In the middle of the Indian Ocean, about halfway between India and Indonesia, some 500 km from the Maldives, lies a remote group of coralline islands called the Chagos Archipelago.  This chain of islands consists of seven atolls comprising a total of sixty individual tropical islands. In 1814, the Chagos Islands officially became British territory and were administratively attached to Mauritius. When Mauritius became independent in 1968 the islands were detached and the British created the new British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).  

The Chagos islands are often described as a paradise like location, but for the inhabitants, life on these idyllic islands was severely disrupted in 1966 when the British government made the main island called Diego Garcia available to the United States  to establish joint military facilities. This ultimately resulted in the creation of a massive US military base.

The British government depopulated the islands between 1965 and 1971 in what can be considered very dubious ways. At first, Chagossians visiting the islands of Mauritius and the Seychelles either on holiday or for medical purposes were not allowed to return to their homes. Later on, supplies to the islands were restricted, work on the coconut plantations was wrapped up and eventually the remaining islanders were forced on board of crowded ships not knowing if they would ever see their homeland again. [1]

Many were relocated to Mauritius and the Seychelles and some decided to settle in Britain. As a result, they were confronted with issues such as underemployment and impoverishment in exile.  The British government failed to ever establish resettlement programmes.[2] 

Over the last decade, the Chagossians have been involved in a legal struggle with the British government fighting for the right to resettle. In their plight for justice they encountered many legal as well as political obstacles. In the war against terror, the island of Diego Garcia gained strategic importance as a refuelling stop and a base for air strikes most recently in Afghanistan and Iraq.  

After a High Court judge ruled that the Chagossians could resettle in the islands in 2000, the British government responded by enacting a new BIOT Immigration Ordinance which allowed Chagossians to return to all the islands with the exception of Diego Garcia . In 2004, the British government made use of the orders in Council- a royal prerogative- to enact another new BIOT Immigration Order in which it was determined that unauthorized people including the Chagossians were not permitted to enter any part of Chagos Archipelago.[3] In 2006, the Chagossians’ legal team won judicial review of the Immigration Order but the British government ended up winning its appeal in the House of Lords. [4]

Perhaps the biggest setback the Chagossians had to endure came in 2010 when the British government declared that most of the Archipelago – excluding Diego Garcia with its important military base would become a Marine Protected Area with a blanket ban on fishing. [5] . This decision was enthusiastically supported by many environmental organisations. These environmental groups asked their supporters to back the British government and together raised 275,000 signatures. [6] However, in 2011 diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks suggested that Britain and the US lured environmental groups with the offer of the reserve and then used its ban on fishing to ensure that Chagossians would never be able to live within a hundred miles of Diego Garcia.[7]  Even if they did win a legal right to return they might be unable to earn a livelihood on the islands as long as they are not allowed to fish.

The Chagossians decided to take the matter to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)  which is expected to rule on the issue in July of this year. Aside from ruling whether the islanders are entitled to resettle on the Chagos Islands, a separate judicial review will decide if the British government conducted a proper consultation for the Marine Reserve. In addition, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea will determine whether the British had the sovereign right to declare the area of the Chagos Islands a Marine Protected Area .This is expected to take place in 2013. [8]

 For many years, the Chagossians have been fighting an uphill battle to obtain justice through the courts. The story of what happened to the Chagos Islands and the long struggle of its displaced people can best be judged in the light of greater global events and sadly serves as another example of how the long tentacles of colonialism can endure and flourish even in modern times of a supposed global triumph of concepts like democracy and self-determination. [9]

 

Sources:

[1] Chagos Islanders in Mauritius and the UK : Forced Displacement and Onward Migration, by Laura Jeffery, Manchester University Press 2011, pp. 5-6

[2] Idem

[3] Idem

[4] Idem

[5] Banished Chagos Islands Insist : We are Not at Point of No Return, in : The Guardian, May 19, 2011

[6] Conservationists Condemn Exile of Chagossians for Marine Reserve, in : The Guardian, May 21, 2012

[7] Idem

[8] Idem

[9] Chagos: The heart of an American Empire, by Sarmila Bose, see www.aljazeera.com

 

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