Presentation by Paul Heaton to the British Overseas Territories Association

Transcript of an address given on 23 May 2002 to the British Overseas Territories Association in London by Paul Heaton, Chagos Refugee Group UK representative (and chairman of our association).

Thank you for inviting me today to up-date your association regarding Chagos Island issues. It is quite a coincidence we meet today at the Cayman Islands Office, in that the Caymans started their existence as a British Overseas Territory, under similar circumstances to the Chagos Islands in that they, like Chagos, were detached from a larger British Colony, in their case, Jamaica, prior to the parent colony’s independence.
The Caymans have since flourished with good inward investment and a growing tourist industry, which is to be admired, whereas for the residents of the Chagos it has been an extremely different story, which I will now relate up to the present day.

Prior to the independence of the colony of Mauritius in the mid 1960’s, it was agreed between the British authorities and the Internal Administration to detach the Chagos Archipelago away from Mauritius to form a new Crown Territory, since named British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). Payment was made to Mauritius to accommodate this detachment and it attained independence a few years later.

Shortly after Mauritian independence, the British Government announced it was to lease the main island in the Chagos Archipelago – Diego Garcia – to the USA for 50 years, for use as a defense facility. At the same time, both the UK and USA governments of the day had decided to de-populate the whole Chagos Archipelago for perceived security and administrative reasons.

An arrangement was made with Mauritius and the Seychelle Islands to accept the Chagossian population, then numbering some 1,500 persons, the vast majority of which were taken against their will to Mauritius, with a few hundred going to the Seychelles. This removal into exile was carried out over several years with the last islanders leaving in the early 1970s.

A lot of the families evicted had lived on the Chagos for generations as the graveyards there lay claim to. It was portrayed to the world that the people of the islands were transient copra plantation workers hired and fired as required by the plantation owners, which, in the subsequent High Court proceedings many years later, proved to be false.

The exiled Chagossian community lived in poverty and deprivation in the poorer areas of Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius. They had severs problems integrating into Mauritian society due to a lack of adult literacy and of any formal education previously. Those that did get jobs had to be content with carrying out the most menial, lowest paid jobs in society such as cleaners, domestics and garden labourers.

It took several years for any compensation to filter through from the British Government and this was instantly absorbed due to the high level of debt the Chagossian families were in. Things became so desperate that in 1982 the Chagossians staged hunger strikes, following which the British Government finally made a meaningful compensation payment of four million pounds via the Mauritian authorities. From this compensation, each Chagossian family received a lump sum to purchase a plot of land, with a little over to construct a corrugated iron sheet dwelling with very basic facilities, but at least it was a big improvement on what went on before.

The Mauritian Government built two social centres out of the balance of the British compensation, which have recently been refurbished and are an excellent facility for all sorts of community activities such as pre-school classes, craft, music and culture groups etc. They have become a beacon of hope for this community living in exile as I saw at first hand recently.

Due to the fact that most Chagossian families own a plot of land bought with their compensation, then any state benefits are reduced because, in the government’s eyes, if you own land, you don’t need compensation. (Perverse logic, I feel.) In the Chagossian’s case though, with large families, high unemployment (especially amongst the male population), benefits are their lifeline for the absolute essentials of life, but, at a reduced level, are not enough even for these.

The Chagos issue was swept well under the carpet in the UK until into the 1990s when a UK solicitor, Richard Gifford, was on holiday in Mauritius and happened to meet some of the Chagossian community and learnt first hand of their ordeal. His findings in Mauritius so alarmed him that he came back determined to try and get redress in the British legal system.

This Richard did, working closely with the then embryonic Chagos Refugee Group headed by Olivier Bancoult. Legal aid was obtained and a case painstakingly prepared for a final High Court hearing in London in November 2000 against Her Majesty’s Government. This resulted in the High Court judges finding in favour of the Chagos Refugee Group’s case in that they should be allowed the right of return to their Chagos Islands and, also, that their removal in the first place was unlawful.

It was around the time of these hearings that I got personally involved with the cause by contacting Richard Gifford who kindly put me in touch with other concerned UK nationals and, after a period of consultation, it was decide to form a UK support group. This association has been active for about one year: raising both awareness in the media of Chagos issues and much needed funds whilst maintaining pressure on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to speed up interim compensation and resettlement plans.

Following their successful High Court victory, the Chagos Refugee Group are now seeking compensation for all their community, based on the verdict that they had been wrongly evicted from their homes and, as a result, suffered lives of poverty and deprivation since. The case for financial redress is grinding its way through the High Court and it will probably be 2003 before it is resolved. In the meantime, there is a desperate need now for some interim compensation to ease the chronic living conditions that I, and Jeremy Corbyn M.P., have seen at first hand a few weeks ago during fact-finding visits.

Our President, Olivier Bancoult, and his legal team were invited recently to talks in South Africa and, whilst there, had an audience with His Excellency, Nelson Mandela, who gave his personal support to the Refugee Group’s cause: in fact, agreeing to personally discuss the issues with the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, during his planned visit to London.

As regards the progress since 2000 towards actual resettlement, this now awaits the results of British Government organised feasibility studies on the northern Chagossian islands of Peros, Banhos and Salomon, now nearing completion, and it is on these that the type and degree of resettlement of these islands will depend. The records show that, when previously inhabited, these islands supported around 500 persons each, living mainly off fishing and copra production.

As there are now a total of around six thousand British Chagossians wishing to settle in the Chagos Islands and, allowing for the one thousand or so that the outer islands could sustain, then we have around five thousand Chagossians, most with roots back to Diego Garcia, the largest island by far, who still wish to resettle. This means that eventual resettlement back to Diego Garcia is going to be absolutely essential if it is to be meaningful and viable.

It could be that, if the current fifty year lease to the USA military prevents immediate input of resettlement infrastructure, then this should become part of any new renegotiated lease arrangements when the current one ceases, we believe around 2013.

The Chagos Refugee Group have no objection to the US base remaining but would insist on providing the majority of employed labour for its upkeep. The present workforce is brought in by US authorities from outside sources, mainly the Far East, numbering around a thousand personnel. It would be essential that employment was provided on the base area to make the overall resettlement plan a viable proposition for the Chagossian community. To use business parlance, it would be a “win/win” situation in that the USA military would have, on hand, a reliable British workforce which would be pre-trained and the community, including those living on the outer islands, would be financially viable as, initially, it would take time to build up eco-tourism, sustainable fishing and other income generating potential, A similar arrangement to that suggested works very well for the British military authorities on Cyprus where a local Cypriot population living on the sovereign base areas provided a reliable, on hand, workforce.

In the meantime, prior to the eventual resettlement of Diego Garcia, the northern islands should be settled and the local economy structured around eco-tourism, a sustainable fishing industry and modern permaculture, encouraged to provide food for the residents and visitors. In fact, Professor David Bellamy stated recently that to repopulate the Chagos could be made to benefit the environment of the northern atolls by freeing them of their massive feral rat populations, thus allowing re-colonisation by seabirds, and control of rogue fishing and abuse and damage by visiting yachts. A resident population could also benefit the palm forests by removing older trees and encouraging younger stock, eventually returning these valuable forests to good order. Professor Bellamy also states that eco-tourism based on the bio-diversity of the reefs and palm forest could flourish together with a sustainable fishing industry, as some of the worlds best tuna stocks are in Chagos waters. The tuna fishing currently brings in a sizeable income from license fees for the British Indian Ocean Territory authorities.

Enough fresh food could be grown using modern methods of permaculture assisted by composting type sewage disposal which would add humus to the horticultural mix. He states that ample power could be generated, as in other remote island groups, by solar and wave power. Professor Bellamy ends his discourse on the Chagos by stating that, in his opinion, the first step is to make the whole archipelago a World Heritage Site followed by the creation of role models of Atoll rehabilitation showing that paradise can be regained whilst providing a sustainable living environment.

Recently I spent some weeks following in the footsteps of our supportive member of parliament, Jeremy Corbyn, by staying with the Chagossian community in Port Louis, Mauritius and celebrated with them the attainment of full British citizenship acquired under the recent British Overseas Territories Bill. It was humbling to receive their generosity and openness, and to witness their desire to be British even after all the injustices practiced on them by British governments over the last thirty plus years. The main problems within the community needing urgent attention prior to any resettlement are individual courses to vastly improve adult literacy and general education, especially to teach basic English as only a few Chagossians can understand and speak any English as their main language is Creole (Pidgin French). The other needs are teaching workshops in what will be essential skills such as horticulture (non-existent at present). building and services, plumbing, electrical etc. and, finally, commerce and tourism including computer skills.

Whilst on the subject of preparation training, I would like to mention an organisation we support and work with named the Ilois Trust Fund, based in London. Its aim is to raise funds to finance community improvement projects in Mauritius prior to resettlement. At present, there are two projects just starting on the ground. The first is for two years, funded via the Trust by Comic Relief, to run workshops using local trainers working with the Chagos Refugee Committee and its youth wing to train and encourage potential community leaders and equip them with some basic administrative skills. The project is of a general nature and needs to be followed up by more specific training, as already mentioned. The second project, funded by the Ilois Trust and the Support Association, is to start urgent repairs to Chagossian homes badly damaged during a recent cyclone. These projects are only a modest start as there are many priority needs at present. The Ilois Trust and ourselves are doing the best we can with the limited resources available and it would now be very encouraging if the British Government Overseas Development Agencies were to get involved, especially in the training and preparation that needs putting in hand prior to any move back to the Chagos Islands.
To bring this address to a conclusion, I would implore Her Majesty’s Government to seize this historic opportunity to show it does now care about the Chagossian community and does want to atone for past mistakes by making the means available for these people to resettle their island homes and live in dignity as a thriving British Overseas Territory.

It is hoped that, eventually, we will meet with your association as full partners and, in the meantime, thanks very much for hearing me out today.