Chagos islanders visit their homeland

The US air base that now occupies Diego Garcia (Photo: unknown)

A group of twelve Chagos islanders have had the chance to see their islands in a visit organised by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The 10-day trip, taking place this week and next, will take the group to Diego Garcia, Peros Banhos and Salomon, including the graveyards on Ile du Coin and Ile Boddam. It follows previous visits for groups of islanders in 2008 and 2006 – the first time that any Chagossians had been allowed to return to the islands since the eviction in the 1970s (in the meantime, numerous US servicemen, British administrative staff, support staff from other countries and yachters had been allowed to visit and live on the islands).

It’s fantastic news for those who have been able to take part. Our assistant secretary Sabrina Jean is one of those on the trip and on Monday we had a message from her saying “we are on diego wow wow”. However the vast majority of Chagossians and their descendants (there are thousands living in Mauritius, several hundred in the UK and more in the Seychelles) have not had the chance to see their homeland since they were illegally thrown off.

The government said the visit “forms part of a wider commitment to an open dialogue with the Chagossian communities”. Henry Bellingham, MP, minister for the Overseas Territories, is quoted as saying:

“I am pleased that we have arranged for a small group of Chagossians from the UK and the Seychelles to visit the British Indian Ocean Territory from 28 March to 6 April.

Although the Government will continue to contest the case brought by the Chagossians to the European Court of Human Rights on resettlement and compensation, we believe it is vital that we continue to engage with the communities and this visit is an important part of that commitment.

The Government is very keen for such visits to continue and I hope to be able to offer more visits in the future including opportunities to take part in environmental projects ongoing in the Territory.”

If we take the government’s claims of being committed to engaging with the islanders at face value, that’s a great thing. Unfortunately the coalition doesn’t have great form on the Chagos issue.

Senior Conservative and Lib Dem figures indicated before the election that they would seek to bring justice to the islanders, and Vince Cable even claimed since the election that the case against the islanders at the European Court of Human Rights would be dropped. But someone had their wires crossed, and Henry Bellingham quickly corrected Cable with the official line: that the government would continue with the New Labour policies – blocking the islanders’ right of return and supporting the Marine Protected Area, which was introduced without proper consultation, and which we now know from Wikileaks to have been used as a way of obstructing resettlement.

The small group of islanders who have been able to take part are thrilled, and the visits which have been allowed in the last few years have been among the few positive developments in the recent history of Chagos. But the islanders don’t just want to visit when the Foreign Office allows it – this is their homeland and they want the right to return.

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