In the 1960s and 70s some 2,000 inhabitants of the Chagos Islands, an archipelago of six atolls in the Indian Ocean, were exiled by Britain to make way for US and UK military installations on Diego Garcia island, since used for military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Refugee Group, led by Olivier Bancoult, works to promote awareness and recognition of the situation of the Chagossian people as well as improving the social and economic situation of its members living in exile in Mauritius and Seychelles. Over the years it has pursued legal action in the US and the UK to win recognition of the right of the Chagossian people to return to their homeland.
Last Thursday the UK High Court ruled in the Chagossians’ favor in their battle to prove they were illegally removed from their homes by the UK government, sentencing that the right to go home is ‘one of the most fundamental liberties known to human beings’. Bancoult declared that it was a ‘special day, a day to remember’.
During the hearing, Sir Sydney Kentridge QC had described the treatment of the Chagossians as ‘outrageous, unlawful and a breach of accepted moral standards’, adding that there was no known precedent ‘for the lawful use of prerogative powers to remove or exclude an entire population of British subjects from their homes and place of birth’.
The islanders still have to overcome the hurdle of an agreement between the UK and the US whereby each side has a veto on who should live in the Chagos archipelago, and the US says it opposes any return on security grounds.
In the event of a definitive return home, nonetheless, the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), an independent London-based think tank is drawing up a 10-year resettlement strategy with a close eye on environmental sustainability and economic viability.
The exiled Chagossians mostly worked on coconut plantations and coconuts could still represent an important source of income. Others might be fishing, fishing rights and ecotourism. According to the ODI, the islanders also possess enough skills to manage facilities such as a small harbor, and an airstrip.