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?”

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