Chagossian Trafalgar Square protest concludes
Monday saw the end of a four-day-long occupation of Trafalgar Square by Chagossian Islanders. The protesters set out to raise global awareness of their ongoing fight to return to their homeland, as well as the injustices the exiled community continue to suffer in Britain, Seychelles, and Mauritius.
Over 100 Chagossians took part in the protest, from 80-year-old Marie Celeste down to the very youngest of the exiled community. This included survivors of the deportations of the 1960s and 1970s, during which the British government forcibly removed the Chagossians from their island homes in the Indian Ocean to accommodate an enormous US military base at Diego Garcia.
Isabelle Chalot, Chairperson of the Chagos Islanders Movement, was encouraged by the public response , stating “what I’ve learned is that our story has been hidden from the world. We’ve made so many contacts and so many people want to help us”.
The community handed out leaflets and put on makeshift displays explaining the Chagossian situation, while one protestor attended in chains to symbolise the Chagossian’s roots in slavery and their ongoing mistreatment by the British government. Isabelle explained that “everyone cared about us and they respected us…they asked about us, what was going on”.
The protest began just days after Dominique Elysee, a Mauritian-born Chagossian, was denied British citizenship by the High Court of Justice. A Chagossian present at the protest named Gianni Stevens commented on the case, saying “how long will we suffer like this? How long will the government make decisions against Chagossian happiness? If we live on our homeland it will be different. We were at peace before.”
British citizenship is considered the least the government could do for a community they are actively preventing from living in their home country. Isabelle Chalot explained that “a British passport is just a red piece of paper, I can tear it. I want my identity, my identity cannot be torn. I want my culture and to promote my culture. I want my island back.”
Many of the signs visible at the protest lamented the £40 million support package offered to the Chagossian community in 2016, which was proposed by the UK government after their refusal to back a resettlement plan, which they acknowledged was “feasible,” in 2016 .
This is seen as small change given they remain exiled from the homeland and are continually denied citizenship in Britain, causing repeated separation of families. Gianny Augustin explained that “we are not allowed to decide what to do with this money. If you give me a gift, you can’t decide what I have to do with it. They put the money in the [Crawley] council, for whom is this money? The British people or the Chagossians?” The scheme is undoubtedly flawed, and has done little to promote the Chagossian identity or cause.
The protest itself was tough for many of the islanders, who slept in tents in the square overnight. Protesters had to shower in public toilets, some members fell ill, and some were awoken in the night by a street-fight immediately outside their tents. Elixel, one of the Chagossian protestors, suffered a quite severe swelling of the right-leg, but continued working to promote the Islander’s cause. Despite these setbacks, the protests endured, much like the Chagossians themselves.
Janette Esparon, a survivor of the deportations, emphasised the need for public support. “I was evicted from my homeland when I was 10 years old” she explained. “People were evicted with no resettlement programme. People suffered through hardships, no jobs, no housing, no money. To this day this is still happening to them. We’d like the world to know what is going on with us because we need their support. Ordinary people should spread the word of our cause, and if they can, give financial assistance.”
The Chagossian community has been both encouraged by the public response and motivated to plan similar protests in the near future. Gianny stated that “we are a small community but we are very strong. We will never give up. Today, we start something, and the government will hear again what we can do.” Isabelle Chalot explained “I believe in British people more than British justice. I believe that it is the British people who can give us the justice that we deserve. I came to this country to raise my voice. This is just the first, the beginning of our modern way of protesting. Do not underestimate us.”
Support is urgently needed if the Chagossians are to build upon the successes of the Trafalgar Square protest. Donations will help fund transport, bedding, food and water in any future protests, as well as the ongoing promotion of the Chagossian cause. Please give anything you can via the official fundraising page. Every penny goes straight to the Chagossians.