In 1965, a secret Anglo-American agreement designated the tiny Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia for the creation of a US military base. The 2,000 people of the Chagos Islands, of which Diego Garcia is the largest, were packed onto boats and dumped into miserable poverty in Mauritius. Though many Chagossians traced their island ancestry to the 1700s, the British Government called them “migrant workers” and even “a few Tarzans and Men Fridays” to justify their removal. Growing international pressure saw many islanders and their descendants granted UK passports in 2002, since when almost 2,000 have arrived in the UK, landing at Gatwick and setting up a thriving community in nearby Crawley. Today, islanders are still banned from their homeland, though several small groups have visited since 2008. The US base has been used for “rendition flights”, the practice of flying terror suspects to foreign countries for torture. As the islands, officially called the British Indian Ocean Territory, are still UK-owned, Britain has been accused of a complicit role in torture.
It has also been suggested that the presence of nuclear submarines threatens Africa’s “atomic free” status. David Miliband’s recent creation of a Marine Protected Area (MPA) around Chagos has attracted criticism from some islanders’ groups and also from Mauritius, which asserts sovereignty over Chagos.
We are told that the announcement of a Marine Protected Area (MPA) around the Chagos Islands has provoked anger, even "fury" among islanders, who consider the scheme a ploy to block their right of return. But surely they have as much (if not more) interest in protecting their homeland as any of the “interested parties” involved in the MPA consultation. It is true that some islanders, notably Olivier Bancoult’s Mauritius-based Chagos Refugee Group, oppose the MPA. However, it is foolish to assume the 4,000-strong worldwide population of original islanders and their descendants will be united on every one of the complex issues facing them.
Around half of those islanders now live in Crawley, West Sussex, having flown from Mauritius to Gatwick Airport after being granted British passports in 2002. We take a different view:
“We are interested in the preservation of our homeland and we are backing the British Government on this,” said Allen Vincatassin, chairman of the Crawley-based Diego Garcian Society, the main islanders’ group in the UK. “We support the MPA and we believe the issue is separate from resettlement.”
After all, David Miliband has made it clear the establishment of the MPA is “without prejudice” to the current European Court of Human Rights case where islanders are fighting the British Government over their right to return.
“Without protection, Diego Garcia (the largest Chagos Island and home of the US military base) and the outer islands would have continued to be vulnerable to the effects of commercial fishing and the island’s natural resources would be threatened,” Mr Vincatassin said. “Not only will protection benefit Diego Garcians and other islanders should we win the right to return, but it will help us maintain our cultural and ancestral heritage, as well as benefiting millions of people who rely on the western Indian Ocean for their daily needs.”
The MPA is intended to protect the ocean environment from commercial damage, not a few subsistence fishermen, so there is no reason why it should prevent islanders returning one day. Many Diego Garcians and other Chagossians contributed to the consultation and want to continue playing an active role by training some of their number to join current conservation projects and future MPA work, part of what they hope can be a growing presence in their homeland.
Since their plight hit the political mainstream, islanders have faced an increasing problem of others speaking for them, using international sympathy to further their own ambitions. The MPA debate has provided many examples of this, and the Diego Garcian Society also accuses Mauritius of misrepresenting islanders to further its sovereignty claim over Chagos.
“It is high time we were allowed to speak for ourselves,” Mr Vincatassin said. “There are many people who are undoubtedly sincere and would like to see us resettled in our homeland, but some, in their zeal, are not listening and have not taken into account our real aspirations as people.”
The people of Diego Garcia, Peros Banhos and the other Chagos Islands are a diverse group, not the primitive people of a desert island, and they have the right to speak for themselves.