One must be cursed to be born as a Chagossian, native citizens of the British colony, Diego Garcia.
Diego Garcia, located in the heart of the Indian Ocean, is the largest and only inhabited island in the British Indian Ocean Territory, usually abbreviated as “BIOT”. The United States of America agreed to take Diego Garcia for the development of a military base during the cold war, only if it was uninhabited. To achieve this, in 1970 Britain simply pretended that there were no Chagossians, and conspired to make sure their unlawful removal went unnoticed. The Chagossians were accustomed to taking periodic trips to Mauritius by the only boat available. Once they arrived there, they found out that a return passage was refused them. This policy continued for several years, until all thousands of Chagossians were evicted from their homeland.
Unfortunately, Mauritius was not the best place to send them. Mauritius, a former British colony, is a small island with a population of 1.2 million, situated in the southeast coast of the African continent, in the southwest Indian Ocean. In economic terms, Mauritius has been facing signs of crisis in its two key industrial sectors: textiles and sugar. Although its booming tourist industry allowed the country’s economic growth rate to stabilize, it has a high unemployment rate of 7.8%. Moreover, it has no resources that it can exploit to help enhance its economy. Hence some Mauritians including myself, view with concern the number of facilities provided to the Chagossians. This includes a £650,000 grant given to Mauritius for the resettlement of the exiles, a further £4m cash given by the United Kingdom, Mauritius itself contributed £1m worth of land as a source of compensation to the deported Chagossians and all Chagossians were granted Mauritian citizenship. Some Mauritians believed that Mauritius was being too generous to allow those dispossessed citizens to reside in their country. Consequently, Chagossians were and still are looked down, neglected and considered as second-class citizens by some of us.
Through my Public Law 2 special study on Chagossians, I learnt about the horrid circumstances in which the Chagossians were forced to leave their country. Although some were even granted British citizenship, it came with a lot of strings attached. Chagossians were granted British citizenship if they were born before January 1983 and after April 1969 to a woman who at the time was a citizen of the UK and its colonies by virtue of her birth in BIOT. The British could easily uproot those Chagossians from their homeland but refuse to shelter all of them in their country! However, the UK has tried to acknowledge its abhorrent actions of the past through the Divisonal Court ruling in 2006 by making the order in council which completely eradicates the Chagossians population from their homeland ultra vires. The hopes of the Chagossians were crushed with the House of Lords judgment in 2008 where the order in council which allowed the complete eradication of the Chagossians was not found to be unlawful. The Chagossians were not only subjected to inhumane treatment by the UK, but also by my own country, Mauritius. In Mauritius, Chagossians have been and still are the poorest group within the wider Creole community. Most of them live in slum areas in the capital, Port-Louis and their homes are built of corrugated iron, which rusts in the wet. Chagossians are mostly unemployed and uneducated due to the poverty and the trauma of exile they went through. There is only one known Chagossian who is a university graduate, Arianne Navarre-Marie who was also the former Minister of Women’s Rights in Mauritius.
Between 1814 and 1965, Diego Garcia was the territory of Mauritius but in exchange for its independence, the government of Mauritius was forced by the UK to give up Diego Garcia to them despite a United Nations resolution, passed by the General Assembly in December 1965, which called on Britain to take no action which would sever the territory of Mauritius or violate its territorial integrity. The government of Mauritius is now arguing that the British acquisition of Diego Garcia was illegal and that Diego Garcia should belong to Mauritius. The UK denied that claim and asserts that Mauritius will only be given sovereignty over Diego Garcia when it is no longer needed by the British. However, just like the UK, Mauritius is only interested in Diego Garcia, not the Chagossians. Had Mauritius been interested in the Chagossians, it would have granted them refugee status. We have never accepted them as refugees but only as Mauritians. This is because we have sovereignty disputes over the islands – we want the island back and by making all Chagossians Mauritians, it is much easier for Mauritius to retain the island. But who are we to decide on the future of Diego Garcia? After all, Chagossians are British Overseas Territories Citizens and as such they have a right under the UN Charter; as a people, they have a right to self-determination; they have a right to decide on their future.
The “we know what is best for you” ideology is again being used on the Chagossians. On the 1st April 2010, David Miliband decided to make BIOT one of the largest marine reserves where BIOT would become a full or partial no-take fishing zone. Mauritius is completely against this decision since it is only interested in getting sovereignty over Diego Garcia. However, this marine reserve will completely jeopardise the chance of the Chagossians’ return to their island! This is a new governmental strategy to prevent the Chagossians from returning home as many Chagossians used to earn their living as fishermen when they were in Diego Garcia. If the Chagossians are lucky enough to obtain the right to return to Diego Garcia from the European Court of Human Rights, the court to whom they are appealing now, what will they do on their island when they are restricted to practise the job that helps them to meet the two ends? In my view, the British government should stop taking the Chagossians for granted. The lives of those thousands of Chagossians are more important than coral in the sea. If the UK wants to be portrayed as a protector of the global environment then, in exchange for the land which will be used as a bio-reserve for protection of marine life, they should offer the Chagossians full citizenship rights in the UK. Alternatively, allow the Chagossians to decide on what they want to do with the region, and if they vote for it being made into a marine conservation reserve, provide them with the consultancy of a multi-national team of experts in the field, in order to set it up. The fundamental and constitutional right of the Chagossians to remain and live in their country has been violated and is still being infringed upon but I hope that their tragic story becomes known to the world and justice is served.