The UK expelled the entire population of the Chagos Islands 50 years ago. Reversing that injustice won't be easy

Negotiations over the future of the Chagos Archipelago will have ramifications around the globe

January 13, 2023
Diego Garcia Base. Photo: CPA Media Pte Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
Diego Garcia Base. Photo: CPA Media Pte Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

The deep-water passage into Peros Banhos Atoll opens into a vast lagoon fringed by pale sand and palm trees. Frigate birds drift over coral reefs. The only immediate evidence of human life in this part of the Chagos Archipelago is a disintegrating jetty broken apart by rising seas. 

Visiting yachts may purchase British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) permits, anchor and explore ashore. The islanders who were forcibly expelled by British officials between 1968 and 1973 are prohibited from returning permanently to their homes, which have been reclaimed by coconut crabs and the jungle.

But all this may be about to change. A second round of negotiations between the UK and Mauritius recently took place in Port Louis, the Mauritian capital, in an attempt to reverse one of the great injustices of the postcolonial era. We are awaiting the latest news on any developments.

Discussions are understood to have made good progress since the foreign secretary, James Cleverly, surprised the Commons in November by announcing that the two countries would begin “negotiations on the exercise of sovereignty” over the islands. 

In 2019, the United Nations’ highest court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, ruled that detaching the Chagos islands from Mauritius prior to the latter’s independence from British rule had been illegal and ordered that they should be returned. 

More than 50 years after the entire population was cleared from the remote but strategically placed atolls to make way for a UK-US military base on the largest island, Diego Garcia, Britain was finding itself isolated in the post-Brexit world in its assertion of ownership.

The UK’s search for a new settlement is now sending political tremors around the globe. It has roused expectations and resentments within exiled Chagossian communities, triggered anxiety in UK overseas territories about their own future status, heightened concern about China expanding its economic and military influence into the Indian Ocean, and raised questions about what constitutional precedents are being set for future transfers of power. How will talk of possible “joint sovereignty” go down in Belfast?

Although Cleverly did not give reasons for the abrupt policy reversal, it was becoming unsustainable to defy the ICJ’s damning, albeit advisory, judgment while London urged respect for the international legal order following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Mauritius describes the enforced deportation of the entire Chagossian people and the refusal to let them return as “a crime against humanity”. 

Additionally, if the UK is going to woo post-Brexit trading partners in the Indian Ocean, Asia and Africa it will have to reach agreement with Mauritius, an influential Commonwealth member.

The pressure to switch policy grew after the Mauritian government sent a ship last February to plant its flag on several Chagossian islands and survey the northernmost reef, amid a separate dispute with the Maldives over ownership of part of the seabed. Reporting for the Guardian, I was among the international media on board the vessel, which also carried deported Chagossians back to visit their birthplace. The Foreign Office had long exploited the atolls’ inaccessibility as a means of ensuring the issue stayed off news agendas.

The decision to adopt a more conciliatory approach was taken by Liz Truss during her short-lived premiership. She and her Mauritian counterpart, Pravind Jugnauth, met in the margins of a United Nations session in New York last September. Rishi Sunak endorsed the initiative. Some suggest it was encouraged by the US.

The announcement has provoked mixed responses among the Chagossian diaspora. More than 1,500 people—mainly the descendants of slaves from east Africa sent to the islands’ coconut plantations—were forcibly removed by Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. Most were dumped on the quayside in Mauritius and the Seychelles, in the Indian Ocean more than a thousand miles away.

Many of them—and their descendants—have since made their way to the UK. The largest community is in Crawley, Sussex, close to where they arrived at Gatwick Airport. It was only in 2022 that the government provided a legal route for descendants of Chagossians to obtain full UK citizenship.

Resentful of their mistreatment, they demand a role in the negotiations or at least to be consulted. While all would welcome the right to return to the Chagos Islands, the younger generation in the UK oppose the idea of handing the archipelago back to Mauritius. Some may fear their new British passports could be taken back if Mauritius acquires sovereignty.

“We are not asking to be heard when the agreements are over, we want to form part of the negotiations. We will not be bystanders when this is about our land,” said Rosy Leveque of Chagos Islanders. “History is repeating itself; the same two states are deciding our fates without us.

“Full reparations should include the right of return and the right to choose under which state we wish to be governed. We deserve a right to a referendum.”

Another UK-based group, Chagossian Voices, has sent a lawyers’ letter threatening judicial review of government policy. The Foreign Office must “pause negotiations to permit full consultation with Chagossians before negotiations are recommenced,” it states.

The letter was sent on behalf of Bernadette Dugasse, who was born on Diego Garcia in 1956, removed to the Seychelles and is now a British citizen. She has no connection to Mauritius. “I want to go back and settle on Diego Garcia,” she explained. “We would like to remain under BIOT. 

“When I visited on a [UK-organised heritage trip] in 2019, my heart wanted to burst open with joy—and sadness because I could not stay. There were Filipino, Mauritian and British workers [at the UK-US military base] enjoying paradise on my island.”

Others, like the longer-established Chagos Refugee Group, are not opposed to a Mauritian future. They are instead most exercised about the right to return and the right to involvement in the talks: “Negotiations can’t take place without consultation of Chagossians in the UK, Seychelles and Mauritius,” they say. “[We] need to have representatives of each country in this negotiation.” 

Belatedly, the Foreign Office has invited Chagossian groups to attend an online meeting next month “to share their views”. 

The Conservative MP for Crawley, Henry Smith, says Chagossian exiles, many of whom are his constituents, “must be able to determine their own future.” Others insist that there should be a referendum among displaced Chagossians.

For the UK’s 13 other overseas territories, Cleverly’s announcement of sovereignty talks in November sounded an alarm. The Falklands Legislative Assembly declared: “The Argentine government will likely attempt to use this decision as an opportunity to support its colonial aspirations towards our home… There will be no talks about the status of the Falkland Islands unless Falkland Islanders wish for these talks to happen.” 

The chief minister of Gibraltar, Fabian Picardo, insisted: “The United Kingdom's decision is of no effect on Gibraltar, the circumstances of which are entirely different… [We] will never consent to any such discussions of sovereignty ever commencing.”

One postcolonial precedent that might be raised at the Chagos talks is the status of the two military bases in Cyprus, Dhekelia and Akrotiri, which are still controlled by Britain. Shared sovereignty is another possibility. David Snoxell, coordinator of the Chagos (British Indian Ocean Territory) All-Party Parliamentary Group and a former high commissioner to Mauritius, tells me: "Proposals for joint sovereignty have been contemplated in other contexts before. There were discussions with Argentina in 1981 about sharing sovereignty over the Falklands Islands.

"More likely is an agreement that hands back the outer Chagos islands to Mauritius later this year while the UK holds on to Diego Garcia until 2036, when the 1966 UK/US agreement making the territory available for defence purposes expires." At that point, there has been talk of Mauritius leasing Diego Garcia back to the US for the long term, but the details are still all to play for.

The negotiations have intensified speculation about great power rivalry. Chinese naval ambitions in the Indian Ocean have been cited as a reason to oppose any handover. Daniel Kawczynski, the pro-Brexit MP who represents Shrewsbury, organised a debate on BIOT in parliament in December, during which he alleged that because Mauritius and China had signed a free-trade deal, “the moment that we give Mauritius some of the outer islands… it will lease one or some of them to the Chinese almost instantaneously.”

Along with the US, India will be kept informed of progress in the negotiations. The country is has been accused of building a military base on an outlying Mauritian island, Agaléga, which sits across key shipping routes between east Africa and Asia. Mauritius says false allegations are being spread that islanders will be removed to make way for what will only be a port and airfield.

The Foreign Office said: “We recognise the diversity of views in the Chagossian communities in the UK, Mauritius and Seychelles and take those views very seriously. While negotiations are between the UK and Mauritius, we will engage with communities as negotiations progress.” The online meeting to hear views is scheduled for 9th February. Any agreement, the Foreign Office has said, will ensure the continued operation of the base on Diego Garcia. Mauritius, as a security partner of the US and UK, has made the same commitment. 

Port Louis aims to reach a deal with London within the next few months, and is planning to send further expeditions to assess what is required for resettlement, which would initially be on the outer islands, far from Diego Garcia. 

There is no support in Port Louis for shared sovereignty or a referendum. Full legal ownership belongs, Mauritius maintains, to the country’s entire population, as was established at the ICJ in 2019. 

Jagdish Koonjul, Mauritius’s ambassador to the UN, is critical of British politicians who have posed “as [the Chagossians’] saviours by offering them the false hope that the Chagos Archipelago could somehow remain—and that [they] would be better off—under British sovereignty.”

Redressing such a protracted injustice was never going to be easy.

Correction: this article originally described Rosy Leveque as associated with BIOT Citizens. She is actually associated with Chagos Islanders. The text has been amended to reflect this.