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Who are the Chagossians?

The Chagossians, sometimes known as the Ilois, are the forcibly exiled inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago and their descendants. Between 1965 and 1973 the islanders were removed against their will from the islands by the UK government and prevented from returning, to make way for a US airbase on Diego Garcia.

The Chagossians were a settled population on the islands and can trace their origins on the islands back to slaves first brought by the French to Chagos in 1793. They were removed by the UK to Mauritius and the Seychelles, and the population is now divided between the UK, Mauritius and the Seychelles. Some Chagossians describe themselves as BIOT (British Indian Ocean Territory) people/citizens.

The community has experienced poverty, marginalisation and ethnic discrimination in Mauritius both as Chagossians and as Afro-creoles. They mainly speak Kreol and as a community long denied educational opportunities, they often struggle with written and spoken English.

How many Chagossians are there?

Exact numbers are difficult to estimate as the involuntary exodus from the islands took place over time, in addition to the final forced removal in 1973. Mauritian government figures from 1978 counted 557 families and 2,323 Chagossians. However, there were also at least 200 Chagossians in the Seychelles at this time. It is estimated that the total population of the Chagossian diaspora is currently no more than 10,000. The UK population is mainly in Crawley West Sussex (at least 3,000) and in Manchester (about 300).

Where is the Chagos Archipelago?

The Chagos archipelago is a group of more than 56 low lying coral atolls, of which the island of Diego Garcia is the largest. Until 1965, when the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) was created, the islands were administered as a ‘lesser dependency’ of the British colony of Mauritius. Other major island groupings include Salomon and Peros Banhos.

Chagossians and British Citizenship

The Treaty of Paris (1814) passed control of Mauritius and its ‘lesser dependencies’ (Chagos, Seychelles, Rodrigues, Agalega etc) to Britain. Native born Chagossians have, since this time been Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies, and latterly, British Overseas Territories citizens as well as British citizens (from 1 May 2002) by way of the British Overseas Territories Act, section 3(1)).

Chagossians in Mauritius

Chagossians encountered numerous problems in their removal to Mauritius by the UK Government, which to most was an unfamiliar and distant territory with a way of life very different to their own.

Mauritius is a majority Hindu country with 60% of the population of South Asian origin. The Chagossians are mainly of Afro-Creole origin and Christian (mainly Roman Catholic). Most Chagossians experienced structural and personal discrimination due to their race, origins, appearance, accent and ethnicity throughout their time in Mauritius, putting them on the margins of society economically and socially.

Chagossians arrived from a remote plantation economy with a skill set which did not match the employment market in Mauritius. They also arrived in Mauritius at a time of very high unemployment and without formal education or certification. There was no provision for their integration or training provided for them to adapt to Mauritian society. The money allocated by the UK for their support was withheld by the Mauritian government until 1978 and allocated haphazardly and unfairly.

Chagossians were dumped on the quayside in Port Louis. They had no homes, no social or support network and no money. Many Chagossians remained marginalised and in poverty throughout their time in Mauritius.

Many Chagossians have suffered extreme trauma through this enforced displacement, separation from their homes and homeland and many families were divided and damaged. This trauma remains with individuals and families.

Chagossians in the Seychelles

Chagossians were also deposited in the Seychelles without their consent. These Chagossians have never benefited from any of the compensations paid by the UK government, as the funds were administered by the Mauritian government. Seychellois Chagossians are often overlooked and forgotten by public authorities, international organisations and governments. They too experienced discrimination, exclusion and marginalisation.

Chagossians in the UK

Despite being British Overseas Territories citizens, Chagossians were unable to reside in the UK until the 2002 British Territories Act was passed. As the only BOT citizens banned from their own territory, most Chagossians saw right of abode in the UK as their absolute right and something which should have been granted at the time of enforced exile.

The migration of Chagossians and their families to the UK was not assisted in any way by the UK government. The Chagossians financed every aspect of their migration and settlement in the UK, themselves and were not offered any integration or welcome package by the UK government. There was no plan or funding for their integration, education or wellbeing and they were left entirely to fend for themselves.

Since no support or integration programme was set up for Chagossians, many have had problems navigating the systems and opportunities of their new homeland. Many Chagossians struggle with English and the community have had to fight to be properly noticed and supported.

Chagossians have often been regarded as ‘voluntary homeless’ and have had difficulty accessing and affording decent housing. Many live-in crowded conditions, with extended families sharing a single home.

Due to the expense of migrating to the UK, families have come in stages, sometimes over many years. Due to the complexity of immigration legislation some family members have been unable to come to the UK or have had to go back. Families remain divided since exile and the community and individuals are living under enormous stresses.

The last 15 years have seen constant changes in rules and laws concerning immigration to the UK. There have been dramatic changes to earning thresholds, requirements to take a test (Life in the UK), huge rises in registration and application fees for visas and a menacing tightening of the system, now identified as the ‘hostile environment’.

In addition, the Chagossians feel they have been have been misled by the UK Government over the possibility of returning to their islands. For a number of years, the prospect of return to the islands was presented to the community as a real possibility and a feasibility study was undertaken by KPMG on behalf of the government (2015). Despite the report’s finding, this option was finally closed by the government in September 2016.

Most Chagossian families, already rendered destitute from their lives in Mauritius, have to spend thousands of pounds on travel, legal fees, visas, health charges. This leaves many of the community in debt and without the appropriate documentation.

The Chagossian community is at a crisis point. Community members have become overloaded with losses, changes, challenges, burdens and life events – all created by government decisions in which they have had no say or choice. Enforced exile has created a sense of loss and alienation; broken families have created misery and despair; they have been worn down by discrimination and unfairness. Families are destroyed financially and emotionally by a system which heartlessly rejects them and repeatedly takes money from families who just want to be reunited.

There is an increasing number of undocumented Chagossians in the UK. The causes are usually either the cost of the documentation or constant and inexplicable rejection by authorities. These are mainly:

  • The grandchildren of native islanders who came to the UK with their (British) parents as young children and who, as adults, have been unable to obtain the necessary status, despite having grown up in the UK with British parents.
  • The longstanding spouses of British Chagossians, often in their 60s and 70s, who are constantly refused leave to remain in the UK despite many generations of their family living here.
  • An individual whose siblings, parents and grandparents now live in the UK as British citizens, yet due to their date of birth are constantly denied citizenship.
  • Anomalies, such as people whose siblings were all born on the islands but were themselves born on an island (like Agalega) which is no longer connected to BIOT.

Undocumented individuals cannot progress with their lives and create multiple problems for themselves and their families. They can fall prey to despair, even substance abuse and crime.