• Tom Guha & Stefan Donnelly

The Government announced their decision - what now for Chagossians?

It will come as no surprise that the UK Chagos Support Association are deeply saddened by the Government’s recent decision against pilot resettlement of the Chagos Islands. The decision came as a shock to us and has paralysed many in the community.

As a group dedicated to supporting the people of the Chagos Islands, we do not speak on their behalf. However we are in regular contact with many in the Chagossian community and those conversations have formed the basis of our position.

The UK Chagos Support Association do not accept the Government’s decision. We believe it was based on flawed evidence and we will support the Chagossian community however they choose to respond.

However, we welcome the Government’s new commitment to “improving the lives of the Chagossians in the places where they are now” and we hope we can work constructively with both Government and the Chagossian community to come to a settlement that works for both parties.

With regards the Written Ministerial Statement that announced the decision, while we are pleased that the Government acknowledged that historic treatment of Chagossians was wrong, we believe it should be acknowledged as illegal. The basis of Chagossian exile was a falsehood and should be recognised as such.

It is also misleading to suggest Chagossians wanted to “go back to their former way of life.” The Foreign Office consultation demonstrated Chagossians understood that life on the returned islands would be different from the life they used to lead. There was great enthusiasm for modern industries like eco-tourism, environmental protection and administrative roles within BIOT and the US base.

The enthusiasm found in the consultation was matched by requisite skill found in the KPMG study, which states, “the wide range of employment skills present in the Chagossian community has allowed the team to identify major livelihood options for a resettled community”. This seriously brings into question the Government’s concerns around “job prospects”.

Chagossians are not naive. They are aware of the challenges that return presents. But all these challenges were accounted for in the KPMG study - on which after completion, Ministers accepted return was “practically feasible”

The KPMG study also addressed security and defence concerns - concerns that have never been properly outlined. Almost all US military bases have an attached civilian population and the base on Diego Garcia has a large population of temporary labourers. The statement says that Ministers had “considered the interaction of any potential community with the US Naval Support Facility”, which prompts the question; what are the outcomes of these considerations?

The idea that “costs to the British taxpayer” are a barrier is difficult to accept and frankly insulting. Firstly, many Chagossians are the British taxpayers mentioned. Moreover, the £60m resettlement start-up costs over three years are a tiny proportion of the international aid budget, over which citizens of British Overseas Territories have first call. We would also expect contributions from the US, the EU, the private sector and NGOs.

Recently the Government spent £285m on an airport on St Helena. It is not even fit for purpose. Every year defence of the Falklands costs UK taxpayers upwards of £60m. Why is the Government so opposed to funding a resettlement programme on the Chagos Islands?

We absolutely welcome the Government’s new commitment to make “improvements to the livelihoods of Chagossians in the communities where they now live” and are willing to work with the Government to make this happen. However, we are sceptical of the £40m funding package.

The fund’s stated aim is to “[address] the most pressing needs of the community by improving access to health and social care and to improved education and employment opportunities”. This raises a number of questions: how was the fund calculated? What will it be spent on? How will it reach the community? Who will be eligible to receive it?

We know that the fund will “support a significantly expanded programme of visits to BIOT for native Chagossians”. Visits to BIOT (the Government name for the Chagos Islands) used to take place almost annually - what does a “significantly expanded programme” mean? It is also vital that the criteria of ‘native’ is clarified. If it only means those who were born on the islands then anyone under the age of 40 will be excluded, robbing younger Chagossians of their identity and links to their birthplace.

There are extremely serious problems affecting the Chagossian community that urgently need to be addressed and could be with minimal funding.

Families are routinely torn apart because the Home Office does not recognise Chagossian identity. Many Chagossians have been deported or are in Immigration Removal Centres. Simply trying to keep a family together is an inconceivable challenge to many - costing time and money and removing any chances of social or economic mobility.

If the Government is to do just one thing to improve the lives of Chagossians where they are now, it must be to fix the immigration laws that are literally ripping their community apart. One Chagossian put it very poignantly; “these laws are causing a second exile”.

We do not accept the decision and we will support Chagossians in any campaign they mount against it. However it is also important that we hold the Government to account on their commitment to improving the lives of Chagossians.

It is embarrassing that the Government threw away such a perfect opportunity to right a historical wrong. To address these laws would at least offer them some redemption - but crucially it would offer some hope to a community that has been on history’s losing side for far too long.

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