No way home
This week the law lords denied Chagossians their right of the return. Sean Carey joined islanders at
On Wednesday around 30 Chagossians converged on parliament, to hear the law lords deliver their verdict on the government appeal against their right to return.
They had lived in the islands of the Chagos archipelago until the British authorities removed from their homes more than four decades ago, transporting them to Mauritius and the Seychelles in order to make way for the important US military base on the island of Diego Garcia.
Sabrina Jean, 35, a Chagossian, attended the hearing. In 2006, she moved from the Mauritian capital, Port Louis, and joined a community of 100 Chagossians in Crawley near Gatwick airport. She came to the UK in search of a better life for herself and her three children, after the islanders were given British citizenship. "Life in Mauritius has become very difficult especially for poor people," she says.
Would she return to the Chagos Islands if allowed? "Of course. My father was born in Peros Banhos and Chagos is our motherland. We would have a better life there - we would live on our beautiful islands and have our culture back. Crawley is not my home."
"I'm very confident" we will win the case, she says with a big smile.
Collins Modliar, 38, works as a docker for the Mauritius Cargo Handling Corporation in Port Louis. His grandfather and grandmother were born on Peros Banhos and Salomon Island respectively. "I am hoping that justice will be done," he says. "In fact, I'm sure it will be done."
He too wants to go and live in Chagos. "I want to live in the land of my grandparents. My people had a good life there. They didn't wish for anything - they had good health too." He adds: "Everyone wants to live in their own motherland."
Olivier Bancoult, leader of the Chagos Refugee Group, and his lawyer Richard Gifford appear an hour after the verdict. Bancoult's body language is telling. Unlike previous occasions, following victories in the High Court and Court of Appeal, there is no smile or clenched fist. The law lords have given a three-to-two majority decision against the islanders’ right of return.
As the news spreads around the hall, most of the islanders looked shell-shocked. Neither they, nor their supporters, had expected the government's appeal to be upheld.
"I'm very sad and disappointed that the Law Lords have not allowed the islanders the freedom to return home," says David Snoxell, the former British High Commissioner to Mauritius and a strident advocate of the islanders’ cause since his retirement.
At a press conference in the House of Commons, Bancoult appears devastated, but tries to stay upbeat. "It is a sad day for the Chagossians but our people will not give up,” he says. “It says in Magna Carta that everyone has a right to live in their birthplace. I ask everyone to continue to support us."
"You will never walk alone!" shouts someone from the back as others respond with a weak cheer.
The ruling has upset Sabrina and Collins. "I'm very, very sad about this judgement," says Sabrina. "But we will continue to fight the British government. We want to get back to our islands. I don't think I can say much more right now." She is clearly in shock.
Collins is inconsolable. “How come we failed in the appeal?" he says shaking his head in disbelief. There are tears in his eyes. "I don't understand it. It is an injustice. We will have to think about what we do next when we go back to Port Louis on Monday."
Meanwhile, foreign secretary David Miliband has released a statement welcoming the law lords ruling, but noting "the government's regret at the way the resettlement of the Chagossians was carried out in the 1960s and 1970s and at the hardship that followed for some of them."
"We do not seek to justify those actions and do not seek to excuse the conduct of an earlier generation. But the courts have previously ruled that fair compensation has been paid and that the UK has no legal obligation to pay any further compensation," he said.
The Chagossians now have little option but to continue their fight in the European Court of Human Rights.
Dr Sean Carey is Research Fellow at CRONEM, Roehampton University.