Time to go home

IssueJune 2006
News by Robert Bain

It is now almost 40 years since the Chagos islanders were secretly thrown off their Britishowned* islands to make way for a US military base. On 11 May, they celebrated winning the right to return.

It is the second time the High Court has had to give them this right, and their experience shows just what the British Government is capable of when it is determined to trample on people's rights.

Secrets and lies

The depopulation of the Chagos islands is a story of secrets, lies and dirty tricks running from Harold Wilson's government all the way to Tony Blair's. It is an ongoing injustice that the British government is still inflicting on British citizens, and which has implications for us all.

The story began in the 1960s when the US was looking to set up a new military base in the Indian Ocean. They agreed to lease from the UK the island of Diego Garcia in the Chagos Archipelago, on the understanding that it was not inhabited. A secret deal was struck in 1966, in exchange for a multi-million-dollar discount on the Polaris nuclear submarines that Britain was then buying.

The only obstacle to handing over Diego Garcia was the 2,000 native people who lived on it and the surrounding islands. The Chagossians were the descendants of African slaves and had developed a unique culture on the idyllic, isolated islands, making a living from fishing and farming coconuts.

Documents from the time reveal the policy to cover up the eviction. The Foreign Office invented the lie that the Chagossians, whom they referred to as “a few Tarzans and Men Fridays”, were just travelling labourers, with no roots and no right to stay.

Some were tricked and coerced into leaving, and the rest were rounded up and told to pack one bag each. After seeing their animals gassed in front of their eyes, they were crammed on to a boat, shipped away and dumped on the docks of Mauritius and the Seychelles. Not only did they have no homes, money or possessions, they did not speak the language, their skills were no use, and they were offered no help by the British authorities. Many fell into a predictable spiral of poverty, depression and suicide.

In the meantime, politicians in London stayed silent about the whole incident, and the US established its largest overseas military base which, over the years, has been used to bomb Afghanistan and Iraq.

When the Chagossians were given compensation in 1982, it did not even cover their debts, and they were tricked into signing away their rights to their homeland in order to get it. In the same year, #2 billion was spent defending the islanders of the Falklands.

The right of return

In 1998 the Chagossians began their fight back. With legal aid, Olivier Bancoult, chairman of the Chagos Refugees Group, launched a case against the British government on behalf of his people, and in 2000 the High Court ruled that the eviction was unlawful.

The Chagossians had won the right to go home, and a thirty year-old wrong appeared to have been righted. But while discussions on resettlement were underway, the story took an alarming new twist. The Blair Government announced in 2004 that it had used Orders in Council - passed in private under the royal prerogative - to take back the right to return. Ministers had bypassed parliament, overruled the High Court, and in effect reinstated the eviction order which had been deemed illegal. All this was done with no consultation, and was only announced the week after.

It has taken the Chagossians two years to get the Orders in Council overturned, winning their homeland back from the government all over again. This time the High Court judges branded the Foreign Office ministers' behaviour “repugnant”.

Olivier Bancoult said: “When I heard the verdict I was the happiest man in the world. It was a special day for me and for my people.” Mr Bancoult recently delivered a letter to Downing Street asking Tony Blair to respect the court's decision.

The challenge now is to make resettlement a reality. Mr Bancoult said: “If the government doesn't appeal we will prepare ourselves to start our pilot project to move to Chagos and at the same time see how we can put the infrastructure in place to make the islands liveable.” The Chagossians will be approaching the government, the European Union and other organisations to seek support.

Seeking support

While the islanders are angry at the use of Diego Garcia to bomb innocent people, they maintain that they could co-exist with the base, were it not for the brick-wall attitude of the US and the UK, which has only recently begun to soften. It has taken until this year for the base to take on any Chagossians as employees, and for a visit to the islands to finally be organised, allowing islanders to visit their ancestors' graves.

Mr Bancoult said: “If the British public had known of these unlawful deportations at the time, we would probably still be living on the islands now.” Still today, the shocking story is not nearly as well-known as it should be.

Whether the Chagossians now have to fight more court battles, or start to organise a return home, they desperately need to raise awareness and funds. To help them you can write to the Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, asking her not to appeal against the High Court's verdict, you can urge your MP or MEP to support the Chagossians' resettlement plans, and you can donate to the Ilois Support Trust.