10 years after legal victory still no resolution for Chagossians

On 3 November 2010, it is likely that MPs looking out from the Houses of Parliament in the UK and Mauritius, different and distant as these countries may be, would have encountered two strikingly similar scenes: flags of black, orange, and blue held aloft by a group of stoic individuals in silent protest.  These protesters are originally from the Chagos Islands and are victims of an illegal expulsion that has lasted more than 30 years.

3 November marks the 10th anniversary of a landmark legal ruling by the British High Court of Justice that would have ended the Chagossian’s prolonged exodus.  Unfortunately, however, the judgement’s mandate has yet to be implemented and, as a consequence, they still have not been permitted to resettle on the Chagos Islands.  Britain and Mauritius are now home to the vast majority of displaced Chagossians. So, the Chagossians have gathered outside the parliament buildings in London and Port Louis in an effort to call attention to their unfulfilled victory.

The Chagos Archipelago, a group of 65 islands located in Indian Ocean and now officially called the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), was first permanently settled in 1776 by the French. To help work newly established coconut and sugarcane plantations on the islands, slaves were imported from mainland Africa, Madagascar, and eventually other Indian Ocean islands like Mauritius and the Seychelles.  After slavery was ultimately abolished, these former plantation workers (the ancestors of modern Chagossians) remained on the islands and for many generations lived a lifestyle consisting largely of farming, fishing, and intermittent trade with Mauritius.

The constantly shifting nature of European politics over the next century eventually saw the Chagos Archipelago fall under the flag of the British Empire, as a part of the colony of Mauritius. During the decline of Britain’s colonial empire in the 1960s, the UK and the US were in the process of scouting locations for a defence facility in the Indian Ocean.  The two countries eventually decided to establish a military presence on Diego Garcia, the largest island in the Archipelago.  It was thus unsurprising when Britain separated the newly renamed BIOT from the colony of Mauritius, ensuring that Mauritius’ eventual 1968 independence would have no effect on British claims to the archipelago.

Beginning in 1967, Britain began forcibly relocating Chagossians to the outskirts of Port Louis.  By 1973, every last Chagossian had been evicted from the Diego Garcia and its neighbouring islands.  As more Chagossians became familiar with the illegality of their eviction, a movement grew within the exile community to seek redress.  This grassroots groundswell seemed to reach its peak in 2000, when the previously mentioned British High Court ruling declared that the Chagossians had a right to return to the homeland.

In the war-on-terror world climate that followed September 11, however, Diego Garcia’s location once again became an invaluable military asset for the United States, given the island’s close proximity to Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Perhaps owing to this newfound value, in 2004 the UK issued two related Orders of Council, legislative relics from the time of Britain’s empire, denying the islanders’ previously won right to return. In 2006, the High Court once again deemed the denial of the Chagossians’ right to return illegal, briefly reaffirming the Chagossians’ return rights before they were again rejected by a House of Lords ruling in 2008.

The undulating legal journey of the Chagossians has yet to reach its terminus. The status of the BIOT has been further complicated by Britain’s recent declaration making the BIOT the world’s largest marine reserve.  Upon further inspection, however, the new reserve is less a cause for ecological celebration and seems more a cruel April fool’s prank. The fishing restrictions now in place at the reserve would bar the Chagossians from fishing, and in doing so remove one of their main sources of sustenance and income in the event that they are ever allowed to return.

Their case has been submitted to the European Court of Human Rights.  The outcome is difficult to predict, as is the effect even a ruling in favour of the Chagossians would have on the military presence on Diego Garcia, still under lease to the United States until at least 2016.  For the moment, it would seem that all the Chagossians can do is wait for the European court’s ruling, continue to keep their story in the public’s consciousness, and hope that future British and Mauritian MPs looking out from their respective parliament buildings on 3 November 2020 will not happen upon Chagossians protesting the twentieth anniversary of unfulfilled legal promises.

 

Gallery

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Didier Bertrand is a third-generation Chagossian émigré. Both he and his father were born in Mauritius, and neither has ever been to the Chagos Islands.
 MRG-GAL-1485
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Sabrina Jean (third from left) works in the UK branch of the Chagos Refugee Group. Like many younger Chagossians, she was born in Mauritius and has never been to Diego Garcia, Peros Banhos, or any of the other Chagos Islands.
 MRG-GAL-1486
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Memoise Furcy, born on Peros Banhos, was 13 years of age when she left her home to accompany her sister to a hospital in Mauritius for what she thought was going to be short trip. It was the last time she was to see the islands where she was born.
 MRG-GAL-1487
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The Chagossians’ future is still uncertain at this point. There is reason for hope however: a leaked September letter from Lib-Dem business secretary Vince Cable, hinted at a government willingness to reach a settlement with the Chagossians.
 MRG-GAL-1488
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