2023 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the expulsion of the Chagossian people from their homeland in the Chagos Islands. This act has been regarded as a “Crime against humanity” by Human Rights Watch, who called on the UK government for reparations and the right to return for the Chagossians. For a government that has shown a keen interest in promoting human rights in other countries, it certainly doesn’t practice what it preaches when it comes to its treatment of the Chagossian community, especially when it maintains its colonial-era policy of excluding the rights of ethnic minorities. Lorenzo Capito discusses.
In the 1960s, with perceived threats of communism gaining ground in the Middle East, South Asia and Eastern Africa by the US, and the UK’s keenness to reaffirm its alliance with the US, both countries held secret talks for a new military base within the UK’s overseas territories. The overseas territory that would host a new US military base is Diego Garcia, an atoll in the Chagos Islands. This would lead to the forced expulsion of the Chagossians out of their homeland. Beween 1967 to 1973, over 1,000 of the islands’ inhabitants were expelled, with many being forced to relocate to nearby Mauritius.
To this day, the UK government has been preventing the Chagossians from returning. This violates the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, of which the UK voted in favour of the resolution in 2007, agreeing to condemn the marginalisation and promote the human rights of indigenous peoples. According to a briefing by the Minority Rights Group International, the UK government has barred the reentry of Chagossians in several ways.
They found that many have suffered from severe, chronic impoverishment
One way it has done this was the creation of the Marine Protected Area Zone around the Chagos Islands in 2010, which banned any human activity but recreational fishing in the Chagos Islands. This effectively deprived the Chagossians of their main source of livelihoods should they return to their homeland.
The UK government has also repeatedly rejected the Chagossians’ legal actions against their expulsion. In 2003, the court dismissed the ‘Chagos Island Case’, which would’ve compensated the Chagossians for their expulsion and sought a declaration of their right to return. This move was justified by citing that claims were already settled in 1982. However, the compensation provided in 1982 excluded the Chagossians forcibly relocated to the Seychelles. The amount provided was also minimal. The renunciation forms given to those receiving compensation, which would’ve renounced their claims arising from their expulsion, were also in English, a language which many Chagossians weren’t able to understand. This has left many Chagossians to feel the compensation provided was not enough, and many have still demanded their right to return to their homeland.
The negative effects of the forced removal of the Chaggosians are numerous. Michael Tigar, a Professor of Law at the American University Washington College of Law, invited a research group to document the effects of the Chagossians’ expulsion. They found that many have suffered from severe, chronic impoverishment, ranging from traumatic damage to social and economic marginalisation, such as unemployment and educational deprivation. There have also been cases of Chagossians who hold British passports being pressured by council officials to leave, an example of systematic racial discrimination against the community.
Despite all this, efforts are being made to ensure the rights of the Chagossians are being met. The UK government has now offered the direct descendants of those born in the Chagos Islands free application for British citizenship, giving them the same rights as other British nationals. This is a step up from previously, when many weren’t able to move to the UK because immigration rules specified citizenship being passed down to those only one generation born abroad, in addition to many being unable to afford the costs of applying for British citizenship. There have also been NGOs that aimed to advance the cause and raise awareness of the Chagossians and the issues they face, such as Chagos Refugee Group and Chagossian Voices.
The Chagos Islands acts as a notable example of the UK government’s hypocrisy
This issue has also extended beyond the UK government and the Chagossian community. Mauritius, an island country in the Indian Ocean, has also seemingly supported the rights of Chagossians. Accompanied by scientists who surveyed the Blenheim reef in the islands, a group of Chagossians visited the islands alongside Mauritian officials without permission from the UK government, and proceeded to raise the Mauritian flag. The Chagos Islands is claimed by Mauritius, which administered the islanders before it became detached by the UK. The Mauritian government has also expressed its willingness to resettle the exiled Chagossians back in their homeland.
However, as it currently stands, the UK government still refuses to allow the reentry of the Chagossians back to their homeland. International law has also been subpar when it comes to advancing the rights of the Chagossians. In 2019, the UN has adopted a resolution calling for the UK to return the Chagos Islands to Mauritius, which it had separated from Mauritius in 1965, giving the UK a deadline of within six months. The UK responded to this ruling by ignoring it, showing the limited capabilities of international law.
The Chagos Islands acts as a notable example of the UK government’s hypocrisy. When it doesn’t even protect and safeguard the rights of an entire community, one that was under the responsibility of the British government before being forcibly evicted, how can the UK government seriously claim itself to be a promoter of human rights internationally? Until the rights of the Chagossians are met, and their reparations and right to return given, the Chagos Islands will always act as a reminder that colonialism isn’t as dead as one might think.
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