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  • American personnel bringing equipment onto Diego Garcia helped by Chagossians (1971). (Public Domain/Kirby Crawford)
The Chagossians have been trying to return to their island for decades after they were forced out by the UK and the US.
Audrey Bourget

24 Aug 2017 - 10:58 PM  UPDATED 24 Aug 2017 - 10:58 PM

The island of Diego Garcia, part of the Chagos Archipelago, in the Indian Ocean, is home to one of the most secretive US military base in the world. But before the base was built, in the 1970s, a local population, the Chagossians lived on the island.

The displacement of the Chagossians

The Chagossians who lived on Diego Garcia from the 18th century were from African, Indian and Malay backgrounds. Many were brought as slaves by the French and the British to work on coconut plantations. When they were freed, they stayed on the island to live and work.

The islands were part of Mauritius, but three years before the country’s independence, the UK separated the islands.

A few years later, Britain decided to rent the island to the United States. The Chagossians were first forced to leave Diego Garcia, then all the islands, threatened by the US Marines, put on boats without food or water. They were moved to Mauritius, reduced to live in slums, with not many prospects.

Claiming back their islands

From 1999, the Chagossians decided to fight back by taking the British government to court, asking for compensation and the right to return to their archipelago. They won the right to return to their island in 2006, but that decision was overturned a year later.

As of last year, the UK repeated that it wouldn’t let the Chagossians return to their islands. But new developments are giving hope to the Chagossians.

Mauritius has also been claiming the Chagos Islands saying the separation from 1965 was in breach of a UN resolution. At the end of June, the United Nations voted in favour of referring the dispute to the International Court of Justice.

“Mauritius brought the matter of the sovereignty to the United Nations and they were victorious over Britain by 94 to 15 votes, explained expert David Vine to SBS French. “It was quite an embarrassing defeat for Britain, they were abandoned by basically every European nation.” 65 countries, including France, Canada and Germany, abstained. Australia is part of the 15 countries that voted against.

The court will issue an opinion on who deserves sovereignty over the islands. It won’t be legally binding, but it would look bad for Britain to ignore the ruling.

What does it mean for the Chagossians?

The government of Mauritius has supported the Chagossians over time, to different degrees. The leader of the Chagos Refugees Group, Louis Olivier Bancoult, was with the Mauritian prime minister during the United Nations vote.

But it’s not guaranteed that if Mauritius regains sovereignty, it will allow the Chagossians to return. “Mauritius is a bit concerned that if they recognise that there are Indigenous people to the Chagos Archipelago, they could potentially lose sovereignty themselves,” explains David Vine.

David Vine, author of Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base of Diego Garcia, is coming to Australia in September for a series of conferences.

Listen to our interview with David Vine about the Chagossians: