Resettled Chagos as model Overseas Territory: Young Fabians Event with Labour Shadow Minister
A Young Fabian’s meeting last night (19th April 2016) on British Overseas Territories gave our Secretary Martin Stanley and Chairperson Stefan Donnelly a chance to speak up for Chagossians’ wishing to return to their homeland.
The Chagos Islands, which are formally known as the British Indian Ocean Territory, remain a British Overseas Territory. Unlike all other Overseas Territories, however, the native population was removed as part of a deal which led to the construction of a US military base.
The meeting featured an opening speech from Catherine West, the Labour Shadow Foreign Minister with responsibility for the Chagos Islands. Ms West was kind enough to meet with Martin and Stefan prior to the meeting to discuss the Chagossian struggle for return.
She confirmed that Labour would be backing Chagossian return and discussed her recent questions to James Duddridge, the Minister with responsibility for Chagos, in the House of Commons.
In a discussion which involved everything from tax avoidance to environmental protection, Martin made sure the history of the Chagossian people was not neglected with his opening speech. He described the Chagossian people’s appalling treatment as they were deported and left in exile and poverty in Mauritius and the Seychelles.
Prior to his voluntary work with UK Chagos Support Association, Martin was Deputy Governor in the Turks and Caicos Islands, another of the UK's Overseas Territories.
Recognising this year as a unique opportunity for the Government to end this shameful episode of history, he added that we must “hope, pray and work that Chagossians win the return they so deserve and desire.”
He added that whilst the Government seems to remain hesitant about investing the money to restart Chagossian society, there are many sources of funding which could make the cost to British taxpayers considerably lighter. These included EU funds, support from the United States and private sector investment.
After Martin’s speech, the panel took questions from the audience. Our Committee Chair Stefan, who was also on the panel, spoke in answer to some of these questions as well.
Points addressed included the protection of the Chagos Islands unique natural environment. Stefan emphasised that “one of the major reasons Chagossian people want to go back is protect their homeland and environmental heritage,” adding that this had been acknowledged in the Government-commissioned feasibility study into return.
A representative of UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum confirmed that there were real benefits to an engaged local population working to protect their environment. She cited the example of the Pitcairn Islands, where a small local population are critical in biodiversity and environmental conservation. She also noted the great work that been done by young Chagossians working and training with ZSL in modern conservation practices.
One audience member questioned whether Chagossians were “really the original inhabitants” of the islands. Our Committee Chair affirmed they most definitely were and had lived on the islands for almost 200 hundred years before their deportation.
He later added that there was a unique opportunity to make the Chagos Islands a "model overseas territory for the 21st century," by supporting a fair resettlement programme this year.