Our Citizenship Campaign
Members of what is now Chagossian Voices had long recognised that uneven and unequal access to UK citizenship (as established in the 2002 British Overseas Territories Act) was creating a range of financial, personal and family problems for Chagossians. The act only allowed access to UK citizenship for those born on the islands and their children born between 1969 and 1983. Those born outside these dates, spouses and dependents over the age of 18 needed to go through normal immigration routes, paying for visas and the NHS surcharge, and faced possible deportation. This divided families and was unbearably expensive. Many Chagossians were also detained for non-compliance, and some removed from the UK. Younger Chagossians who had spent most of their lives in the UK were at risk of deportation from the UK once they reached the age of 18. It seemed only fair that Chagossian families, who had been forcibly removed from their (British) homeland and homes by the UK Government should be offered an easy pathway to British citizenship.
Working with Henry Smith MP (the MP for Crawley), the UK Chagos Support Association and Alexander Finch, an immigration expert from Fragomen, members of Chagossian Voices and other community members helped draft a Private members Bill granting UK Citizenship to all of Chagossian descent, which Henry Smith presented to Parliament in 2018. Although the Bill did not progress through parliament it raised awareness of the problem and we received assurances that something similar could be included in a forthcoming immigration and citizenship bill.
Chagossian Voices continued to campaign for citizenship justice and to this end staged an online conference in December 2020 inviting, policy makers, Parliamentarians, academics and members of the BIOT team at the UK Foreign Office and Home Office to hear the testimonies of a range of Chagossian community members. Chagossian Voices also set up lines of communication with officials and civil servants at those government departments, holding numerous online meetings and submitting emails, documents and case studies.
In March 2021 the UK Government launched a consultation for new citizenship and immigration legislation called The New Plan for Immigration. Chagossian Voices both made a detailed submission (including case studies) to the Home Office and started an online petition to engage the community in the campaign for citizenship rights. Chagossian Voices staged a further conference in July 2021 presenting further evidence to a widening audience. Other community groups and allies also contributed to the consultation.
In July 2021 the Government published the first draft of the Nationality and Borders Bill. Although the Bill did contain provisions for British Overseas Territories citizens and some redress for historical injustices it was felt that the Chagossians needed their own amendment to the Bill to address their particular injustice.
To this end the team from 2018 reconvened and Alexander Finch, UK Chagos Support and Chagossian Voices helped Henry Smith draft an amendment to the Bill which would give citizenship to all of Chagossian descent. This amendment underwent changes at the committee stage and was supported by all opposition parties. Chagossian Voices produced a detailed briefing document with case studies for Parliamentarians and the Home Office and alongside other community groups and allies, lobbied both MPs and Peers for their support.
The amendment was voted on in the Commons on December 7th 2021 and was defeated by 245 to 236 votes, with the Government whipping its MPs to vote against it. The amendment was revived by Baroness Ruth Lister in the House of Lords, who introduced a modified version of the amendment. Baroness Lister was engaged in the struggle for Chagossian rights through her contact with the BOTC campaign who were by now also supporting and campaigning for Chagossian citizenship rights. Working in a coalition with BOTC campaign, Amnesty International, Rosy Leveque (formerly of BIOT Citizens) and individual MPs and Peers a successful joint campaign by Chagossians and allies meant that the amendment won the vote in the Lords on 28thFebruary 2022 (237-154). Although the amendment was subsequently removed when it went back to the House of Commons, the Government had by now been persuaded by sustained campaigning and lobbying that an amendment using their own wording could be included in the bill, which provided UK and BOT citizenship to all of Chagossian descent.
The Act went into law on 28th April 2022 and now provided a five year window for Chagossians to apply for citizenship (or up to the age of 23) and the application process came into force in November 2023.