There are many unheard injustices around the world, as we keep finding through researching for this blog. This one is truly devastating due to the scale, longevity, and modernity of it. This is about the unheard injustices committed against Chagossians by the UK.
Where are the Chagos Islands?
The Chagos Islands (also known as the Chagos Archipelago) are a group of over 60 atolls in the Indian Ocean, halfway between Africa and Indonesia. The first inhabitants of the Chagos Islands were slaves shipped from Madagascar and Mozambique to work on French coconut plantations in the 18th century. After the Napoleonic wars, France surrendered the Chagos Islands to Britain in 1814 with Mauritius and the Seychelles. The colony was, for a long time, administered from Mauritius.
In 1965, the UK created the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), aka the Chagos Archipelago. From ’68 to ’73, it removed the local population, known as Chagossians or Ilois, for a UK-US military base on the BIOT’s largest island, Diego Garcia. After Mauritius became independent in 1968, the UK paid them £3 million to recognize the detachment of the Chagos but also agreed to cede the territory back to Mauritius when it was “no longer needed for defensive purposes”. The Seychelles similarly became independent in 1976, a freedom never so far granted to the Chagos Islands.
Then, in a secret deal during the height of the Cold War in 1965, the UK signed a controversial, covert deal with the US to lease one of the 60 atolls that make up the Archipelago to them to build a military base. The base is home to over 1000 troops and staff, and is used by the US Navy, Air Force and even NASA. In fact, the huge runway here was designated an emergency landing zone for the space shuttle.
The base has allowed for the might of the US military to spread around the world. From Diego Garcia, the US can now land bombers here to refuel which then fly over Asia and the South China Sea, as well as helping the US launch two invasions of Iraq. This example mirrors how most US overseas bases were gained, when France and Britain began shedding colonies following WW2.
Neo-colonialism and displacement of indigenous people
The UK benefitted hugely from the deal. In some ways, it allowed the UK to hang on to a colony by leasing it to the US under the guise of defense. In a 1966 memo, British civil servant Paul Gore-Booth said that the aim of the agreement was to “get some rocks which will remain ours. And it’s clear that UK politicians weren’t worried about the people they would be displacing; British diplomat Dennis Greenhill replied to the aforementioned memo saying “Unfortunately, along with birds go some few Tarzans [of the Chagossians] … whose origins are obscure and who are hopefully being wishes on to Mauritius.”.
From here began the systemic removal of the local people. The peaceful island life Chagossians has developed, distinct to the harsh plantation work in Mauritius, was torn apart. Medical and food supplies to the islands were gradually restricted, until in 1973, all those who hadn’t been pushed out were told to leave immediately. 1400 – 1700 Chagossians were removed via two cargo ships and “dumped on the quayside” in Mauritius, the Seychelles, and from 2002, the UK, mainly in Crawley and Manchester. Laws made by the UK’s Commissioner made it illegal to stay in the Chagos or return to the islands without permission. In the 1980s, the UK paid USD$5.2 million to about 1300 islands to renounce their right to return. And after being dumped in a foreign place without food, money, a job, or shelter, how could they refuse?
Facing poverty and unemployment in the Seychelles and Mauritius, when the UK began offering citizenship to Chagossians, may saw this as compensation for their displacement and a way out. However, once in the UK, Chagossian’s still faced discrimination. There were hundreds of administrative hurdles from getting a National Insurance number to accessing welfare and being considered ‘legitimate’ citizens, as well as attempts to block their children from having Chagossian citizenship. For many, initially single migrants had to immigrate alone, leaving their families alone for months before they could join them. For young people, higher education was barriered, with UK home student fees only being granted to Chagossians once they’d lived in the UK for 3 years. They weren’t offered financial compensation or the right to return home - it was UK citizenship, which wasn’t event ‘full’ citizenship, or nothing. No one had their back – labor governments sought to distance themselves from the issue rather than tackling it while conservatives sought to justify it.
In more recent decades, disputes have been raised by Mauritius over its claimed sovereignty and Chagossians about their stolen homeland. The UK government consistently rejected Mauritius’ claims and said it is committed to cede sovereignty when the Territory is no longer needed for defense purposes. The government apologized for treatment of the Chagossians but concluded a return would be too challenging and expensive to the British taxpayer.
Under increasing pressure from the international community, the UN said in 2019 that the renaming of it as a BIOT and taking it form Mauritius was illegal under international law. The British continued to claim sovereignty over the Chagos Islands until 28th January 2023 when the UN International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea ruled in a dispute between Mauritius and the Maldives about their maritime boundary that the UK has no sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago and that Mauritius is sovereign there. This followed increasing criticism of UK and UN in international courts, as well as Mauritius claiming that the UK’s retention of the BIOT was an unfinished act of decolonization.
Indigenous lives matter. They are not less than others. And yet many Western powers seem to act as if they are. The incident with the Chagos Islands is not an isolated one. There is a theme of what Daniel Immerwahr calls “geopolitical manspreading” – “taking out quite a lot of space for low density uses”. The people of Bikini Atoll were exiled so it could be used to test nuclear weapons during the Cold War arms race. They were taken to an uninhabited atoll 100 miles away, Rongerik, and left alone with a few weeks’ worth of food supplies. Crops they previously grew yielded significantly less food than they had on the fertile soils of Bikini, and fish catches were smaller, so within two years the population was on the edge of starvation. They were moved twice more, and the same problem kept arising. Finally, in the 60s, about 150 Bikinians were returned to home, but it was found that within one year they had 75% more radioactive material in their bodies and were thus moved again.
The ruling from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is not legally binding, and so the UK could ignore it. Currently, negotiations between Britain and Mauritius are ongoing, and so we can only hope that Chagossians are allowed the chance to go home, but there is nothing to say that whatever they agree on, Mauritius may continue leasing it to the US. For some, it’s been too long – CNN interviewed a 21-year-old law student in London, who said “It’s not about going back anymore because it’s been so long… The question would be about having a country you could visit or go and stay there. Just knowing that the island is not a military base anymore would be great.”
Let’s all DO MORE to create a world where the prosperity of all of people is equal, and preside over the success of a few.
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