Life in Exile
Many more Chagossians will die of old age and despair before they can be repatriated.
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.