The UK expelled everyone who lived on the Chagos Islands more than 50 years ago. Why are they still being blocked from returning?
Claudia Williams, narrating:
Hello, I’m Claudia, and this is the Sensemaker.
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Today, the islanders exiled by Britain. Will they ever get their homeland back?
The Chagos archipelago is this tiny cluster of islands right in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
They’ve got white sand beaches and palm trees and they are surrounded by beautiful, clear blue water.
But behind all that beauty there’s a painful history to the Chagos islands.
“In 1973 the last group of Chagossians were forcibly removed from Chagos.”Olivier Bancoult, TEDx
That’s Olivier Bancoult.
And 50 years ago, when he was just four years old, his family was kicked out of their home in the Chagos Islands by the British and sent to live on nearby Mauritius.
The islands Olivier’s family called home were caught up in a geopolitical tug of war…
…a decades-long fight that’s left thousands of people living in exile.
But, why did the British force them out in the first place?
The story starts back in the 1960s.
Back then, the Chagos Islands were officially part of Mauritius and Mauritius was officially a British colony.
But in 1968 the country declared its independence.
The independence plans had been coming for a while.
So in the years before the British had been splitting off bits of Mauritian territory in preparation.
In 1965, they separated the Chagos Islands from the rest of the country, so when independence came to Mauritius… the British could keep hold of the archipelago.
They had a strategic interest in keeping Chagos.
The United States was on the lookout for a place to put a military base in the Indian Ocean and the British wanted to be seen to be helping their allies out.
Chagos seemed like the ideal location.
In 1968 the British started clearing people off the islands to make way for a top-secret American air base.
That’s what happened to Olivier Bancoult’s [Oliv-ier Ban-coo] family. His sister had been in an accident and so they travelled with her to a hospital on the mainland in Mauritius for treatment.
When the family tried to go back home, they were told they couldn’t:
“When my Mum asked an officer that we were to return now, she had been told by the officer that it will be impossible for her to return because the island had been given to America to build a US military base.”Olivier Bancoult, TEDx
Diego Garcia, the largest island in the Chagos archipelago, was leased to the Americans for five decades.
Ever since then, it’s been impossible for islanders to visit without clearance from the military and an escort from the British government.
At least it was, until an expedition led by the Mauritian government landed there last week. A group of Chagossians was allowed to go back to visit unsupervised for the first time.
Olivier Bancoult was one of them. Here is is speaking to The Guardian:
“We make the way to where in the past we used to live like one big family.”Olivier Bancoult, The Guardian
Throughout his adult life he’s been leading a campaign to allow his people to go back and live on the islands.
It was an emotional visit, and a symbolic one.
Since 2019, the Mauritians have had an official claim to the Chagos islands.
Judges from the International Court of Justice in the Hague issued an opinion saying what the British did in 1965 was illegal.
They should have never split the Chagos islands off from Mauritius… and the judges said they should return them to their rightful owner.
The UN passed a resolution agreeing with the court and said that the UK should give the islands back to Mauritius “as rapidly as possible”…
Three years on and the British government is yet to comply with that ruling.
But on this visit, the Mauritian ambassador to the UN raised his country’s flag on the island.
“We are asking Britain to wake up to the reality of the situation that their position is untenable.”BBC News
Could this visit be a step towards restoring the islands to the people who were exiled all those years ago?
Even though the international community says that Chagos belongs to Mauritius – and that the UK should work with Mauritius to help Chagossians resettle on the islands – the British government hasn’t been playing ball…
And nor have the Americans.
The military base is still there and the British have made it clear that they have no intention of relinquishing their control over the islands.
After the Mauritian visit last week the Foreign Office said that the UK, quote, “has no doubt as to our sovereignty over the British Indian Ocean Territory, which we have held continuously since 1814.”
To Olivier Bancoult and the lawyers who have been fighting for the rights of the Chagossian people to return to their homeland, the British government’s position is really hypocritical:
“We don’t understand the position of the British government. They say that they are these champions of human rights but what happened to our people?”Olivier Bancoult, The Guardian
Nearly the whole world is against them, but the British government doesn’t look like it’s about to hand the islands over.
The islands are a military power base for Britain and America in the Indo-Pacific – and with China exerting more and more control of the region, that kind of strategic hold isn’t something they will want to give up.
Today’s story was written and produced by Ella Hill.
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