the UK to explain to her doctor that she had epilepsy and that she needed treatment. “All this time, whenever I had to see the doctor, I never mentioned my epilepsy as I could not express myself. I never understood what the doctor said to me and I always said yes”, she recalls. That was until the day the doctor realised that his patient from Mauritius required an interpreter.

Sheila is not the only one who pretends to understand in order to avoid embarrassing situations. Rolande, 33, too, experienced embarrassment when she could not utter a word in English to a man who came to do repair jobs at her place. “I felt ashamed and I panicked as I did not know what to say. I left the man there and I ran to my son’s house to ask him to come and help,” she remembers.

Rolande’s experience seems to be in line with theorists such as Mark Clarke who have compared second language learning among adults as something like schizophrenia, in which “social encounters become inherently threatening and defence mechanisms are employed to reduce the trauma”. This explains why Edwina once pretended to understand the school’s secretary who asked her to come and collect her son, who was unwell. Because she did not understand the request it was only when her son called her later to ask where she was that she became aware of the problem.

Rolande and Marie-Josée are both native islanders of the Chagos and never went to school in their homeland. Now in their 50s and 60s respectively, they find the ESOL classes extremely challenging. They do their best when it comes to listening and speaking, but are completely lost when expected to read and write (it is estimated that 95 per cent of the original islanders from the Chagos Archipelago are illiterate as are 40 to 50 percent of their descendants).

Faced with the language difficulties of the Chagossian community from Mauritius, the local health and social services often provide interpreters to facilitate communication. Personnel at the Sussex Interpreting Services (SIS) based in Brighton are now aware that there is a growing number of people from Mauritius who have settled in West Sussex, because service providers in Crawley and the surrounding areas are increasingly asking for the organisation’s services. Requests for language support do not mention the nationality of the person but rather the language spoken, which in this case, is the French Creole. However, the figures speak for themselves. In 2010, SIS had 54 requests for interpreters to meet the needs of Creole speakers in West Sussex, while seven requests were registered in January 2011.

The ESOL teachers in Crawley now know the Mauritian-Chagossian group of students very well. Alison Joggyah, an ESOL teacher in the area, is pleased with her students from Mauritius and feels very proud about what a few of them, generally those who have at least completed primary education in Mauritius, have managed to accomplish in two or three years of study. However, she is very concerned about the general level of illiteracy among others in the Mauritian-Chagossian group. “Students with low literacy will take several years more than other students to reach a basic level of English. They are far more dependent on their memory because they can’t read back or even write down what has been covered in the lesson.” In order to help matters, Ms Joggyah sometimes brings cassette recorders in her lessons to make tapes for her students. “They tell me a story about themselves which I write down and then record for them to listen to and read at home.”

Unfortunately for Edwina, Rolande and the rest of the Chagossians in Crawley, the UK government recently announced that it was cutting funding for ESOL. Only people who are on Jobseeker’s Allowance or the Employment and Support Allowance will now be able to attend courses without charge. This means that those who receive other benefits will no longer be eligible. These changes appear to contradict the British Prime Minister David Cameron’s recently expressed views about the importance for immigrants to learn English in order to be part of the ‘Big Society’. Many Chagossians living in the UK are already on the margins of society; it looks like they are destined to remain there. 

* Published in print edition on 3 March 2011

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