Ministers pressed on Chagossian return as Government decision looms
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Tobias Ellwood, a Government Foreign Office Minister, has pledged that a decision on Chagossian return was expected “before the end of the year,” during a well-attended Westminster Hall debate on the issue this week.
The vast majority of speakers called for Chagossians to be allowed to return to their homeland, a place they were evicted from in the late 1960s and early 1970s to make way for a US military base. That agreement expires this year and during the debate several MPs pressed for the government to make US support for Chagossian return a fundamental condition of any renewed agreement.
Responding for the Government Mr Ellwood said that the government would reach a decision before the end of the year. He expressed “sincere regret” for the suffering of Chagossians and their deportation, but would not commit to backing a return programme.
He acknowledged the “strong attachment to and wish to resettle the Chagos Islands,” from the Chagossian community, a number of whom attended the debate in person. He also recognised an independent report stated return “could be viable.”
Adding a note of caution, however, he said resettlement “would not be straightforward,” and said “the interests of wider UK taxpayers would need to be considered.”
Labour Shadow Foreign Minister Catherine West spoke strongly in favour of return during her contribution to the debate. She highlighted the “appalling irony” that Filipinos migrant workers and US military contractors could live on Diego Garcia, but Chagossians could not.
Referring to a Supreme Court judgement earlier in the year, she argued the verdict indicated that the current legal ban on Chagossian return “may not be lawful” and is likely to face further legal challenge if there is not a political solution.
Citing possible sources of funding for return including private sector investment, NGO support and US government contributions, she suggested the idea that Chagossian return would be a significant burden on the UK taxpayer was misleading.
Ms West also quoted former Conservative Shadow Foreign Minister Keith Simpson, speaking in a 2009 debate on the Chagos Islands, less than a year before the party was elected into government.
After the debate, Chagossians met with many of the debate attendees, including Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn. Mr Corbyn attended the debate briefly but did not get a chance to speak. He did however, speak to us after the debate to add his voice the Chagossian campaign.
In this debate, Mr Simpson had argued “There is a moral imperative..that the rights of the Chagossian people should be recognised, and that there should at the very least be a timetable for the return, to at least the outer islands.”
Concluding her comments, the Labour Shadow Minister asked “7 years later, when can we expect the government to honour that commitment?”
Conservative MP and Chagos Islands All-Party Parliamentary Group Committee Chair Andrew Rosindell, who secured the debate, expressed this view stridently, saying that “an extension should be conditional on both parties agreeing to support and facilitate resettlement.”
Mr Rosindell also contrasted the “very different” treatment of Chagossians with those in other British Overseas Territories like Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands. Whereas military and diplomatic force has protected the rights of the latter two, Chagossians will has been ignored, her argued. In all cases, he concluded, “self-determination must be paramount.”
Other MPs including Conservative MP for Crawley Henry Smith bemoaned “excuse after excuse” which successive governments had offered to avoid allowing Chagossians to return. Seeing “no reason” to not offer a fair return package to Chagossians right now, he concluded by saying “we can not turn back the clock, but we can do the right thing now.”
SNP MP Alan Brown focused his contribution on a range of issues, but particularly the cost of resettlement. He argued that the US could be expected to pay a cost for the renewal of the agreement on the use of Diego Garcia, and presuming it was of a similar amount to the effective discount given as part of the original 1966 deal, this would, he suggested, cover the costs of resettlement entirely.
He also cited the millions spent on legal fees in fighting Chagossians in the courts as wasted tax payers money which could be put towards a fair return package for Chagossians.
Several other MPs contributed to the debate as well. Former Labour Minister Kate Hoey and ex-UN Commander Bob Stewart expressed their dismay that a large civilian population could live on Diego Garcia but Chagossians, the islands native people, could not.
Throughout the debate a disputed point was the extent to which the US would object to Chagossians returning to Diego Garcia. Former Ministers for the British Overseas Territories Chris Bryant and James Dudderidge suggested that during their tenure US officals had expressed objections to Chagossians return, although Chris Byrant admitted “this should not be the primary factor” in the Government's decision.
Sir Henry Billingham, another former Minister with responsibilities for the Chagos Islands, added that in his view “with the help of the Department of International Development and with a great deal of imagination and innovation, the arguments [for return] are quite strong.
James Dudderidge made the only contribution to the debate directly opposing resettlement. He claimed that the condition of the islands after 50 years being uninhabited made resettlement too difficult. We plan to have a full article looking at Mr Dudderidge's comments in detail in the near future.
Many MPs and Chagossians in attendance strongly objected to Mr Dudderidge's line of argument. The condition of the Islands, being overgrown with little infrastructure, was a direct consequence of the deportation and rebuilding that infrastructure has been factored into existing cost estimates.
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