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  1. The Weekend Report
6 January 2024

The Chagossians want their home back

In the Sixties the British government expelled them from their island. Exiled to the UK, they’ve never given up hope of returning to their island.

By Morgane Llanque

On 1 December 2023, Bernadette Dugasse woke to a phone call from her lawyers. Britain will not let go of the Chagos Islands, they told her. A year before, Dugasse began legal action against the British government for excluding her and her people from the negotiations over handing sovereignty of the Indian Ocean archipelago to Mauritius. Chagos is one of Britain’s last colonies; it is also her home. Dugasse has fought for the right to return to Chagos her whole life.

The Telegraph reported on the same day as her call from lawyers that the Defence Secretary, Grant Shapps, wanted to cancel the Foreign Office’s 2022 decision to hand the territory over to Mauritius. “I am not surprised at all,” Dugasse told me over the phone. “The UK is ignoring our right to self-determination once again.”

Most people in the UK are unlikely to have heard of these coral reef-fringed islands, 600 miles south of the Maldives. In the late 1960s, British soldiers violently evicted the 1,500 inhabitants of the main island, Diego Garcia, to make way for a US military base. That outpost, on one of the few islands in the region naturally protected from cyclones, would be used as a launching pad for military operations in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. In return for this asset, the US offered the British government under Harold Wilson $14m for the right to deport the Chagossians and a discount on the Polaris nuclear submarine system. This secret deal was only revealed by lawyers and historians two decades later. The British designed the flag of their colony to depict a Union Jack on blue waves, adorned with a palm tree piercing a crown.

For the Chagossians, this flag embodies the memory of their homes being destroyed and their pet dogs threatened by the British army. It reminds them of how they were forced to live in Mauritius, the Seychelles and the UK, where thousands of Chagossian descendants settled after the UK’s decision in 2002 to grant them citizenship. Crawley, in Sussex, was attractive because of the town’s proximity to Gatwick Airport, which offered quick employment opportunities. But though the Chagossians have built lives here in the past two decades, most don’t feel at home.

In Crawley late last year, around 50 Chagossian elders gathered in the small brick Broadfield Community Centre and sat down at long tables covered with hand-drawn bingo cards. There was free food and fizzy drinks. Most attendees never took off their winter coats because the room was ice cold. The Chagossians rose for prayers in their French creole language, said the Lord’s Prayer and uttered a Hail Mary. Then they sat down and played bingo. They also chatted. About the latest deaths in the community. And always about Chagos.

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Marielle does not care for English fish. “I want to go back to our beaches. We fished for our own food in the sea. We were picking coconuts from the trees. No walking in the cold to a supermarket to buy them.” She laughed bitterly.

Marie May Rose was only 11 years old when British soldiers forced her to go to Mauritius. She is now 87. “I am too old now to go back, the journey is hard,” she told me. “But I want my children and grandchildren to be able to live there.” After her Mauritian husband died, Marie came to live with relatives in Crawley.

Her granddaughter Tania sat beside her, cradling her newborn son. Tania was raised in the UK and is grateful for the life Marie and her people created. Still Tania is worried for the future of her people. “As more and more of our elders are dying, it is important to preserve our culture. I want my son to speak Chagossian creole, to know our music and our dances. That’s why, when he’s a bit older, I’ll take him to the local children’s heritage group to learn our customs. Otherwise there will be nothing left of us.” She doesn’t seem to believe Chagossians will ever live on the archipelago again.

“They [the British government] have never officially explained why it was necessary to forcibly remove the Chagossians,” said Clive Baldwin, senior legal adviser at Human Rights Watch. Baldwin’s organisation published a report in February last year on what the US and UK perpetrated against the islanders. “The US and UK have committed crimes against humanity. We know from the archival material we examined that it was done for racist reasons. Because in Cyprus and the Falklands, there was no problem with having local communities around the US military bases. But in Chagos, the majority of the people were black.”

Chagossians are descended from African slaves and the Indian, Chinese and Malaysian workers the French brought to their former colonies to work on coconut oil plantations. After the defeat of Napoleon, Britain claimed the French colonies of Mauritius and Chagos in 1814, and cut off the latter from the former three years before Mauritian independence in 1968 – to provide the base for its American ally. The former prime minister of Mauritius, Anerood Jugnauth, who was part of the independence negotiations, claimed until his death in 2021 that Wilson had threatened: give us Chagos, or there will be no independent Mauritius. In 2022, to provoke the British government, a Mauritian delegation raised the Mauritius flag on one of the Chagos islands – symbolically claiming it as their own territory.

As the UK-US deal took shape, a British government memorandum dated 24 August 1966 said of the Chagossians: “Unfortunately along with the Birds go some few Tarzans or Man Fridays whose origins are obscure, and who are being hopefully wished on to Mauritius.” To avoid having to report to the United Nations, the UK falsely declared that Chagos had no permanent population.

The colonial language and perception that the Chagossians were no more important than a few pesky birds continued into the 21st century. In 2009, WikiLeaks released diplomatic cables from US embassies, including one in which the British Foreign Office noted its belief that “establishing a marine reserve might indeed… be the most effective long-term way to prevent any of the Chagos Islands’ former inhabitants or their descendants from resettling” in the archipelago. The “environmental lobby” was deemed to be “far more powerful than the Chagossians’ advocates”. A large marine reserve was created a year later around the islands. If any islanders returned to Diego Garcia, they would no longer be allowed to set their nets for fresh fish and crab.

The eviction of the Chagossians is now widely recognised as a colonial wrong. In 2019, the International Court of Justice called on the UK to end its rule over the Chagos Islands “as rapidly as possible”. At the United Nations General Assembly in May 2019, 116 countries recognised the Chagos Islands as Mauritian territory and recommended that the UK withdraw from there within six months. Part of the resolution also demanded the return of Mauritian citizens, including those of Chagossian descent, to the archipelago.

Following international pressure, on 3 November 2022 the then foreign secretary James Cleverly announced that the UK and Mauritius had entered into negotiations. Both states had agreed to ensure the continued operation of the joint UK-US military base on Diego Garcia. The Chagossians themselves were not included in the conversation. Apart from a one-hour Zoom meeting, members of the Elders’ Council and Human Rights Watch told me, the British government has not only refused to share any details of the negotiations with the Chagossians, but it has also put on hold the so-called heritage visits – sponsored trips for them to get at least a glimpse of their homeland – until the discussions have concluded.

However, the UK seems to have forgotten its promise of giving up sovereignty entirely. In early December, the Foreign Secretary David Cameron met with the US secretary of state Antony Blinken and, in a joint press conference, Washington recognised British sovereignty over Chagos. When confronted with the Telegraph report, Cameron simply said that he and Blinken had “touched on that”.

In the months before, several Conservative politicians, including Boris Johnson, had publicly warned against handing over Chagos to Mauritius. The former prime minister said it would be “utterly spineless” and “a colossal mistake” to give them away in the middle of a global power struggle over the Pacific region. The former head of the British navy, Alan West, also warned that it could be a huge security risk to give Chagos to a country allied with China. Doing so, he added, might also lead to questioning of British claims over other oversea territories, such as the Falkland Islands.

Frankie Bontemps disagrees. He is one of the leaders of the NGO Chagossian Voices, a civic platform for the archipelago’s diaspora. Like most Chagossians, he has no issue with the US military base remaining on Diego Garcia. “We can live together peacefully,” assured Bontemps. “They have hired a lot of Filipinos to work at the base’s facilities. These could have been Chagossian jobs.” Bontemps, like many in the community, is suspicious of the UK and US governments, but even more so of Mauritius. “They just want Chagos so they can make money by leasing the base to the US and UK,” he said. “They have no interest in our return.” In this way, the US’s recognition of British sovereignty there is a relief for Bontemps and his organisation. “Even if they are still not including us in the conversation, we’d rather negotiate with them than with Mauritius.”

The Chagossians in Crawley told me how they and their families were treated as second-class citizens in Mauritius, forced to live in barracks on the outskirts of its capital city, Port Louis. Some, they claim, killed themselves. When the British government forced them to Mauritius, it paid a small amount of compensation to some Chagossians through the Mauritian government – but Britain has otherwise refused to pay reparations. “Instead,” said Clive Baldwin, “the UK declared that a return of the Chagossians could not be realised, for security reasons and because it would be too expensive for the British taxpayers. Which is ridiculous, because they are so few.”

Though the UK and US governments have described the eviction of Chagossians as “regrettable” – and Grant Shapps said last month that the eviction was “obviously wrong” – they have never officially apologised. The Chagossians who were taken to the Seychelles have never received any form of compensation, nor have they been the subject of negotiations between the UK and Mauritius. Britain opened a fund for £40m to be distributed to Chagossians, but the community said it has only received a small amount of this money. Meanwhile, Crawley Borough Council has repeatedly written to Downing Street for financial help, as more and more members of the diaspora apply for British citizenship and prepare to join their families in the Sussex town, the closest thing the islanders and their descendants have to a home – or rather, what many see as their best option until they can return to their real home.

The New Statesman asked the Foreign Office about the potential measures taken to help Crawley and the Chagossians. It said: “We continue to work closely with Crawley Borough Council to prepare for potential arrivals into the area.” The department also refused to give information on the current state of negotiations with Mauritius.

“My old passport said I was born in Diego Garcia, the main island of Chagos,” Bernadette Dugasse told me. “But when I picked up my new passport last month, it suddenly said Mauritius. Who knows what it will say now.” The Chagossians have written to David Cameron asking for a face-to-face meeting. They do not expect an answer.

[See also: Pax Americana’s last gasp]

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