Socialist Worker

The Chagos Islanders and their fight to return home

The House of Lords is due to rule this October on the case of the Chagos Islanders, who were deported from their lands by the British government in the late 1960s. Oscar Scafidi takes an in-depth look at the islanders' situation today

Issue No. 2116

The Chagos Archipelago is a collection of over 60 tropical islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The islands are a British overseas territory, known collectively as the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). To get there, you can either sail 500 kilometres south from the Maldives, 1,600 kilometres east from the Seychelles, or join the US navy and get posted to their military base, situated on Diego Garcia, the largest island in the chain.

Provided you have the boat and the necessary expertise, visiting the smaller islands is a painless experience. You pay your £100 a month mooring fees over the internet and get the necessary permit from the BIOT authorities, then just turn up. However, upon arrival, one can see that these are not just beautiful tropical islands. There are signs of human occupation, such as a few abandoned buildings, a cemetery, and stray donkeys. But where did everybody go?

Between 1967 and 1971 the British government systematically deported the 2,000 strong population of the islands, dumping them in Mauritius, where most still live today in abject poverty. Such action is defined as a crime against humanity in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, Article 7.

These islanders were citizens of the UK and colonies. They and their families had inhabited the islands since the 18th century. Many now have British passports. They were moved so that the US could site an important naval base on Diego Garcia. In return, Britain was given a discount on a Polaris nuclear weapons system.

This key asset now forms the US's largest military base outside its own territory. It has been used for bombing runs to Iraq and Afghanistan. It was also used for the extraordinary rendition of terrorist subjects, and there have been allegations of torture and secret 'black site' CIA prisons on the island.

Over the past 40 years, it has been the policy of successive British governments to minimise international attention to this issue, and use legal mechanisms to deny the islanders their right to go home. The often-repeated claim is that the island had no indigenous population – the people removed were simply migrant labourers from other islands. This is simply not true.

In 2000, the High Court ruled that exiling the islanders had been unlawful, a ruling that the then foreign secretary Robin Cook agreed with. The government effectively overturned this decision through an Order in Council using the Royal Prerogative. This move was later found to be illegal. The British government has faced eight years of defeats over this issue in the High Court and the Appeal Court. Now it is appealing to the House of Lords in a final attempt to stop the islanders going home. The House of Lords hearing began on Monday 30 June this year.

While it is easy to paint the image of a tyrannical government fighting against an oppressed and destitute island population, this issue is a complex one, involving numerous parties. With the possibility of the House of Lords finally approving their return this summer, it seems that the islanders' fight is almost over. However, now the more difficult question must be asked. Is it feasible for them to go back?

I wander into the Northgate Community Centre, Crawley, West Sussex, and pull up a chair at the back. Before me is a long table, behind which sit seven committee members. At the centre is Hengride Permal, her impressive stature adding to the air of authority that she seems to emanate.

There are 50 people in the audience, all of them Chagossian. Today, I have been invited to a meeting of the Chagos Community Association, of which Hengride is chairperson. Nobody warned me the proceedings would be in French, and I curse my poor work ethic in language classes at school. The passion in the room is clear, regardless of the language.

As with many diasporas, the Chagossians are a fractured group. There are 600 living in the UK, 3,800 in Mauritius (where they were originally dumped) and 500 in the Seychelles. One of their larger representative bodies is the Chagos Refugee Group, based in Mauritius, but today I have joined one of the smaller UK groups.

Most of the people in this room arrived at Gatwick Airport from Mauritius in 2002, when the British government finally awarded the Chagossians passports. Many had to live in the arrivals lounge for two weeks while the local council worked out what to do with them. They then spent a year and a half in a local bed-and-breakfast, surviving on just £30 a week from the government.

Life has proved difficult for these people, even upon reaching England. Language is a huge problem. Many can only get minimum wage jobs as cleaners in Gatwick Airport. The topics up for discussion at the meeting today include claiming benefits, residency requirements, local healthcare and care for their elderly. This seems like a close-knit community, and everyone is very keen to help one another. However, the tone of the room changes when the issue of returning home is brought up.

I ask one man, Frankie Bontemps, what he thinks of the environmental arguments against his people returning home. 'I heard that the original plan in the 1960s was to put the US base on Aldabra Island, but the Royal Society and the Smithsonian Institute objected due to the potential effects on the native tortoise population.' People at the meeting felt as though the rights of animals and plants on the island were still more important than theirs.

The legal aspect of the islanders' situation is quite complex, and far beyond the scope of this article to analyse. From a moral point of view, it seems a terrible fate that has befallen the islanders, and hopefully not something that a modern British government would inflict on its subjects.

But the deportations happened in a different time and very different political climate. The late 1960s was the height of the Cold War. The nuclear threat from the Soviet Union was very real. Perhaps keeping the US on side was more important than the rights of the islanders back then, for the sake of national security? Also, the islanders were eventually paid some compensation, although many would argue this was not enough and did not reach those that needed it most. As the Chagossians' lawyer, Richard Gifford states, 'As a condition of receiving the money, they were obliged to sign highly detailed legalistic forms written in English renouncing all rights against the government including the claim to return to their islands.

'These forms were not explained or translated and when the money was disbursed [in 1982], the Chagossians were required merely to put their thumb print to a piece of paper which they thought was a mere form a receipt.' Whatever one's interpretation of these events, which stretch across four decades, finding a solution that accommodates all parties is going to be difficult.

Today, with the House of Lords ruling pending, the government is faced with another difficult situation. Should the islanders be allowed back, at a potentially massive cost to the British taxpayer, and even greater cost to the Chagossian environment, or should their return be blocked once again, possibly with another negotiated compensation deal?

The islanders themselves have proposed a strategy to resettle the islands outlined in a report called Returning Home. The plan is to get 150 families back on the islands, at a cost of about £25 million over a five year period. This would give them housing, amenities, power, water treatment facilities, a small airport and most importantly, lay the foundations for an economy that would not be reliant on handouts for future income.

Development of tourism is hoped to generate a large part of future revenues. The issue of the US base on Diego Garcia has been left for now. Although made up of tiny islands, the Chagos Archipelago is as long as Britain. The campaigners believe they can coexist with the Americans in the same island chain for now.

Professor Charles Sheppard is an environmental advisor for the British Commissioner in the British Indian Ocean Territories. He is also part of the Chagos Conservation Trust. Although he concedes that there is scope for some sensible resettlement of the islands, he believes it must be done properly, and views the proposal of the islanders to return home as an unsustainable plan.

Naturally, any scientist is going to be horrified at the prospect of someone building poorly planned landing strips and throwing up hotels on the world's least polluted atolls. The adverse effect of a human population on the diverse flora and fauna, most of which is in undisturbed protected conservation sites, is a major concern.

However, Professor Sheppard also points out logistical worries, such as the lack of fresh water on the island following sea level rise and coastal erosion, the lack of any planned sources of food other than fish and coconuts, the placement of the airport, or the optimistic occupancy targets for the proposed hotels.

It is his worry, and that of the Chagos Trust, that the islanders return using a poor resettlement plan and end up ruining their new home through environmental damage. If tourism does not generate the revenue they hoped it would, the only other source of income would be fishing, and other extractive industries. This could possibly lead to the abandonment of the islands once again.

Professor Sheppard's final concern is global warming. As the temperature of the Indian Ocean rises, this kills coral, which in turn leads to increased coastal erosion. One need only look to the nearby Seychelles – whose reefs largely died in 1998 – to see the effect this has, both on the availability of fish, as well as damage to the shoreline. Flood defences could cost as much as $10,000 a metre in the potentially worst affected areas. The problems of island living in a fragile environment can be seen on other islands in the Indian Ocean.

Professor Sheppard says, 'The Comoros Islands and others have already been terribly damaged due to over exploitation... The Chagos Islands seem to be the larder for the West Indian Ocean. They can either be left to provide for all who require it, or used up in a few years to support a non-sustainable native population. There might be scope for a 'middle way' but the Returning Home proposal goes nowhere near suggesting a sensible course of action.'

All of these concerns have been laid out in a detailed response to the Returning Home proposal, available on the Chagos Trust website »

Of course the Chagossians, and many experts, put forward a very different view to the one expressed by Professor Charles Sheppard and his team.

Living on the islands sustainably is a key concern. Returning islanders must live environmentally sustainably. Everyone is in agreement with this. But should they live economically sustainably? The US soldiers on Diego Garcia do not. Everything they need is flown in, at the expense of the US taxpayer.

Many campaigners point out that the inhabitants of other British Overseas Territories rely on financial support from the UK taxpayer for survival. St Helena, in the South Atlantic, relies on UK subsidies for over 70 percent of its operating budget. The 3,800 inhabitants received £15.7 million pounds for the 2006 / 2007 fiscal year. They are also getting a brand new international airport by 2010.

Likewise, Montserrat has received over £206 million pounds of UK support from the Department for International Development (DFID) from 1995 to 2004. Many may argue that the heavy levels of expenditure in this second example are the result of a volcanic catastrophe in 1995 that destroyed much of the island infrastructure, and forced two thirds of the population to flee. However, the principle is still the same; there are currently some 4,800 people living on St Helena, reliant on UK taxpayers for survival.

Stephen Grosz is a human rights lawyer with Bindmans LLP who was heavily involved in the struggle of the Chagossians throughout the 1980s and 1990s. He believes at this juncture the British government only has two options. 'They can either pass new primary legislation which would empower them to banning the islanders from returning, or they need to put in the infrastructure to get them back,' he says.

The House of Lords will not be addressing the logistics of getting the Chagossians home. It will either rule in favour or against the idea of their return. It remains to be seen if this funding will come from public sources, such as the DFID, or private investment.

Whether or not the islanders have presented a feasible plan for their resettlement in Returning Home seems irrelevant. It is not they, as British citizens, who should be planning how best to go home, but their government. The British government already commissioned a report into the feasibility of returning people to the islands, undertaken by the Dutch environmental consultancy firm Royal Haskoning in 2002.

The general conclusions were that it would be very difficult and very expensive, with high risk of flooding. Yet, considering the outlay the government is willing to make in other parts of the world to maintain British populations on far-flung islands, it seems odd that economics alone has kept the Chagossians in exile for the past 40 years. This brings us to the elephant in the room – the US.

The US lease on Diego Garcia does not expire until 2016. This huge military installation is a key strategic asset, which the US will not readily give up. In August 2002, the islanders appealed to George Bush to help them return home, but the response was that the US government supported the UK government's position on the islands. As they are officially British territory, there is little recourse for the Chagossians within the US legal system.

In 2001, a group of Chagossians filed a civil suit for damages in the US. In December of 2004, the case was dismissed by the District Court for the District of Columbia on several grounds, but most notably that the issue was a 'political question' and therefore non-justiciable. Given the levels of public embarrassment being caused to the British government by their treatment of the Chagossians, it seems clear that the biggest obstacle to the return of the Chagossians is not the cost but the wishes of the US. It is understandable that any government using an isolated island for rendition and torture of terrorist subjects would not want groups of native inhabitants and tourists moving in only a few hundred kilometres away.

Unpalatable as it may seem, given the current economic crisis and the Anglo-American 'special relationship' the UK government must pay a high price, both in financial and political terms, to deliver justice for the Chagossians. US security fears should not be enough to deprive the islanders of their homeland.

Likewise the expense of building and maintaining the infrastructure needed to resettle the islands after 40 years, including potential flood defences, should be no obstacle. The unique isolation of these islands over the past 40 years has helped foster some exceptional plant and animal life, which must be duly protected.

It may not be stated in the most scientifically accurate terms, but as the Returning Home proposal suggests, the Chagossians view their environment as a resource to be used sustainably, rather than mined indiscriminately. As The UK Chagos Support Association has stated, 'The Chagossians are extremely well aware of the value and fragility of their environment and would be beneficial in looking after it.' After waiting this long to go home, they will take every measure possible to ensure that they can stay there, and they deserve the help of the British government to achieve this.

Oscar Scafidi is a 23 year old teacher, traveller and writer. To find out more about the Chagos Islanders, go to the UK Chagos Support Association website at »

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Thu 28 Aug 2008, 18:07 BST
Issue No. 2116
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