John Madeley

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Let the people go home

Church Times, 15 October 2004


The UK has treated the islanders of Diego Garcia unjustly, says John Madeley


IN THE 1980s, I spent a week in a part of Mauritius that tourists rarely see, researching a report for the Minority Rights Group. The report was about 2000 people who were forcibly removed from their homes in the Chagos Island in the Indian Ocean to make way for a US military base on the largest island, Diego Garcia.


The Chagos Islands are part of a British colony, the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), and the suffering of the islanders was at the hands of the British Government. Yet the suffering goes on: it was the subject of an ITV documentary by John Pilger, Stealing a Nation, shown on Wednesday of last week. The British Government is now preventing the islanders from returning home, even though they have won the legal right to do so.


In 1966, Diego Garcia was leased to the United States for 50 years, and the islanders were removed using threats, because the US government wanted a clean sweep of the area. The base has since been used to launch attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq. About 4000 US troops are stationed on Diego Garcia, but the island is still part of the BIOT and comes under British administration.


Without any consultation, the islanders were taken to Port Louis, Mauritius, about 2000 miles away. They were left on the quayside, with no compensation or housing. Most found their way to an abandoned slum, which had no water or electricity. It was several years before they were paid a small amount of compensation, which barely covered their debts. Many died in poverty.


The British Government not only removed the Chagos Islanders against their will, but also lied to the world about them, trying to portray them as contract labourers with no right to be there. Recent documents have shown this to be a massive deceit. There has been a settled community on the islands for more than 200 years, chiefly of migrants from Africa and Asia.


In November 2000, however, one of the islanders, Olivier Bancoult, chairman of the Chagos Refugee Group, took the British Government to the High Court, claiming that the islanders had been wrongfully evicted. The court ruled in their favour: they had the right to return home.


Within hours of the judgment, the British Government said the islanders could not go back to Diego Garcia because of the military base. Yet it accepted at least part of the High Court ruling. The then Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, said: "We will put in place a new Immigration Ordinance, which will allow the Ilois [the traditional name for the islanders] to return to the outer islands."


In June this year, the British Government reneged on that promise. It issued an Order in Council, a royal decree, which prohibits the islanders from returning to any of the islands in the Chagos group.


The largest islands, Peros Banhos and Salomon, are more than 100 miles away from Diego Garcia. After a feasibility study, which failed to consult the Ilois, the Government estimated that the cost of resettling the islanders would be about £5 million, with annual running costs of about £3-£5 million. While the islanders want initial help, they believe that industries such as eco-tourism, fishing and crafts could be developed profitably. But, a Foreign Office minister, Bill Rammell, told John Pilger: "The tax-payer is being asked to pick up the financial tab. You have to make choices about how you spend money."


The treatment of the Chagos Islanders stands in stark contrast to that of the Falkland Islanders. British forces travelled 8000 miles at a cost of more than £1000 million to help about 2000 islanders — a similar number to the Ilois people.


THE UNCOMFORTABLE truth is that all this is happening in our tolerant, democratic society. The Government has not been seriously challenged on this question by opposition parties. Church leaders in Britain and Mauritius have been largely silent; the press has mounted no great campaign so far. Our Government is doing this to its own people; the Chagos Islanders hold British passports.


The Chagos Islanders wonder why. They wonder, too, whether pressure from Washington is the real reason why the Government is denying them the right to return home.


The Government says that it questions the long-term viability of the Chagos Islands, because climate change is causing sea-levels to rise. Yet the US government has applied for an extension of its lease, seeking to use Diego Garcia as a base beyond 2016. This suggests some confidence that life on the Chagos Islands is viable. The people who most want to return are the elderly Ilois. They want the right to die on the island where they were born. For them, long-term viability is not so important.


The British Government is now starting to come under pressure. The Chagos Islanders’ solicitor, Richard Gifford, has applied for a judicial review of the Order in Council, and this has been granted. Mr Gifford argues that the International Court of Justice forbids the enforced removal of people. He is also considering taking the matter to the European Court on Human Rights. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights has called on the British Government to return the islanders to their homeland.


Public opinion is important. Anyone can press the Government to lift the Order in Council and allow the Chagos Islanders to return home. This would not put right the injustice they have suffered. But it could call a halt to that injustice, and give the islanders a fresh start.