Righting a wrong

ElunedMorgan4x3.pngEluned Morgan on resolving the complicated but tragic recent history of the Chagos Islands

Britain has always considered itself to be a country where fair play is important, where the rule of law is respected, where rights are enforced. But there is a land far away which should prick the country’s moral conscience, in the way we have unfairly treated the inhabitants of the Chagos Islands otherwise known as the British Indian Ocean Territory. 

This group of 54 individual tropical islands was the home to around 1,500 people for more than a century and a half. The UK Government evicted them in the early 1970s in order to allow the US to build a military base on Diego Garcia – the largest island in the area. This is now the only inhabited island – and then only by US military and civilian contracted personnel.

Today around 700 Chagossians survive, scattered around the globe following their forced exit from the island. Many are living in profound poverty, reeling and suffering severe psychological problems from the dislocation of being separated from their homeland. As some still yearn for the opportunity to go back to their native land, we welcome the proposal for a new feasibility study on the issue of resettlement. 

The first obstacle to overcome would be the renegotiation of the terms of the agreement with the US defence authorities. I am sure it is not beyond the whit of the US defence force to live alongside or protect their base from potential islanders. They seem to manage this fairly well in Guantanamo where they have lived side by side with the Cubans for decades. Who knows, it might even be helpful for the US to employ some of the islanders at their base. 

Beyond that it would be fairly simple, in theory, to allow the Chagossians to return, to simply say “yes, home you go”. But what would they be going home to? What, if any, is our responsibility to the islanders and their standard of living? Especially as successive UK governments have undertaken to cede the Territory to Mauritius when it is no longer needed it for defence purposes.

Very little exists on the islands. The islanders led a basic existence prior to 1966 with few schools and health clinics. So the costs of resettlement and a clear understanding of what this would entail must be explored in any feasibility study. And we must also be sensitive in what we ask of UK taxpayers – particularly at a time of austerity. As part of that we should explore fully the opportunities for the costs of resettlement to be shared between other interested parties, including US and the EU.

There are of course, significant risks associated with the resettlement, including an understanding that most who left in the late 1960s will now be over 60 years of age. These people may not want to settle on the islands, but they may want simply to spend some time visiting the country of their birth. Either way, infrastructure will need to be in place. 

This is a complicated story interwoven with imperialist overtones, environmental concerns, military and defence considerations, costs concerns and compensation claims. But more than anything it continues to be an unfolding tragedy of a people who have been wronged. 

Baroness Eluned Morgan is a member of the Shadow FCO team in the House of Lords

Published 27th November 2013

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