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Fri 4 December 2020

Islanders forcibly expelled from a British colony in the Indian Ocean have filed charges with the International Criminal Court, reports Steve Shaw

In a confidential cable dated 15 May 2009, diplomats from the British Government told their American counterparts of a plan to designate a group of tropical islands, known as the Chagos Archipelago, as a marine reserve.

Officials wrote that the designation would mean the chain of islands that make up the British Indian Ocean Territory would benefit from “environmental protection” but also promised this would in “no way impinge” on a US military base located on the largest of the islands, known as Diego Garcia.

Crucially, the cable published by Wikileaks in 2010, notes another benefit for the two governments – the former inhabitants of the islands, who are British citizens, “would find it difficult, if not impossible, to pursue their claim for resettlement on the islands”.

That cable laid bare that, even after more than 40 years, the British Government was still willing to go to great lengths to block the Chagossians from returning home – a home they were secretly expelled from by their own Government under Harold Wilson in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This was simply because it happened to be located mid-way between Africa and Asia – a strategically important spot for the Americans, who were looking to set up a new military base.

In the years since, the islands have remained a British colony and Diego Garcia has gone from a tropical paradise with thriving villages and residents whose families lived there for generations, to a military base that has been used to house secret prisons for the CIA. Its detainees are flown there by secret rendition flights. Even America’s newly formed Space Force has found a home there, along with workers for the American multinational firm Serco which was awarded a $57 million contract for “deep space surveillance”.


British Citizens Abandoned

The one group of people who are not allowed to set foot there, except under military escort, are the Chagossians.

The majority of them were made homeless overnight when they were thrown off the islands and sent to countries nearby with nothing. Many families were separated between Mauritius and Seychelles, some were thrown into prison cells before being dumped at a derelict housing estate without water or electricity. In the five decades since then, they have been given almost nothing by the government that is meant to represent them. Instead they have watched as politicians search for excuses to prevent them from ever returning home.

Their treatment is a stark contrast to another group of British citizens living on islands far away from Westminster. When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982, Britain sent a fleet to defend them and would likely be proud to do so again.

Solomon Prosper, who was just three years old when his family was forced out of their home on Diego Garcia and onto a boat to the Seychelles, told Byline Times that he believes the difference is that Chagossians are black.

Prosper and 65-year-old Bernard Nourrice, who was also born on the island, are working with a lawyer to file charges with the International Criminal Court (ICC) against the entire British Indian Ocean Territory administration for the crime of apartheid.

Lawyer Dr Jonathon Levy told Byline Times that it would now be down to the ICC Prosecutor’s Office to evaluate the case and make a decision on whether to launch an investigation. 

He is hopeful that the ICC will be willing to side with them on the case as it follows an International Court of Justice ruling last February which found that the UK should depart the islands “as rapidly as possible”. Months later, more than 100 countries at the United Nations General Assembly also condemned the UK’s occupation of the islands, including many of its allies. Westminster has ignored both rulings.

Prosper, who now lives in the Seychelles, says he has little memory of his home other than the stories he is told by his mother. He describes life on Diego Garcia as a “dream”, which was peaceful and happy. They had a school, medical facilities, churches, a prison and every family had their own home. That is until the British Government decided they were in the way.

In court documents, he describes how Britain and America forced families from their homes, with only “one suitcase and one mattress per family”. The rest of their belongings were left behind.

“The Americans assisted in the killing of our pet dogs and kept our livestock and belongings for themselves,” he told Byline Times. “We were marched to the boats before nightfall to unknown destinations. Many families were separated for life between Mauritius and Seychelles and were looked upon and treated as illegal immigrants. Most of the Chagossians were made homeless overnight. In Seychelles, some slept under coconut trees for months, a lot in prison and others under the protection of religious or charitable organisations. In Mauritius, most started their life homeless by the roadside and later in slums.”

He says that many have been exploited and abused physically and sexually. Some have had to resort to crime to survive and others have fallen victim to addictions. “We are still very much lost outside of our Chagos Archipelago,” he added.


Government Claims of Support

A spokesperson for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said that the Government sees “no credible basis” for the allegations.

“We are disappointed that diplomats and officials are mentioned in this petition as a result of their involvement, in good faith, in the administration of the British Indian Ocean Territory,” they said. “We see no credible basis in fact or law for these wholly inappropriate allegations. The UK Government has consistently expressed sincere regret about the manner in which Chagossians were removed from the territory in the 1960s and 1970s.”

They added that the Government has been providing support to Chagossian communities in Mauritius, the Seychelles and the UK.

It is the case that the Government has offered some support. In 2016, it was agreed that a £40 million support package would be spent over a 10-year period. But a parliamentary briefing paper published at the end of 2019 revealed just £313,000 had been spent.

Prosper told Byline Times that most of the money that has been spent has gone on what the Government has called “heritage visits”.

These short visits to the islands are offered to Chagossians to give them an opportunity to see their homeland but Prosper said that few are willing to take part because they are under British military escort and are watched at all times. He also objects to the trips being paid for out of a support fund which was intended to improve livelihoods. 

“They have been doing two visits every year with about 10 to 15 people,” he said. “I have never been on a visit because I refused. The reason why is, according to them, they are using the money from the support package, which is supposed to be for something else, to finance an expensive trip to Diego Garcia for four or five days. They might as well just give us the money directly. Why can’t they give us the money? Why can’t we decide our future?”

In May, The Observer reported that many Chagossians have been struggling to afford even the most basic provisions such as medicine. When the members of the community contacted the British High Commission in Mauritius to request help, the newspaper claims that the Foreign Office responded by saying “there is no mechanism currently in place to implement a plan for the Chagossian community”.


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