Chagos Islanders Denied the Right of Return

by October 28, 2008
 

The British House of Lords has overturned a 2007 high court ruling that allowed the original inhabitants of the Chagos Islands to return to their homes in the Indian Ocean archipelago.

"There are a lot of Chagossian people in front of the court today (Oct. 22) and we are very sad about this decision," said Hengride Permel, of the Chagos Island Community Association.

"It was a chance for the British Government to right a wrong...it is a shameful day for the government."

Examined in the documentary, Stealing a Nation, by John Pilger, the historical wrong Permel refers to was a repellent scheme by the British and American governments to "sweep" and "sanitize" the islands of all inhabitants to make way for a strategic US military base.

"At first, [in the late 1960s] the islanders were tricked and intimidated into leaving; those who had gone to Mauritius [1000 miles away] for urgent medical treatment were prevented from returning, explains John Pilger in a 2004 report. "As the Americans began to arrive and build the base, Sir Bruce Greatbatch, governor of the Seychelles who had been put in charge of the 'sanitising', ordered all the pet dogs on Diego Garcia to be killed. Almost a thousand pets were rounded up and gassed, using the exhaust fumes from American military vehicles. 'They put the dogs in a furnace where the people worked,' said Lizette Tallatte, now in her 60s, '... and when their dogs were taken away in front of them, our children screamed and cried.'"

"The islanders took this as a warning; and the remaining population were loaded on to ships, allowed to take only one suitcase. They left behind their homes and furniture, and their lives. On one journey in rough seas, the copra company's horses occupied the deck, while women and children were forced to sleep on a cargo of bird fertiliser. Arriving in the Seychelles, they were marched up the hill to a prison where they were held until they were transported to Mauritius. There, they were dumped on the docks."

Many of the Chagossians ended up living a life of exile in Mauritius's slums, where unemployment reigns at about 90 per cent.

More than a decade later, things started to look good for the islanders. In November 2000, the British High Court ruled that the expulsion was illegal, that they are entitled to compensation, and that they should have the right to return.

The British government responded by saying they would not appeal the decision, however, as Pilger points out in another report, "the Blair Government blocked them from going home by conjuring up a 'feasibility study' to determine whether the islands could be resettled."

Impressively, "it found they were 'sinking'—perhaps under the weight of the thousands of US servicemen, their bars, barbecues and bombers," slaps Pilger. The islanders were also denied their compensation.

In 2007, the courts restated the initial verdict, however the government once again appealed.

Last week's decision by the House of Lords is the result of that appeal. The decision states that the Chagossians should not be allowed to return to the islands because of 'security concerns' surrounding Diego Garcia, which has effectively become the military equivalent of Disney land.

It's sad but true: what was once a lush and safe environment for humble people, is now a launching pad for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, a garage for nuclear-armed aircraft carriers, and, among other things, a home to a prison camp the likes of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.