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9 April 2008updated 24 Sep 2015 11:16am

How the Chagossians could go home

The issue of whether it would actually be viable for the Chagossian people to return to their former

By Sean Carey

Around 150 people are crammed into the Moses Room of the House of Lords. All seats are taken and it is standing-room only. The occasion (on 8 April) is the launch of “Returning Home”, a report on the prospects of resettlement of Chagossian exiles currently living in Mauritius, the Seychelles and the UK to two of the outer islands in the Chagos archipelago, Peros Banhos and Salomon, which lie some 2200 miles east of Madagascar.

On the wall at the far end of the room hangs a huge portrait with a classical cast of characters. The inscription at the bottom reads: “Moses bringing down the Tablets of the Law to the Israelites”.

The ironic contrast between a key scene from biblical history and the current interests of the assembled multitude – parliamentarians, human rights campaigners, members of the Chagos Refugee Group from Mauritius and a good number of British-based Chagossians some of whom are wearing “Let Them Return” t-shirts to highlight the start of a PR campaign – was not lost on Lord Avebury, Vice-Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group.

“The removal of the Chagossians from their homeland was a gross violation of the law,” said the Liberal Democrat peer who was sporting a Barack Obama badge on his lapel as he gestured in the direction of the picture of Moses the law-giver. “It was an operation that has no parallel in modern history.”

The Chagos Islands were detached from the colony of Mauritius in 1965 prior to the country’s independence in 1968 and became part of the British Indian Ocean Territory. Some 2000 islanders were then removed from their homeland between 1965 and 1973 to make way for the US base on Diego Garcia, the largest and southernmost island in the Chagos group.

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Since 2000, the islanders have won the right to return to their island homes three times in the British courts, the last occasion in the Court of Appeal in 2007. But their return has been blocked by the government which has petitioned the House of Lords. The case will begin on 30 June with a judgement expected in October. It will be the end of a very long and exhausting legal road for the islanders.

About half of the original islanders have died since their forced removal but those who are still alive and their descendants who today number some 5000 (made up of 800 families) were granted British citizenship in 2002. In fact, some 600 Chagossians have now made their way to the UK with a significant number settling in Crawley where opportunities for unskilled and semi-skilled work in the town and at nearby Gatwick airport are good and far better than those on offer in Mauritius and the Seychelles.

The resettlement report was presented by Dr John Howell, former director of the Overseas Development Institute. He made it clear at the outset that the days of a subsistence-style lifestyle largely based on the coconut plantations was no longer a viable option for the islanders (although he did point out that the coconuts could provide an energy source for biodiesel for transport and other equipment as well as food). But according to Howell there would be a multitude of other job opportunities available to returning islanders especially those concerned with eco-tourism, fishing and marine husbandry in one of the most “fragile environments” on the planet.

For some years now the Foreign & Commonwealth Office has argued that resettlement of the islanders is not practical because of the ongoing financial commitment which would have to be picked up by the British taxpayer.

But on the basis of consultations with Chagossians resident in Mauritius, Howell argued that it would be possible to resettle an initial 150 families – around 1000 people – on Peros Banhos without too much difficulty. Of course, the capital and technical assistance costs would have to be provided by the British government but the £25 million that would be required over a period of five years was, according to Howell, “a tiny fraction of the British aid budget.”

And he fully expected that, over time, the islanders would be able to pay their way. He claimed that the presence of the Chagossians on the islands would also ensure the “protection of a uniquely important environment” and added that the prospects for a sustainable community were much better on Peros Banhos and other islands in the Chagos group, for example, than for other British Overseas Territories like the Falklands, Montserrat or Tristan da Cunha which also receive funding from the British taxpayer.

The ex-British High Commissioner to Mauritius, 2000 – 2002, David Snoxell, a vocal critic since his retirement of the government’s persistent refusal to allow the islanders to return to their “motherland” was also present at the event and made a telling contribution. He advised the parliamentarians present to press government ministers at every opportunity about “why the presence of people 150 miles away – British people, I might add – could adversely affect the workings of the US base on Diego Garcia?”

It’s a very good question.

Dr Sean Carey is Research Fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM), Roehampton University

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