May 2011 update

CHAGOS REGAGNÉ

The Chagos Regagné conference, held at the Royal Geographical Society on Thursday 19 May, was a landmark event bringing together, for the first time in the long history of campaigning, conservationists, scientists, supporters, anthropologists, charities, academics, politicians and media.

It felt as if everyone with an interest in Chagos was there; the historian David Vine had flown in from the US just for the conference, and Chagos researcher Laura Jeffery came in from Mauritius for the day. Historic campaigner Olivier Bancoult came from Mauritius to speak and the Prime Minister of Mauritius authorised his legal representative to make a powerful public statement. For the first time Chagos people attended a conference about their future in force – about 150 people came in the coaches laid on from Crawley and from Manchester.  An attentive and noisy group they raised issues which were not on the agenda but were welcomed by the organisers. The issue of passports and compensation, and the passionate sense of urgency for the cause of return were powerfully expressed.

The conference was arranged so that every session with speakers was followed with comment, debate and questions from the floor. Chairing by Sue MacGregor (of the BBC) and Professor Rebecca Stott (from Royal Holloway College, London) was designed to allow maximum debate. Chagos people insisted on  translation into Creole; Laura Jeffery served as a generous and friendly interpreter for two of the sessions.

The first debate was entitled “Reef Health Now” – and scientists Mark Spalding and John Turner explained their research. Dr Spalding concluded that the reefs were a precious delicately balanced environmental haven, but he thought that a carefully managed  presence of Chagos people would not cause damage.  Dr Turner presented research from Dr Charles Shepherd as well as his own work, and emphasised the importance of the Marine Protected Area as the best preserved coral reef in the world whilst others are under terrible threat from climate change, overfishing and pollution.

The second debate looked at the human presence in the MPA.  David Vine reported on the history of the Chagos islands and the reasons for the expulsion of the people. He reported that the architect of the American base concept believed before he died that the indigenous people could live near the base. William Marsden of the Chagos Conservation Trust spoke in favour of the conservation work and training done. John Howell, author of a previous plan to return, reminded the conference of the practical proposal agreed by Chagos people for their return to the islands.  People dashed for lunch – the day was really heating up! But first, the Guardian photographer asked for everyone to come to the terrace to record the historic coming together of so many Chagos people.

Afterwards, everyone dashed back into the beautiful Ondaatje theatre for the crucial afternoon sessions.  Paul Gardiner of the Mantis Group of Resorts opened the debate by talking about how he and his family and the indigenous people of the Cape area of South Africa had found the motivation and the way to reintroduce animals into a desolate area. His example suggested that indigenous people can learn and work as guardians of their own heritage. Sean Carey talked about the history of the diaspora of the Chagos people.  Laura Jeffery spoke about her work to consult the Chagos people and establish their views and hopes for the future.  She invited people to contact her to make sure that her work – funded by an ESRC grant – reaches a wider audience so that people really know what the Chagos people hope and fear.  Richard Dunne presented a stunning report on what a science station with a green eco-village might be like, what it might do and, importantly, what it might cost.  In line with the best scientific advice, Richard Dunne advised the establishment of a small settlement, of perhaps 100 people, and argued that trained and motivated Chagossians might protect the valuable Chagos coral reefs better than they are being protected now.

The next session was given over to the lawyers: Philippe Sands QC came with a statement which had been approved by the Prime Minister of Mauritius in which he presented the legal arguments against the creation of the MPA on powerful legal grounds, promised a hearing at ITLOS and further action at the UN, accused the UK and the US of behaving illegally, and the conservation charities who supported the MPA of being “aiders and abettors”. Without a doubt, this was a speech which challenged the conservationists and warned them that future decisions about the Chagos MPA will have to be taken in consultation with the Chagos people.

But there was a strong feeling from the floor of the conference that the Mauritian government had not supported the Chagos people historically, and that some Chagos people did not want Mauritian sovereignty over Chagos. Alan Vincatassian expressed his commitment to the UK and his distrust of Mauritian motives. His Excellency, the High Commissioner of Mauritius, who attended the conference for the whole day, was interested and engaged by the discussion and reassured the organisers that he welcomed the open debate.

Richard Gifford, lawyer for the Chagos Refugee Group, spoke next outlining the long campaign which brought the Chagos cause to the European Court of Human Rights.  He got a stormy response from the floor when people demanded swifter action, and complained bitterly about the situation regarding some British passports which are hard to obtain for a few Chagossian family members. (Which is not Mr. Gifford’s responsibility but the Government’s)

Pushed for time the conference went straight into the final session – agreeing the way forward – Mr Olivier Bancoult gave a powerful speech and contributions from the floor were noisy, passionate, on and off the topic, and sustained.  Conservationists reminded the conference of the importance of the natural environment.  There was a good deal of shouting as well as argument. Ben Fogle closed the conference with an appeal for unity and his certainty that the cause would be won, and then the room was filled with the moving music of the choir of Ifield Community College singing “Calling my Children Home”, a fitting end to an emotional day.

Conference organiser Philippa Gregory said: “We didn’t get to an agreed conclusion but the important issues were powerfully raised in a public forum in a way which cannot be mistaken.  The Chagos people spoke up and demanded compensation, fair acknowledgement of their British subject status, and the right to return.   Many conservation groups represented at the conference confirmed that they had no problem with the return of a limited population to the islands and that they had no intention that the Marine Protected Status of the area would exclude Chagos people.  We have a clear message to take to the Foreign Office, and I am very very pleased that even while the conference was in progress, we were offered a date to meet the Foreign Secretary. Roch Evenor, Ben and I will tell him clearly that the Chagos people will not accept the current situation and that the fight for justice will go on until justice is won”.

Tam Dalyell, former MP and patron of the UK Chagos Support Association, sent the following message:

“I wish I were able to attend this conference about Chagos. Since I cannot, may I at least send my good wishes to all participants, especially Chagossians?

We face a series of extremes that can easily appear irreconcilable: the extreme difficulty of working out how to live sustainably on coral reef islands faced with the extreme risks of climate change,  the extreme wrongs that have been exacted on the Chagossians, the extremely different national approaches to managing regional marine resources.

Perhaps out of the large range of possible futures for Chagos, ways forward can be found that will provide  justice for the Chagossians – even if partial and belated – while also providing for the responsible management of a Chagos marine protected area – even though within the constraints imposed by the current UK/US Defence Agreement concerning the base on Diego Garcia.

It is particularly appropriate that this conference should be held at the home of the Royal Geographical Society, with its long tradition of promoting respect for the earth’s great diversity of human communities and other species, together  with the habitats and ecosystems that they share.”

Another account of the conference:

The Conference brought together, for the first time, almost all the interested parties with the Chagossians. Not surprisingly  Chagossians expressed the pent up feelings of  more than 40 years of  frustration and anger at the way they have been, and are being, treated. Olivier Bancoult addressed the meeting on the demands and aspirations of his community. Mauritius was represented by The High Commissioner and his Deputy. Philippe Sands QC, the legal representative of the Mauritian Government, addressed the conference on the legal position and explained why the MPA was illegal in international law and that Mauritius fully supported the right of the Chagossians to return home. Richard Gifford, the Solicitor of the CRG, discussed where the litigation, on behalf of Chagossians had got to in the UK Courts and currently at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The proposal for a scientific monitoring and research station on the Outer Islands, coupled with an eco-village for Chagossians, who would support the facility and act as wardens of the MPA, was presented by a number of speakers. David Snoxell, the Chairman of the Marine Education Trust (MET), pointed out that in creating the MPA 253,000 petitioners had called upon the Foreign Secretary to “work with Chagossians to protect these important reefs and our ocean’s future”. A further 1,600 had signed a petition, launched by the MET, which warned the Foreign Secretary that “Any failure to include adequately the Chagossians and the Government of Mauritius in the development of an MPA undermines the transparency of the process and threatens its long- term effectiveness”.  Jeremy Corbyn MP, the Chairman of the Chagos Islands, All- Party Parliamentary Group was the last speaker. He put forward three steps that need to be taken by the FCO, towards reaching an overall solution:
– Reverse the 2004 Orders and restore the right to return to the Outer Islands
– Support a study into the practicalities of resettlement and the number wishing to visit or resettle
– Involve the Chagossians in conservation and marine protection work by supporting training in Mauritius, Seychelles and the UK of those who would wish to resettle or work on the islands.

Chagossian Sabrina Jean, assistant secretary of this association, said:

“It was a great debate which let Chagossians have their say and put their point of view, there was some anger but it was a very good day for me. My thanks to Philippa and Ben who  made this possible for us. You know, a Chagossian on our way back to Crawley on the coach told me that we need to have more debate like this.”


PARLIAMENT

The Chagos Islands All-Party Parliamentary Group held its 20th meeting on 4 May 2011. Here is the report from coordinator David Snoxell:

The Chairman welcomed the Patron (Dr Philippa Gregory), Chairman (Roch Evenor) and Vice Chairman (Marcus Booth) of the UK Chagos Support Association (UKChSA). They explained the work of UKChSA and the forthcoming conference on 19 May at the Royal Geographical Society, the impetus for which had been disappointment with the lack of action by the Coalition to bring about the fair and just settlement promised in opposition, a year ago. Entitled ‘Chagos Regagne’ the conference will bring together Chagossians, scientists, conservationists, anthropologists, politicians and officials to discuss the establishment of a scientific monitoring station and eco-village on one of the Outer Islands, for visiting scientists and Chagossians who would help run the station and work on conservation and MPA protection. The conference will discuss reef ecology, impact of human habitation,  practicalities (eg water, waste, sewage, food, medical), the status of the MPA and future prospects for the islands. The conclusions will go to the Foreign Secretary who had expressed an interest in the outcome of the conference, and in finding a way forward. The media will be briefed in advance and are expected to attend. The representatives of UKChSA expressed the hope that the conference would bring the various perspectives on the future of Chagos together and provide an incremental way forward which all parties could embrace, including the FCO. This would provide the basis for the Coalition Government to bring about an overall resolution of the issues concerning Chagos and the Chagossian people. Several members of the Group said that they would attend sessions of the conference. Dr Gregory thanked the APPG for their continuing efforts in support of the Chagossians.

After the UKChSA representatives had left, the Group went on to discuss the creation of the BIOT Science Advisory Croup (SAG) which is to have its first meeting on 26 May. Members were pleased to note that, following a letter from the Chairman, the FCO Chief Scientist had invited two scientists, who were known to be balanced and objective in the debate over the environmental impact of human habitation, to join the SAG. The meeting noted the two letters of complaint to the BBC, signed by several members of the Group, over the Programme, ‘Costing the Earth – OK Coral’ which had implied that human habitation in Chagos would be detrimental to the coral reefs. It was hoped that the BBC would rectify this impression in a future programme. The Group went on to consider exchanges of correspondence between the Chairman and Vice Chairman and FCO Ministers on defence security issues and on the need for a new study of resettlement issues. The Group  had still not been told what the concerns are, which the FCO claim the US have over resettlement on the Outer Islands, 140 miles away from the base on Diego Garcia. It was agreed that the Chairman would ask the Foreign Secretary for a meeting to include two colleagues from other parties in the Group.


House of Commons
Written answers and statements, 16 May 2011
Three questions from Andrew Rosindell (Romford, Conservative) which were answered by Henry Bellingham (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Africa and the United Nations), Foreign and Commonwealth Office; North West Norfolk, Conservative)
A. Rosindell. To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs how much his Department spent on facilitating grave-tending visits to the Chagos Islands in each of the last 10 years.
H. Bellingham. This information is not held centrally and could be provided only at disproportionate cost. The budget for the current year for visits of all kinds (grave-tending, heritage, environmental work, etc.) is £50,000.
A. Rosindell. To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what steps his Department is taking to ensure that the Marine Protected Area around the Chagos archipelago is enforced.
H. Bellingham. Enforcement is led by a marine protection officer working on board the Pacific Marlin patrol boat. The British Indian Ocean Territory Administration operates a system of permits to control access to and activities within the Marine Protected Area. We also work closely with the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission to limit illegal fishing.
A. Rosindell .To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what steps his Department is taking to enable Chagos Islanders to return to the British Indian Ocean Territory.
H. Bellingham. This Government believe that, on the grounds of feasibility and defence security, there are clear and compelling reasons to oppose the resettlement of British Indian Ocean Territory. However, we have facilitated a number of visits to the islands for former inhabitants and their descendants, including to assist with environmental projects, and will continue to do so.


‘FORTRESS CONSERVATION’

Last year, supporters may recall, Dr Elizabeth de Santo and Dr. Peter Jones published a paper ‘Fortress conservation at sea: a commentary on the Chagos marine protected area.’  This criticised the decision to designate a 210,000 square mile area around the Chagos archipelago in the Indian Ocean as a no-take marine protected area in which all fishing is banned. This critique was on the grounds that the designation neglected a crucial issue of social injustice related to the potential for Chagos islanders to return to the islands, following their eviction by the UK Government to make way for the Diego Garcia military base. The term ‘fortress conservation’ turned out to be particularly and unfortunately appropriate in the light of the ‘Wikileaks’, which revealed that the UK and US governments had actually agreed to designate the Chagos marine protected area principally as a means of foreclosing the option of the evicted islanders being able to return to the island, thus ensuring it’s continued use as a military base.

 

Alistair Gammell of the Pew Environment Group (prime movers for the MPA) has replied along the lines of ‘more a safe haven than a fortress’ and criticises the authors for  combining protecting the environment and right-to-return issues. UKChSA, like Jones and de Santo, maintains that any decision about MPAs has enormous consequence for human rights – these issues cannot be compartmentalised.

Mr. Gammell employs the stale old arguments about ‘national security and public expenditure issues’ but these have been dismissed by successive courts including Law Lords and by many MPs.

He said that a no-take fishing zone would not prejudice the pending court judgement at Strasbourg but, if that is the case, why try to pre-empt the judgement?

He, (a slip of the pen?), wrote that members of the largest Chagossian organisation in the UK joined thousands of others in supporting the MPA when it was, in fact, the smallest. Chagossians everywhere are not against conservation of their homeland and the waters around it but they object to the way in which this has been done and the true motive for applying the MPA. Mr. Gammell also fails to mention that the majority of people encouraged to support the MPA were not told about the Chagossians and the denial of their human rights.

Mr Gammell is also associated with the Chagos Conservation Trust (known at one time as the Friends of Chagos but changed when it became apparent, presumably, that they were not friends of Chagossians) which sent their members a self-congratulatory email in April entitled ‘Happy Anniversary: Chagos MPA one year on’. (In November, Chagossians will remember that they have been exiled for forty three years. No joyous celebrations for them.) This celebratory email reached Richard Gifford, the Chagossian solicitor, who replied (extract):

Among our celebrations for the preservation of a wonderful marine habitat, let us not forget that the exclusion of the population and the prohibition on fishing together make this MPA more fragile than it need be.

Conceived in haste, and declared in the dying throes of the last government, it was almost universally condemned in the House of Commons and House of Lords within days of its ill-conceived birth. It is now challenged in the High Court in London by the unlawfully removed inhabitants, and at the UN tribunal on the Law of the Sea by the neighbouring state of Mauritius, which claims that the UK has no right even to act as the sovereign power.

Scientists have a particular responsibility in this sordid history of cheating the population out of their birthright, from the time when the Aldabra turtle was considered to require more protest than the anthropomorphic native species on Chagos down to their role as willing dupes in the FCO plan to exclude the residents by what the FCO admits to be a MPA device. When Prof David Stoddart attended the AGM of the Friends of Chagos (the last under that Title) and deplored the part played in the forced relocation, the Friends promptly reformed themselves into a “Conservation Trust”. Soon there was pressure on the FCO to declare a no-take, no-native MPA.

And their collusion in failing to protest against the environmental damage caused by the US base also deserves condemnation. Massive coral blasting on Diego Garcia seems to have passed unnoticed by coral experts who lament the presumed effect of a resettled population, as do the oil spills, the threat to cetations from submarine sonar etc. etc. When did CCT last complain at the misuse of this “pristine environment” to Diego Garcia’s landlords or tenants?

 

PRESS COVERAGE

There were articles in the Telegraph (Richard Gray, 15 May), The Times (Mary Bowers, 18th May) and The Independent (Cahal Milmo 19th May) ahead of the conference at the Royal Geographical Society.

Newsnow (Mauritius) on 3rd May covered the setting up of a new organisation based in Switzerland to support the Chagossians:

A new group has been set up to “provide an international platform for raising awareness of the forced deportation of Chagossians and of their right to live in their homeland”.
The initiative comes from Venen Paratian who, along with a dedicated team, has launched the Chagos International Support (CIS), based in Geneva.
It was officially established on April 29 in conformity with the Swiss Civil Code governing associations in that country. The CIS is registered as a non-governmental organisation (NGO).

According to Venen Paratian, Chagos International Support will provide an international platform for raising awareness of the forced deportation of Chagossians and of their right to return. It aims at bringing the Chagos case onto the international front in a coordinated manner.
Chagos International Support, he explains, will use fast communication facilities to inform the world about the Chagos issue and create a support network that will target as many people as possible in order to influence and lift obstacles that prevent Chagossians’ legitimate right to live in their homeland.
Mr Paratian says: “I believe that after 40 years of struggle to claim their home, the time has come to find a lasting solution for Chagossians. The right to a home is a basic human right.

“Chagos International Support will leave no stone unturned to bring the Chagossians’ case to the forefront of the international arena in Geneva and work together with all the stakeholders so that their legitimate aspiration to return and live in their homeland becomes a reality. We expect no less in a modern and civilised society.” Activities of CIS will include:
* Invitations through information and communication technologies to citizens of the world to support the cause of the deported Chagossians
* Create a platform for Chagossians to express their views and facilitate and build capacity for them to speak with one voice on their right to live in their homeland
* Foster partnership with international organisations, non-governmental organisations, environmentalists, academia, universities, civil societies and other groups by presenting a fair and balanced view of the Chagossian case
* Inform and convince environmentalists, relevant foundations, non-governmental organisations and supporter of the no-take Marine Protected Area (MPA) to include the human right element in their projects
* Publish related articles of the Chagos Archipelago in the international media
Born in 1948 in Mauritius, Venen Paratian was from 1992 to 2007 Chief of Protocol and External Affairs Officer of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a United Nations agency created in 1865 and based in Geneva.
Prior to that, he worked for the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) – today the Africa Union – in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and in Geneva, Switzerland, from 1970 to 1980.

 

Mr. Paratian has been in touch with UKChSA and both organisations will work closely together.

 

An article in Ocean News about the Mauritian case regarding the MPA under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea by Peter Prows concludes:

On the merits, this case presents a conflict between the right of a coastal state to enact environmental restrictions on fishing in its EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) and the rights of others to fish to protect their livelihoods.  MPAs have become a favoured tool of marine scientists, environmentalists, and policy makers to protect and conserve global fish stocks, as exemplified by the call in the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development to establish “representative networks” of marine protected areas around the world by 2012. But human rights groups have also raised concerns about the potential of MPAs to restrict disadvantaged peoples (like the Chagossians) from using those resources to improve their condition. This case presents an opportunity for the tribunal to decide whether the United Kingdom struck the right balance with this MPA.
Then there is
Wikileaks and the merits of Mauritius’s claim of bad faith.  In the end, the United Kingdom may still need to show that the MPA was carefully designed to protect not only a strategic military area, but a valuable environmental one as well.
American Society of International Law

 

NEWS FROM CRG IN MAURITIUS

The Chagossian people set aside their sagrin and worries to celebrate Mrs Marie Julie Oscar, affectionately known as Tantine (Auntie) Coucoune, who turned 100 last Tuesday 3 May 2011. Born in Salomon, she was still young when she came to Mauritius for good. Tantine Coucoune found a new home at the Caunhye family compound in Camp Chapelon. This small locality situated at the southern entrance of Port-Louis was in festive mood for the official birthday celebrations on Saturday 7 May. The nicely decorated marquee was bustling with relatives and friends as well as officials from the Ministry of Social Security and National Solidarity. Olivier Bancoult, Rita Elysée, Lisette Talate and other members of the Chagos Refugees Group were present, as well as Laura Jeffery and her little family, who had just landed in Mauritius to continue her  ongoing research. The celebrations were graced by the presence of Mrs. Leela Devi Dookhun-Luchoomun, Minister of Social Security and National Solidarity, and of the Chagossian-born Supercentenarian, Marie Emilie Louise, whose towering 109 years make her the oldest of the 99 centenaries of Mauritius. (Sagrin is the Chagossian word for the sadness felt in exile.)                            The Ilois Welfare Fund (Amendment) Bill (No. VI Of 2011) Following the request of the Chagossian community, this bill was amended by deleting the word “Ilois” and replacing it by the word “Chagossian” to make more precise reference to the place of origin of the Chagossian community and to give them their due status in the Mauritian society. It is henceforth known as the Chagossian Welfare Fund (CWF).


NEW BOOKS

Eviction from the Chagos Islands Displacement and Struggle for Identity Against Two World Powers.

Published in May, this book is by Sandra J.T.M Evers, Ph.D, associate professor and senior researcher at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, VU University Amsterdam and Marry Kooy, a freelance journalist who holds a Masters degree in Social and Cultural Anthropology from VU University
Amsterdam. This book is of interest to readers interested in (forced) migration, displacement, diaspora, refugee studies, geopolitics, slavery, colonialism, post-colonialism, memory and retrieval, indigenous peoples, Mauritius, Seychelles and Indian Ocean Studies.

 

Chagos Islanders in Mauritius and the UK: Forced Displacement and Onward Migration

Out on 1st July, this book by Dr. Laura Jeffery compares the experiences of displaced Chagos islanders in Mauritius with the experiences of those Chagossians who have moved to the UK since 2002. It provides a unique ethnographic comparative study of forced displacement and onward migration within the living memory of one community. The book will appeal particularly to social scientists specialising in the fields of migration studies, the anthropology of displacement, political and legal anthropology, African studies, Indian Ocean studies, and the anthropology of Britain, as well as to readers interested in the Chagossian case study. Laura is Lecturer in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh.

 

SUPPORTERS COMMENTS

Update welcomes feedback from readers. Alan Partington wrote:

I’m sure that William Hague’s statement (The Times 9th April) calling for an independent person to oversee the release of potentially incriminating evidence removed from former colonies will give heart to all seeking justice for innocent people. I know the context of what he is asking for refers to compensation claims on behalf of Malayan and Kenyan inhabitants but the Government will no longer be able to ignore the shameful treatment suffered by the Islanders from the Chagos Archipelago.

 

Simon Hughes of the Chagos Conservation Trust commented to The Times that ‘The amount of infrastructure that would need to be put in place for anyone living on the islands would be extremely expensive and harmful,’ and ‘We want to conserve the fish, coral, flora and fauna…’

David Evans emailed from the USA in response: The thing is, the US Base on DG has a much bigger human footprint than the Chagossians could ever establish on any of the other islands, regardless of the varying differences of the ecological systems on those other islands. And by footprint, I include both terrestrial and marine – military, industrial, residential, etc. And I pose that the recreational/supplemental fishing pressure on DG (exempted from the MPA) would match anything the Chagossians would or could implement. The biggest danger from fishing comes from poaching and off-island sources using the waters of the Chagos. But the irony is that the Chagossian presence on the islands could work to discourage and end off-island use of the fishing grounds there.
As for settlement of DG (military) vs. the other islands, you could read a review of the marine habitats of HEAVILY settled and HEAVILY used DG and feel 1) that the marine environment is currently fairly well managed and 2) that the marine habitat is currently in fairly good condition. The pickle that the US military, UK Government, and the supporting scientist/conservationists are in is that they are pushing and depending on that sparkling review of the habitat while saying it can’t be done at the other islands – ie., claiming that ANY concession to the Chagossian rights and human habitation would critically RUIN the habitat. It’s a ridiculous position and a ridiculous picture they are painting and it needs to be pointed out! The US Government/military is staying publicly/officially neutral on the Chagossian’s rights, but their private preferences are certainly clear!

Finally, from The Times, May 18th by Mary Bowers:

Crawley seems an unlikely place to discover a lost culture. Until, that is, exiled Chagossian teenagers started banging on drums. Five years on and they are set to record in Abbey Road, collaborate on Radio 3 and wow audiences in Kensington Gardens.

Patrick Allen, head of music at Ifield Community College, is still befuddled at how their talent showed itself at the West Sussex comprehensive school. The discovery began with just one drummer. Shut away in a music practise room with a djembe, he began to play. He was joined by another Chagossian classmate, and soon four of them were playing in sync.

A dozen more Chagossians were encouraged into the classroom. Once a shy group, they began to sing and play. They would effortlessly swap congas for a triangle or turn drums on their sides and experiment with sounds. Then 25 girls turned up, with full costumes, and did traditional dances.

“I’d never had a group arriving with a living, breathing, shared culture,” Allen says.

And so a musical culture was transferred to Crawley. Forcibly exiled from the Chagos Islands to make way for a British and US military base in the 1960s and 1970s, their families had landed in Mauritius before being granted leave to stay in Britain. When a trickle of teenaged exiles began to arrive at the school in 2006 they huddled together. Their families shared rooms, they shared words in creole and tales of common alienation.

Now, they are readying themselves for a performance of Mozart’s Requiem set to Chagossian rhythms with a lament for Diego Garcia, one of the depopulated islands. Tomorrow they will perform at a conference, at the Royal Geographical Society in London, exploring the possible return of Chagossians to their homeland.

Meanwhile, though Crawley can offer neither sunshine nor the deep blue sea, it has given the islanders something back. “I think they have been surprised by the interest,”says Allen. “Delighted by it.”