In the early 1960′s, the US government, concerned about Soviet expansion in the Indian Ocean, asked the British government to find an uninhabited island where the US could build a naval base. Returning the favour, the US would be willing to give $14 million in research and development fees for Britain’s Polaris missile program. The first island located was Aldabra, near Madagascar. Aldabra fitted the bill in terms of it’s location and vitally it was uninhabited. However, the island was a breeding ground for a rare species of tortoise and their mating habits may have been affected by a military base. Looking for an alternative, the US decided on Diego Garcia, the largest island in the Chagos Archipelago. This had the benefit of leaving tortoise mating undisturbed but the island was home to 1,800 Chagossians, or Ilois, who had inhabited the islands for over 200 years. The Chagossians were employed, grew their own food and fished and had built their own stores and a church. However, the courtesy for tortoises evidently didn’t apply to human beings. The government soon began a campaign to deal with the “population problem” to “maintain the pretense there [are] no permanent inhabitants.” This appalling attitude persisted and rather than seeing Diego Garcia as the society it was, it was regarded as a nuisance, summed up by the British diplomat Dennis Greenhill who said: “unfortunately along with the birds go some few Tarzans or Man Fridays whose origins are obscure and who are hopefully being wished on to Mauritius.”
They were “wished on to Mauritius”, as well as the Seychelles and the UK. This began in 1968 when residents who left Diego Garcia merely to visit Mauritius were refused return to the island. They were stranded in Mauritius, without any assistance in resettling or any compensation. To this day, the Chagossians in Mauritius still live in poverty. Soon after, the Americans began to arrive and the rest of the indigenous population were forced to leave. Only allowed to take clothes, their homes and possessions had to be abandoned and their pets were killed amidst threats that if they did not leave, they would otherwise be “bombed” and wouldn’t “be fed any longer.” All this was with the full knowledge and approval of Harold Wilson, Roy Jenkins and Denis Healey.
The inhumane treatment was compounded by the compensation later given to the Mauritius government. The £1.4 million only covered the debts incurred from resettlement and when it was dealt out to 595 Chagossian families, it was years later and significantly reduced by inflation. Another £6 million was paid in compensation but when the Chagossians claimed for it, they were required to endorse a renunciation form, written in English though they speak Creole, that forfeited their right to return home. This wasn’t even translated for them.
Injustice after injustice, finally in 2000 it was ruled that the forced removal was illegal and the right to return to the outer Chagos Islands was returned. This slight progress was then reneged when Jack Straw issued two Orders in Council in 2004 and the right to return was take away again. Even as soon as April this year, the Foreign Office proposed plans for a Marine Protected Area in the Chagos Archipelago that erects a barrier to any return to the islands. The outright dismissal of their rights continues.
That’s the story. Tragic, inhumane and unlawful. We desperately have to make amends and the best place to begin is by changing our policy on Chagos and campaigning for their right to return. To achieve this, we need your support.