As someone who’s campaigned for over 20 years against the UK’s membership of the EU, the issue of sovereignty is, naturally, a subject very close to my heart. Since the Brexit vote in June, the news has, of course, been full of the issues surrounding our self-governance and self-determination. However, there is one group of British citizens who have been engaged in an altogether different battle for their own right to sovereignty.
For decades, our Chagos Islanders have been locked in a dispute over their right to live on the land that they call home. This year they are closer to justice than ever. For those who don’t know, the Chagos Islands are a small atoll, known as the British Indian Ocean Territory, literally slap bang in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
As a British Overseas Territory, the islands share the same status as the Falklands. But there, the similarity ends - In 1982, we sent a Task Force to reclaim the Falklands, just a decade after one of the lesser known, but more shameful episodes of British foreign policy took place, when our Chagossians were forcibly removed from their homeland, under orders of the British Government.
The deportation was brutal. A trade embargo restricted food supplies to the islands. Anyone not on the islands in the lead up to the expulsion was barred from returning – Irrespective of family ties. In one of the more brutal episodes leading up to eviction, the islanders’ dogs were rounded up and gassed. The islanders were subsequently rounded up and exiled on a boat bound for Mauritius and the Seychelles.
No one, not even our Members of Parliament at that time, really knew what was happening to our Chagossians. Leaked Foreign Office documents have since shown the Government’s desire to “maintain the fiction” that the islands were uninhabited. The same documents exemplified the Government’s racist attitudes towards the island’s inhabitants, even calling them “Tarzans” and “Man Fridays”.
And the reason behind all of this? To enable the lease of the largest island in the archipelago, Diego Garcia, to the US Government for use as a military base. Some have suggested that the deal was a diplomatic sweetener following our decision to keep the UK out of the Vietnam war.
The one thing that is for certain is that, this year, in 2016, the lease on Diego Garcia is up for renewal and our Govt. are, for the first time, considering a pilot resettlement scheme.
Ever since their removal, many Chagossians have lived in conditions of desperate poverty in Mauritius and the Seychelles. Given little or no financial assistance and regarded as outsiders by the Mauritian and Seychellois communities, many have spent decades living in slums. Despite their conditions, the Chagossian community have never given up on their fight to return home.
In 2001, the Chagossians successfully fought a legal case and won the right to return home. The decision was subsequently overturned by the Government, citing the Royal Prerogative.
Since this battle, a community has grown in the UK, the largest of which is based in Crawley, West Sussex. Although a string of legal battles have upheld their exile, this year’s Govt. consideration of a pilot resettlement scheme has raised hopes. A decision is expected imminently.
This proposal follows a feasibility study that found resettlement was “practically feasible” and a consultation with Chagossians that found, unsurprisingly, that 98% still want to return.
Upholding this exile has been hugely expensive to the British taxpayer, with costly legal battles being fought year on year. Meanwhile, the costs of return are negligible and will come out of the International Development budget.
As government preparations for Brexit develop, what can be more patriotic than allowing British citizens to live in the land they call home. Surely we owe these loyal subjects as much?
With Brexit on the horizon, and Chagos Islands National Day on Friday 4th November, I can think of no better time for Her Majesty’s Government, to show their commitment towards a future ethical foreign policy, than by writing one of the terrible wrongs, that were inflicted on our own, British Chagossian citizens.