‘The system has betrayed us, but the people won’t'
By Isabelle Charlot - Chairperson of Chagos Islanders Movement (CIM) community group
‘We may be British Citizens, but in reality we are still slaves and our chains are not visible to you.’
Whilst the “Windrush” scandal and the “Black Lives Matter” campaign rightfully and finally dominate the news headlines, one long-ongoing injustice involving Black British Lives remain unheard. Few people in Britain are aware of the shocking story of the illegal eviction of the Chagos islanders from their native archipelago in the British Indian Ocean Territory in the 1960s and 1970s.
Nor are they aware of the lives we subsequently attempted to rebuild in Mauritius, Seychelles and eventually for some, the UK. It is a sordid saga of diplomatic skull-duggery and colonial contempt for the black indigenous people who lived and worked on a handful of pristine islands such as Peros, Banhos, Saloman, and Diego Garcia.
It is the latter name which may ring a bell for some as it is this island which Harold Wilson had ‘swept and sanitised’ of its people in order to hand over to the US to act as another of its many strategic military bases, in exchange for a deal of a Polaris submarine. Though the base employs hundreds of workers from all over the globe, Chagossian’s have been denied our right of return.
Ever since then, all these decades later: countless law rulings (even by the International Court of Justice and the UN General Assembly), political debates, protests, an all-party parliamentary group, numerous documentaries, articles and campaign groups later, we are still waiting for justice.
All the decades since in Mauritius, Seychelles and the UK too many Chagossians have died with the hope that one day they will get a better quality life. Even a patient and tenacious community get tired of waiting and eventually say ‘Enough is enough, we can’t carry on living this way’.
The forced expulsion from our land through trickery and force by the British Government has left us with scars that can never be healed. Our community used to have a happy, peaceful and simple life on the Chagos islands, with no stress, debts, mental health problems, alcohol, drugs, racism, or housing issues. All were in full-time employment, healthy and emotionally attached to their land.
But then the evicted islanders went through atrocities and were left to rot in exile either in Mauritius or the Seychelles. We were made homeless, penniless, and jobless and this has affected our generation in many ways. The British Government who has a duty to take care of us as its citizens never cared what happened to us when they threw us off our home islands.
Our land, Diego Garcia is being leased to the USA as a military base with no care for its original descendants. It is one of the richest islands in the Indian Ocean but its rightful inheritors, Chagossian’s, are being treated like beggars. We want the British Empire to set us free mentally and remove this invisible chain attached to our hands and feet. Give us, the indigenous people the freedom to choose our destiny and be happy.
Ever since the exile, we have been financially, socially, and culturally disadvantaged in Mauritius, the Seychelles and now in Britain. Our quality of life is rock bottom and it has been difficult for us to progress further. As British subjects we want to be included in the system, and listened to, so that we can move forward, but we are struggling to make our voices heard. All our rights have been taking away from us and we are watching helplessly. We have been given false hope all along with fake promises, it is like you are in a death row waiting for a miracle to happen. We cannot trust the system, the Governments have let us down, the systems have let the Chagossian down in so many ways. We have been betrayed by the World leaders and we are unable to trust them.
As a Community, we can decide what is good for us and together we can choose our own destiny. This is what we are fighting for now. We are fighting for the right to have a voice, the right for all generation to have a better and secure future and more importantly the right to decide what we want to happen regarding our land. Chagossian’s also have feelings; we are also human, also British subjects with human rights.
Stop treating us differently from other British subjects such as the Falklanders or Gibraltar’s just because the differences in ethnicity.
The Foreign Office has washed their hands clean of us. We are a burden to them. They do not have any records about us; no census, nothing. Yes, we are British, but we are being discriminated on so many levels: be it through deportation, detention, poverty and housing issues. They treat us with condescension, take advantage of our language difficulties, and have no empathy for the struggles families must undergo to be reunited due to the unfair laws that prevent that.
It is hard for us to get our stories of hardship heard. We are not newsworthy, simply because we are the minority and therefore, less attention has been given to Chagossians.
It is disgraceful that until today, the Foreign Office has not approached the indigenous people for a concrete discussion. We have been victims of theft, fraud, corruption and basic denial of human rights and these people are treating us like rubbish just because we do not have a platform. Being black, poor, and non-English speakers makes it harder for us to win or gain anything because the Government knows that we do not have any resources to fight them.
We have come to see that although we are so-called British Citizens, in reality we are still slaves, but our chain is not visible to you. We are suffocating in silence, chained mentally; some of our elders want to live or pay tribute on their land before they die. The Chagossian people have never been free from slavery, colonialism, imperialism and dictatorship. They are using our land for materialism and war yet, we the Chagossian have no say. We are peaceful and passive people. We have been left to die, to be forgotten, to be extinct without us being able to say anything.
The Black Lives Matter movement has given my community hope. The Black Lives Matter movement has revived the spirit in our heart. Together we can do it. Together the people of the Chagossian community can win the justice we deserve at last. The Black Lives Matter movement might be our last hope of freedom. The system has betrayed us but the people won’t.
Help us to stop dictatorship! Together we can an end to those manipulating the system.
Isabelle Charlot is Chair of Chagos Islanders Movement. To support their work see www.chagosislandersmovement.com