The story of the Chagossians

Vidisha Biswas investigates the story of the Chagossians - forcibly removed from their Indian Ocean

Four decades and three legal defeats later, the British Foreign Office is still unwilling to allow some 5000 Chagossians to return to their island homes.

It has tried virtually everything in its power to prevent them, from pretending the Chagos islands had never been inhabited - other than by migrant labourers - to invoking the royal prerogative to overturn a British High Court ruling.

Now several hundred have agreed to renounce their right to return. Despite this, the government has been reluctant to meet even the modest demands that they are making in lieu.

The tragedy of the Chagossians dates back to the 1960s, when Washington decided that the island of Diego Garcia was perfect setting for a US military base. Diego Garcia is the largest of the 60 plus islands that form the Chagos archipelago, located in the heart of the Indian Ocean.

Britain bought these islands from Mauritius in 1965 for £3 million. Its population is estimated to have been about 2000 at the time. The dilemma facing the US and UK governments was how to clear the islands of its inhabitants, to make way for the American base.

They resolved this dilemma by tricking or intimidating the islanders into leaving. “We were then dumped in the sordid slums of the Mauritian capital, Port Louis,” recalls Olivier Bancoult, leader of almost 4000 Chagossians, many of whom are based, to this day, in those same slums.

In return for the use of the island, the US is believed to have given the UK a $14m discount on its purchase of a Polaris nuclear missile system. But it was ten years from the time of expulsion, before the islanders received any sort of compensation from the British government. The money when it did arrive, was - at £3,000-a-head - both too little and came too late, insists Mr Bancoult.

A British High Court judgement last year denounced the government’s actions as “repugnant”. Both the High Court and the Court of Appeal ruled that the use of the royal prerogative, which allows decisions to be made by ministers without consulting Parliament, had been unlawful. The Court of Appeal also refused the Foreign Office leave to appeal to the House of Lords.

That should have been the end of the matter. But earlier this year, the Foreign Office decided to petition the Law Lords directly for the right to appeal. If the Law Lords cede to the government’s demands then the case will be heard in 2008. The legal battle so far is estimated to have cost the taxpayer up to £4m.

“The ruling about the royal prerogative did not apply just to the Chagos islands,” explains a spokesperson for the Foreign Office. “It has implications for other overseas territories as well. If royal prerogatives are challengeable, it makes all legislation unsound. That is why the Foreign Office decided to petition the Law Lords.”

But Richard Gifford, the Chagossians' lawyer, thinks otherwise. “The islanders have been delayed by endless litigation from returning home,” he said. “The government has used every means of obstructing them in the hope perhaps that as many as possible will die off, and the instinct to go back will lessen.”

If that indeed is the case, then government efforts appear to have been successful, at least as far as the British Indian Ocean People’s Party (BIOPP) is concerned. This group, which comprises of several hundred Chagossian families that have migrated in recent years to Crawley, West Sussex, no longer desires to return to the Chagos archipelago.

“The way of life now, compared to the way of life 40 years ago, is completely different," explains Allen Vincatassin, leader of the BIOPP. “Our island homes, moreover, have long been reduced to wild, forest land. To make them habitable once again will mean spending huge amounts of public money.

“It will be near impossible to take up from where we left off. The islander’s can have a much better future in the UK. This is where they can recover from what they have lost and all that they have had to suffer.”

Easier said than done. Mr Vincatassin’s party has been campaigning since 2004 for Chagossians- who are all British passport holders - to be entitled to welfare benefits immediately following arrival in the UK.

Their demands were rejected by the British High Court last year. The matter is currently being considered by the Court of Appeal and a decision is expected within the next month.

“My people have to pass the habitual residence test. They can’t claim state benefits for three months,” explains Mr Vincatassin.

“This may not seem like a very long waiting period to most people. But for many Chagossians, who arrive in the UK with next to nothing, it can mean the difference between life and death.

“The government says that the residency rule applies to all British citizens. It was on these grounds that the High Court dismissed our claims.

“But we believe that we should be exceptions to that rule. After all, we have had to give up our homes in the name of British national interest. They owe us at least this much. But even in this regard, the UK government has so far failed us.

“Still we will not give up hope. We eagerly await the Court of Appeal's judgement. Till the very end, we will hold on to the hope that Britain will eventually heed the call of justice.”

Olivier Bancoult, however, accuses Mr Vincatassin of selling out. He said: “The only way the UK government can redeem itself is by allowing the Chagossians to return home as soon as possible, and by putting in place the necessary infrastructure that will allow them to carry on with their lives as before.

“I speak for the majority of Chagossians, who share the same demands. In any case, irrespective of whether or not all the islanders ultimately return, the point is that they should be given the right and the means to return... in other words, the choice.

“I find it hard to believe the lengths the British government will go to. Every time we think we have won the fight, it finds a new way of prolonging our misery. Many of us have given up hope of ever seeing our homeland again.

“How can a government that claims that it gives the greatest importance to human rights refuse to recognise the rights and dignity of the islanders, who too are British citizens?”

Vidisha Biswas specialised in literature before deciding to pursue a career in journalism. Her interests include human rights, foreign politics, music and philosophy.
Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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