With the recent Russia-Ukraine conflict dominating news headlines across the world, a more subtle development involving another violation of international law appears to have garnered little attention – the United Kingdom’s ongoing illegal occupation of the Chagos Archipelago, a group of islands located in the Indian Ocean about 1300 miles from Mauritius.
This new development emerges from the anticipated introduction of a Chagossian route under the UK’s Nationality and Borders Bill which would allow direct descendants of the original Chagossian natives to have the right to apply for British nationality without the need to pay an application fee.
While this development has been rightfully welcomed by some UK-based groups representing Chagossian descendants who have long been stuck in legal limbo regarding their identity and nationality, it has raised concerns about the broader objective of the UK to retain control over what is legally Mauritian land.
To understand the whole saga and the current conflict that exist within the Chagossian community, it is appropriate to go back to history to the twentieth century, when the Chagos Archipelago was under the administration of Mauritius, then itself a British colony.
The islands remained relatively unbothered until the 1960s, when the US and the UK identified the Archipelago and its largest island, Diego Garcia, as being the perfect location for a secretive military base in the Indian Ocean. There was however a huge hurdle to the realization of their plans- one which has been well distilled by Jean Houbert: “the Chagos belonged to Mauritius, and they were inhabited”
To secure their plans, the UK Government, in violation of international law, separated the administration of Chagos from Mauritius, by threatening Mauritian leaders with the possibility of denying Mauritian independence in case of disagreement. It also initiated an operation between 1967 and 1973, whereby it forcibly removed and relocated the near 1,500 inhabitants of the Archipelago to Mauritius, Seychelles and the UK. The UK then subsequently passed legislation prohibiting the Chagossian people from resettling to the islands.
This brings us to the current status of the Chagossian islands and its people. The International Court of Justice, ITLOS and a PCA-administered tribunal have all acknowledged that the UK’s actions in separating the territory were not based on the free and genuine will of the people, and remains unlawful under international law.
The plight of the Chagossian people is as distressful as the plight of the island. The Chagossian people who were dumped in Mauritius and Seychelles, during a time of economic strife with little support, suffered immensely. To this day, many Chagossian descendants in Mauritius continue to live in poor conditions with little hope of returning to their islands.
The Chagossian descendants who were relocated to the UK mostly suffered in a different way – many were deprived of the opportunity to have British nationality and were separated from their families in Mauritius and Seychelles. For them, the new scheme would meet their long-standing demands – British citizenship for all Chagossian descendants, which would allow many in the UK, Mauritius and Seychelles the possibility of a better life in the UK.
While this development has been celebrated by Chagossian groups in the UK, who hold the Mauritian government partly responsible for the poor plight of the islanders, it does not solve the underlying problem of the continuing unlawful colonial occupation of the Archipelago by the UK.
It does not consider the view of Chagossians who wish to return to their island, of those who wish to have reparations for their forceful relocation and destruction of their lives, of those descendants in Mauritius who continue to live in poor conditions and who cannot afford to even consider relocating to the UK. It also does not cure the fact that the current UK occupation of the island is a blatant violation of Mauritian sovereignty and continues to be illegal under international law. Unless the process of decolonizing the islands is not complete, the status of Chagossian islanders will always remain in legal limbo.
The Chagossian rights groups based in the UK may be right when they claim that the Chagossian islanders have lived and continue to live in poor conditions in Mauritius- but they ignore the fact that their condition is a result of the UK’s forceful relocation and not the actions of Mauritius, which at that time was a minuscule agrarian economy entirely dependent on fluctuating sugar exports. Many Chagossians still intend to return to their home island – this bill does not even attempt to address those concerns.
With opinions divided and a lack of an agreement on the process of decolonization, the UK government’s move seems like an attempt to retain control over the islands and stem domestic dissent, rather than actually fix the conflict. The underlying generational trauma and the views of some UK-based Chagossian groups cannot help but remind me of a powerful poem by Sujatha Bhatt:
has not been the oppressor’s tongue?
truly meant to murder someone?
And how does it happen
that after the torture,
after the soul has been cropped
with the long scythe swooping out
of the conqueror’s face –
the unborn grandchildren
grow to love that strange language.”