UK Supreme Court highlights right of Chagos refugees to return home
Bernard Nourrice has been desperate to go home for 50 years. He is from Diego Garcia, a small UK-owned island in the Indian Ocean. The UK government expelled him, his family and all other inhabitants from there in the 1960’s.
Bernard and his fellow refugees have fought the British government for decades for the right to return to their motherland. Failed court cases, and tangled in the bureaucratic red tape imposed by the UK government means they’ve had little success.
But now progress may be possible. The British Supreme Court has called for a review on the 50-year government ban on the Chagos refugees from returning to their homeland.
The statements, which came as a surprise, were delivered in a 29 June ruling that upholds the current government ban on the refugees’ return. However, judges highlighted that a fresh study published in 2015 could provide the arguments strong enough to support their resettlement.
‘This ruling has given me great courage that there is an open door now. We do have the hope that things will be brighter,’ says Bernard.
The British government removed the people of the UK-owned Chagos Archipelago with the purpose of allowing the US to build an airbase on the largest island, Diego Garcia. It has been host to the US’s largest overseas military base ever since. Diego Garcia’s location makes it strategically advantageous for the US military for reaching destinations in the Middle East. It has also been reported that the base participated in the US’s infamous CIA rendition programme.
These people, the Chagossians, have languished in poverty for decades. After the UK military left them on the shores of neighboring islands Mauritius and the Seychelles, they were left to fend for themselves.
When the financial crisis descended in 2008, and after a tough fight for UK passports, many of the refugees came to the UK, looking for a better life.
The British government removed the people of the UK-owned Chagos Archipelago with the purpose of allowing the US to build an airbase
The UK – made up of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – which made the Chagossians homeless, has not made financial provisions to enable them to begin their new lives with a degree of some comfort, they say. Many work long hours in minimum wages jobs, struggling to pay their rent. Their elderly relatives spend most time indoors, unsure how to navigate their new surroundings and the chillier climate.
Poverty is squeezing this community to the point where some are choosing to leave.
For Ginette Charles, a refugee from Diego Garcia, life in the UK was a non-starter. She didn’t have money to take the bus to work. Instead she would set off on foot at 5.30 each morning before starting a long shift as a cleaner at a library. Her salary, stretched, barely covered her rent. She hadn’t visited the dentist in years, fearful of what the bill may be. And when her son finished school, she was not able to support him through further education.
At this point she decided that she and her family must leave for the Seychelles. A British citizen, who just couldn’t afford to live in the UK.
‘By coming here, I think we made a mistake. When we came we had to struggle to find our own way, without any help from the government. So it was very, very hard. It is unfair [that the government didn’t help] because we have been uprooted. We were happy on the island,’ she says.
For their protests, the Chagossians unite under a flag of three horizontal stripes. The first is orange, representing the sun, the second is black to signify their grief, and the third is blue for the sea they long for.
‘It is impossible to accept that other people can live in our birth place, but we are not able. We will not give up, Chagossians will be on Chagos very soon. It is our right. To live in peace and harmony as we did in the past,’ says Olivier Bancoult, a refugee from Diego Garcia, and leader of the Chagos Refugees Group.
The Chagossians are now rallying for their next battle – a battle they might be able to win.
From 2014 to 2015 a new feasibility study exploring scenarios in which some Chagossians could return to live on Diego Garcia was undertaken by the international consultancy, KPMG.
‘On that assumption scope exists for supporting the resettlement,’ said Lord Mance, in his closing remarks at the Supreme Court. ‘Circumstances have changed in the light of this study. It is now open to any Chagossian to mount a fresh challenge in light of the new 2014/15 study’s findings.’
The Chagossians demand that two steps be taken immediately. First, that the right of return be immediately restored. Second, a decision be announced to set up a resettlement programme. Such a decision has been promised long before the end of this parliamentary term, but remains outstanding, with one month to go, says Richard Gifford, a consultant at Clifford Chance Solicitors, and a lawyer for the Chagossians.
‘This delay in putting to right the injustices of the past can no longer be sustained,’ Gifford adds.
Some of the Chagossians believe these delays for resettlement is a tactic by the UK to keep postponing the problem until it goes away. Almost all the first generation of refugees are elderly, and dying.
‘For nearly 50 years we’ve been suffering in silence. Everybody is dying. These old people… there are only a few of us left,’ says Ginette. ‘I think the UK government is waiting for us to die. So afterwards, they can say there were no human beings ever living on the islands.’