Between 1968 and 1973 the inhabitants of a British Overseas Territory known as Chagos Archipelago were forcibly removed from their homeland. In a very controversial decision, the Government of the UK decided to allow the installation of a US military base in the biggest of the islands of the Archipelago, Diego García.
The removal of the islanders was slow but carefully planned. Months before the complete removal of the inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago, their pets were poisoned and their families were threatened .
Then the evicted Chagossians were confined in small communities in the neighbouring Mauritius and in London. They were also stripped of their British nationality, as the government retired their UK passports. In a matter of weeks the Chagossians were forcibly removed from their land and lost their British nationality, becoming a nation with no land and an invisible community spread all over the world.
The roots of the conflict go back to 1965, when the UK dettached the territory from the colony of Mauritius and Diego García was ceded to the US for, at least, the next 50 years. The island would be used for military purposes only, and the inhabitants had to be removed from Chagos. In exchange, the UK received $14 million and closed an important deal to purchase American nuclear submarines .
Given the insistence of the Chagossians, the UK approved an Immigration Ordinance in 1971, whereby any person wasn't allowed to even enter the whole territory. The situation of the islanders was therefore made unlawful. Secret conversations in the British administration lead to the resolution that the UK had to find the way to remove the islanders at any cost, "providing legal power to deport people who will not leave voluntarily, preventing people from entering, and maintaining the fiction that the inhabitants of Chagos are not a permanent or semi-permanent population" .
During the 80s the UK Government tried to settle down the dispute by giving economic compensations which reached £4m to the surviving islanders, and the case was closed and forgotten.
However, in 1998 some of the chagossians who lived in Mauritius took the case to the British High Court, claiming that their removal was made by illegal means. In November 2000, a historical resolution gave the illois their right to return home, as the Court found that their removal was unlawful. It was then seen as the end of the conflict, but the UK Government was not going to give up the islands so easily.
An article on the Chicago Tribune in October 2001 showed the ongoing conflict and the importance of preserving the US military base in Chagos at any cost. As an expert quoted at the article put it, "the US would be seriously affected if we had to leave the island. It is extraordinarily important to us; it allows us to keep a lot of ammunition and ground equipment near the Persian Gulf".
The decision of the High Court evidenced that the UK administration back in the 70s had acted in an illegal way. But, what is the current situation of the conflict? Are the Chagossians in a better situation than ten years ago?
The situation of the Chagossians hasn't improved much in the last decade, and the conflict has reached a stalemate difficult to break. After the Court ruled in favour of the Chagossians, allowing them to return home after more than 30 years, the UK government decided to act quickly in order to prevent the islanders to go back to Diego García, something that could threaten the military base and would put at risk the good relationship between the UK and the US administrations.
In 2004 the UK Government enacted the so-called Constitution and Immigration Orders, whereby the islanders were again refused their resettlement because it would be too expensive and environmentally unsustainable. But again, the High Court ruled in favour of the illois, stating that the 2004 Orders were unlawful. However, the UK Government appealed in 2007 before the Court of Appeal. As John Howell, QC for the Foreign Secretary stated, "this appeal raises issues of constitutional law of great importance. If the approach of the High Court was correct, it represented a revolutionary change in the constitutional law involved, which will affect all British Overseas Territories".
On May 23rd the High Court ruled in favour of the islanders for the third time, dismissing the UK Government's claims. However, the Court also ruled that the UK Government could appeal to the House of Lords directly. Only one month later, the UK administration appealed to the Law Lords and after one year of deliberation they ruled in Goverment's favour by a margin of only three to two votes.
In a public speech, David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary at that time, expressed his satisfaction after knowing the ruling. "Our appeal to the House of Lords was not about what happened in the 1960s and 1970s. It was about decisions taken in the international context of 2004. This required us to take into account issues of defence and security of the archipelago and the fact that an independent study had come down heavily against the feasibility of lasting resettlement of the outer islands of BIOT", stated.
The ruling of the Law Lords proved controversial when one of the experts that had been commissioned to carry out an environmental study about the feasibility of the resettlement of the illois was forced to remove his opinion, which was favourable to the return of the Chagossians, from the document .
After the ruling of the Law Lords the Chagossians, throughout the Chagos Refugee Group, took the case to the last instance, the European Court of Human Rights, which is still deliberating.
In April 2010, the UK Government, in a maneouvre apparently not related to the case, decided to set up a marine reserve in the British Indian Ocean Territory. The Government claimed that this decision showed the commitment of the UK with the environment. Several conservation groups backed the decision. "The MPA will cover some quarter of a million square miles and its establishment will double the global coverage of the world's oceans under protection. Its creation is a major step forward for protecting the oceans, not just around BIOT itself, but also throughout the world. This measure is a further demonstration of how the UK takes its international environmental responsibilities seriously", said Foreign Secretary David Miliband.
The decision was criticised by the Chagossians, who argued that the decision of setting up a Marine Protected Area in the Archipelago was taken to avoid the resettlement of the islanders, if the European Court of Human Rights finally ruled in favour of them.
The suspicions of the Chagossians were later confirmed by whistle-blower website Wikileaks, which leaked 500,000 top secret documents from US diplomatic outposts all around the world to four big newspapers in the UK, Spain, Germany and the US. In one of the embassy cables published by Wikileaks, the Director of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office stated that "establishing a marine park would, in effect, put paid to resettlement claims of the archipelago's former residents" .
"We do not regret the removal of the population, since removal was necessary for the BIOT to fulfill its strategic purpose", reads the leaked document .
The decision of setting up a marine reserve also aroused ignited discussions in the neighbouring Mauritius, which has been claiming sovereignty over Chagos Archipelago since 1965, and is currently holding a dispute with the UK administration .
With the creation of the marine reserve, the last hope for the Chagossians is almost gone. The Marine Protected Area forbids any human settlement in the whole Archipelago. Even if the European Court of Human Rights rules in favour of the islanders, it is unlikely that they will be allowed to return to their homeland.
On May 19, 2011, different Chagossians' support groups held a conference in London on the future of the Archipelago. The new situation forced the islanders to change strategy. The support groups presented a new project, based on the settlement of small eco-villages in the outer islands of the Archipelago, where some of the Chagossians who are still willing to return would be allowed to live in short-term periods.
Currently there are only around 4,000 Chagossians still alive. Some of them have given up any hope. Some others don't want to fight anymore. As for the rest, those who want to return, time is running against them. They have been fighting for over 40 years and now, in their eighties, they still hope that one day, before they die, they will be allowed to recover their lost paradise.