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Britain's other islanders petition the White House

The Chagossians’ campaign for justice gathers pace as a petition passes the 25,000 threshold.

New Statesman
Chagos Islanders leave London's Houses of Parliament. Photograph: Getty Images.

This morning, the We the People petition to the White House asking for justice for the exiled Chagos Islanders has achieved more than the 25,000 signatures required to trigger a response from the Obama Administration.

The petition, launched on 5 March by SPEAK, a Port Louis-based human rights group, started slowly with about 100 people a day signing up. But a week ago, Le Mauricien, one of the main daily newspapers in Mauritius, decided to back the campaign by running a two-page spread featuring contributions from bestselling author and Patron of the UK Chagos Support Association, Philippa Gregory, former British High Commissioner to Mauritius, David Snoxell, and Oslo University’s  Thomas Hylland Eriksen among others.

Eriksen, one of the world’s leading social anthropologists, who has conducted extensive fieldwork in Mauritius over the last two decades, was characteristically forthright about the fate of the 1800 or so people, the descendants of African slaves and Indian indentured labourers, who were forcibly removed from their homeland by the British authorities between 1968 and 1973 to make way for the US base on Diego Garcia. He said:

The displaced Chagossians or Ilois have suffered enough. Economically and socially deprived in Mauritius since the day of their arrival - many were even deported against their knowledge, believing that they were only going on a visit - Chagossians have tirelessly, but so far unsuccessfully, campaigned for a return. Successive governments of Mauritius have also firmly demanded the return of the archipelago to Mauritius, which would enable repatriation.  It is time to act, and nobody who looks at the issue from a neutral perspective can be in doubt as to where justice lies.

Le Mauricien’s endorsement, together with an appeal made by Olivier Bancoult, the leader of the Chagos Group, and Mauritian foreign minister Dr Arvin Boolell, had an immediate effect. The number of signatories, mainly young people in Mauritius, took off. Unfortunately, even though the Indian Ocean island, renowned as a luxury holiday destination, is one of the most prosperous countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Internet penetration is still relatively low at around 25 per cent of the 1.3 million population. This means that only a fraction of poorer households, including the 600 or so surviving native-born Chagossians and their descendants, know how to or have been able to sign up.

Last Thursday, TV adventurer Ben Fogle, another patron of the UK Chagos Support Association, who secretly visited some of the outer islands in the Chagos Archipelago, while researching his book The Teatime Islands, penned an additional piece for Le Mauricien appealing for people to add their names to the petition providing an additional boost to the numbers. He wrote:

The story of the Chagossians at the hands of the UK government is one for which I am ashamed to be British. It is a story of deceit and tragedy that has been described by some as the darkest day in British overseas policy. It has transfixed me for over a decade and shaken my very principles on conservation and democracy. It is a story of deceit that has left thousands of ‘British refugees’ living in misery for the last 40 years, exiled from their island home by a conniving and unrepentant government.

On the same day, John Price, former US ambassador to Mauritius (2002 – 2005), appointed by President George W Bush, revealed on his blog that he had asked Washington on several occasions for financial and other help in order to enable the Chagos Islanders to integrate more fully into Mauritian society. His appeals were unsuccessful. The Berlin-born multi-millionaire businessman, whose Jewish family had fled Nazi Germany in 1933, also wanted his government to explore the feasibility of a return by the Chagossians to the Archipelago’s outer islands like Peros Banhos and Salomon, which lie more than 100 miles north of Diego Garcia. He said:

I understood the Chagossians’ plight, and the desire to go back to their ancestral home. They had never been fully integrated into the Mauritian culture; they had no roots there, and even after thirty years, most still lived in abject poverty. On several occasions on my way to or from the US Embassy in Port Louis, Mauritius, I had taken a circuitous route through the Cassis district at the foot of Signal Mountain, about a mile from the embassy where a Chagossian community was located. They live in crowded shacks made of rusted corrugated metal, with skinny chickens picking through the garbage. With high unemployment, poor health conditions, and limited education opportunities, little will change in the lives of these Chagossians. I could see why many believe their only option was to ultimately return to the Chagos Archipelago. At least it would feel like home, and eking out a living there would be better than struggling to exist in the rat-infested environment of Cassis.

It's not clear whether the former US ambassador has signed the We the People petition, but with some experience of the slum conditions in which the vast majority of the Chagos Islanders in Mauritius are obliged to make their lives as a direct consequence of US and UK foreign policy, he was certainly making a good case for others to do so. He and the Chagossians are now looking forward to the White House’s response.

Dr Sean Carey is Research Fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of Roehampton