‘A shockingly recent act of imperial arrogance’ was one journalist’s description of the eviction of the Chagos islanders. It’s no exaggeration – the courts have heard plenty of evidence about the conspiracy of lies and half truths by the UK and the US, designed to allow them to trample on the rights of thousands of people without anybody finding out. Now, four decades on, the eviction has been ruled illegal, but the legal battle goes on.
Where are the Chagos islands?
The Chagos archipelago is a chain of 65 small coral islands in the Indian Ocean, about halfway between Africa and Indonesia, seven degrees south of the Equator. The largest island, Diego Garcia, covers only 17 square miles – the others are much smaller. The climate is hot and humid, and tempered by sea breezes. The soil is very fertile and the seas around the islands are rich in fish.
The islands were known to Arab seafarers in early centuries, and the first Europeans to discover them were the Portuguese, in the 16th century. They did not settle the islands but they gave Diego Garcia the name it still holds.
Who are the Chagossians?
In 1776 a handful of French colonists were given permission by their government to develop coconut plantations in the Chagos islands on condition that they also establish a leper colony there. They brought in slaves from Madagascar, Mozambique and Senegal. Coconut palms and sugar cane flourished on the islands.
When British colonists took possession of the islands in 1835, after the Napoleonic Wars, one of them recorded that there was already a settled population when they arrived. The slaves were freed, became the plantation owners, and developed their own economy. The oil of the coconut was much in demand in the 19th and early 20th centuries in Europe and the Indian subcontinent. Bonded labourers, and their families, were brought in from Mauritius and the Seychelles. The workers were paid wages, mostly in goods (e.g. rice), but also in money. The money was retained by the plantation owners until a sufficient sum had been gathered to enable the worker to travel to Mauritius by the supply ship and buy goods for their household. This ship visited the island from Mauritius at intervals, bringing mail and supplies and collecting the coconut crop. The voyage took six days. Almost every adult person on the island worked in the plantations. Each family had their own ‘house’ and plot of land on which to grow fruit and vegetables and rear poultry. The men also fished, the favourite catch being lobster. Although the plantation work was hard, living conditions were good and there was general contentment.
The Chagossian people evolved their own distinctive Creole language and their own culture. The social system was matriarchal – almost certainly a legacy of the leper colony, as women survive leprosy better than men. The majority of the islanders are Christian in the tradition of the Church of Rome. There is a church on Diego Garcia, which, like the other main buildings on the island, is of coral rock – an enduring material. As the population grew, the outer islands were also settled. Visits took place between the islands, but only occasionally, as the smaller islands are all more than 100 miles from Diego Garcia. There was a schoolhouse on Diego Garcia, but little, if any formal education and no understanding of a cash economy.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, this unique and peaceful way of life came to an abrupt end.
The evictionIn the midst of the Cold War, the United States decided it wanted a military base in the Indian Ocean to keep the USSR and China from threatening the Arabian Gulf. Suddenly the Chagos archipelago was more than just an insignificant speck on the map. The US’ first choice location for a new base was the uninhabited Aldabra Atoll, but Harold Wilson, the then British Prime Minister, feared antagonism from ecologists, as Aldabra is home to a rare breed of turtle. So he offered Diego Garcia instead, even though it was inhabited.
In 1966 Britain secretly leased Diego Garcia to the US for 50 years, with the option of an extension. This was done in exchange for a discount of millions of dollars on Polaris nuclear submarines – a way of concealing the payment. The US pays rent of one dollar per year. The deal was not disclosed to the US Congress, the British Parliament, or the United Nations.
Until this time the Chagos islands had been part of the British colony of Mauritius, but in order to lease Diego Garcia to the US, Britain had to avoid giving the islands back to Mauritius when that country became independent in 1968. So, in 1965 the “British Indian Ocean Territory”, as the archipelago is now officially known, was invented for the sole purpose of setting up the base. It is the only new British colony to be established since decolonisation. This was a violation of UN Declaration 1514 of 1960 stating the inalienable right of colonial peoples to independence, and Resolution 2066 of 1965 (which Britain never signed), instructing Britain to “take no action which would dismember the territory of Mauritius and violate [its] territorial integrity”. Britain retains the islands to this day, promising to return them to Mauritius as soon as the US and the UK are done with them.
Not only did Britain have to effectively steal the islands, it also had to get rid of the people. The US took Diego Garcia only on condition that all the Chagos islands were uninhabited – the Chagossians had to go. To achieve this, Britain simply pretended that there were no Chagossians, and conspired to make sure their unlawful removal went unnoticed.
The Foreign Office invented a false history, claiming that the Chagossians were only itinerant labourers with no right of abode on the islands. This is a lie and they knew it – many Chagossians were fifth generation islanders. It is on record that one senior Foreign Office official described the islanders, in a letter, as ‘mere Tarzans and Men Fridays’. The US and the UK succeeded in keeping secret what had happened for many years. A small token force of British naval personnel is kept on Diego Garcia, which is now the US’ largest overseas military base.
In 1967 the British government bought out the plantation owners, shut down the plantations and stopped the regular supply ship. With no warning or consultation, the islanders, numbering about 2000 at this time, were told that they were all being evicted. Those who tried to flee to the outer islands were rounded up. The islanders were isolated, intimidated, and tricked into believing that they would be settled into a similar environment with their own land and houses.
Armed men put the islanders in groups of 300 or more on to a ship designed to carry 50 and shipped them off to Mauritius or the Seychelles. They were forced to abandon their homes and all their possessions except one small bag each. These men slaughtered their livestock and destroyed their homes. Many of the exiles witnessed all of this.
Those who were on trips away at the time were simply not allowed back, left stranded in foreign lands with nothing but what they had with them. In 1971, Britain made it official with an Immigration Ordinance denying the Chagossians the right to ever return home.
Living in exile
After a voyage of six days in what must have been appalling conditions, the exiles were dumped on the quayside at Port Louis, Mauritius, homeless and penniless. No-one from the British High Commission in Mauritius even came to the quayside to offer help – even though these were Commonwealth subjects. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has never explained why. (When we asked them recently, they simply pointed to the £650,000 compensation granted in 1973, and the court decision in 2003 to grant nothing further).
The confused and frightened exiles had to find what accommodation they could. Most of them ended up in slums, some in windowless animal huts. The last shipload of islanders staged a sit-down strike on board the ship and were rewarded with small payments of money from the High Commission, which deepened resentment among earlier exiles.
Mauritius was the worst possible destination for the Chagossians. It was over-populated and had high unemployment. The exiles, without formal education and not fluent in the local language, had little or no hope of finding work. They were not welcomed by the Mauritian people and suffered, and are still suffering, racial abuse. Many have turned to alcohol and drugs, there have been several suicides, whole families have perished from malnutrition.
In 1973 the British government transferred £650,000 to the Mauritian government for the aid of the Chagossian exiles. Some of this money was intended to be used to resettle the exiles on farm land but there was much disagreement and theexiles were so desperate for money, that the resettlement plan was abandoned and, eventually, in 1978 the money was disbursed. Although this money helped some of the exiles to obtain better housing, most of them were left no better off. All of them had been forced to borrow money in order to survive and their share had to be used to discharge their debts.
It was not until 1982 that any more money came from the British government. A sum of £4 million was allotted as a ‘full and final settlement’ – but in order to obtain a share the exiles had to sign away their right to ever return to their homeland.
In 1983 there was a stirring amongst some leading members of the exiles, and the Chagos Refugee Group was formed. The name chosen by this group shows that, after two decades in Mauritius, they still believed strongly in their Chagossian identity.
The situation of the Chagossian exiles in Mauritius remains largely unchanged. Visitors to Mauritius describe the pitiful homes they live in and their sense of desperation. There have been some improvements, including the granting of British passports in May 2002, although some suspect this was a “poisoned chalice”, to weaken the Chagossians’ claim to compensation, and weaken Mauritius’ claim to sovereignty over the islands. Quite a number of them have come to the UK, with the single largest concentration in Crawley, West Sussex. How very different their treatment is from that of the people of the Falkland Islands.
Many more Chagossians will die of old age and despair before they can be repatriated.
In November 2000 came a landmark decision by the High Court ruling that the expulsion of the Chagossians was unlawful. The court case brought to light many documents detailing the full crime of the eviction, which had recently become public under the 30 year rule. As a result of the ruling, the order which had expelled the Chagossians had to be immediately amended, conferring on those born on the islands, and their children, the right to resettle on all the islands.
However, the government said that this would have to be balanced with their treaty obligations to the US, so the right to return excluded Diego Garcia. This makes the Diego Garcia base possibly the only one in the world with no adjacent civilian population.
But when asked about actually returning, the UK and the US both said it was the other’s responsibility. Meanwhile, the yachtsmen who frequent the outer islands were still tolerated, and the base continued to employ about 2,000 civilian personnel, recruited from the Philippines and Sri Lanka.
A feasibility study into resettlement of the islands was completed in June 2002 by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It concluded that resettlement would be difficult, precarious and costly ,and mentions floods, earthquakes and global warming as possible hazards. But Harvard resettlement expert Jonathan Jenness said the study’s conclusions were “erroneous in every assertion” He also criticised the study for its lack of data, lack of objectivity, and a complete failure to consult the Chagossians themselves. It has been pointed out that a settled population lived there happily for generations, and that the Americans live there now without worrying unduly about natural disasters.
On Thursday 10 June 2004 (better known as “Super Thursday” – local election day) royal orders were suddenly passed banning anyone from setting foot on the Chagos islands. The government made sure no one knew about this shocking move until it was too late. Not only did they pass the laws secretly as “orders in council” – requiring no prior consultation or debate – they also buried the move on a day when the news was dominated by the elections. The orders amounted to a new act of exile, overruling the court victory in 2000. This blow was followed a few days later by the refusal of permission to appeal a High Court ruling from October 2003 which denied the Chagossians compensation.
On Thursday 11 May 2006 the High Court overturned the orders in council of 2004, giving the Chagossians back the right of return that they won in 2000. The islanders’ solicitor Richard Gifford said: “The British Government has been defeated in its attempt to abolish the right of abode of the islanders after first deporting them in secret 30 years ago…This is the fourth time in five years that Her Majesty’s judges have deplored the treatment inflicted upon this fragile community.”
But it wouldn’t be the last time – the Government appealed against the ruling, and a year later, was defeated again at the Court of Appeal, with the judges calling its treatment of the islanders unlawful and an abuse of power. It then took its appeal to the House of Lords, where the Law lords ruled in October 2008 by a majority of three-to-two to allow the government’s appeal.
In short, it means that the highest court in the land has decided the ‘Orders in Council’ used secretly to renew the islanders’ eviction in 2004 (after they had won the right to return four years earlier) were indeed legal, despite the High Court and Court of Appeal having said they were not. But the islanders haven’t given up, and are taking their case to the European Court of Human Rights.
An All Party Parliamentary Group on Chagos was established in late 2008 and has gone on to become one of the most active cross-party groups. In July 2009 the Foreign and Commonwealth Office decided that it would contest the case at the European Court of Human Rights, instead of seeking a friendly settlement as the court suggested. It’s the fourth time in a decade the FCO has chosen to fight the case rather than admit that the removal of the Chagossians was, and still is, a violation of their human rights.
In March 2010 an Early Day Motion tabled by Labour MP Diane Abbott, calling for the government to drop the case, racked up signatures from 62 MPs. In the run-up to the 2010 general election, numerous candidates pledged support for the Chagossians, with William Hague (now Foreign Secretary) promising to push for a fair settlement, and Nick Clegg (now Deputy Prime Minister) saying the government had a moral responsibility to let the islanders go home.
But after the election the coalition government revealed that it would continue to contest the case at the European Court of Human Rights, saying that the arguments against resettlement are “clear and compelling”. It also continued with the previous government’s plan for a Marine Protected Area, which effectively blocks resettlement by banning all fishing in Chagos.
A decision is expected from the European Court of Human Rights soon. The struggle goes on.