Lost in exile: The forgotten Chagos Islanders
Chagossians protest against their deportation and impossibility to go back to the Chagos Archipelago. © UK Chagos Support Association
On Wednesday 31 May 2017, the penultimate week before the election, the BBC hosted a debate between the major political parties of Britain. As Jeremy Corbyn, Tim Farron and Amber Rudd (stepping in for Theresa May) debated policy ranging from tuition fees to immigration, another debate was taking place in Crawley, West Sussex; one that gathered none of the viewership of the BBC’s, but where the issues were as important.
The Crawley hustings at Broadfield Community Centre organized by the UK Chagos Support Association was a chance for the largest UK-based community of Chagos Islanders, Chagossians, to question parliamentary candidates about their commitment to help the Chagossians and the injustice they have faced at the hands of the British government stretching back over 50 years.
With little more than 30 people in attendance at the debate – almost all of them local Chagossians – the three parliamentary candidates for Crawley sat alongside Marie Lafleur, a local member of the Chagossian community, who translated the candidates’ remarks into Chagossian Creole.
The location of the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean. Via Bing Maps.
The hour-long debate was loud, passionate, conducted mostly in Creole and covering the main issues facing the 3,000 Chagossians living in the Crawley area.
‘What will you actually do for our community? What will you do to correct this injustice against our people?’ community leader Frankie Bontemps asked amid heightened emotion and shouting.
Much like the injustice the community has faced, the debate was ignored by the media, remained unknown to almost anyone outside those affected, and will surely be quickly forgotten by anyone who knew it was happening.
In 1965, as part of a deal which secured Mauritius independence from Britain, the 60-island archipelago of the Chagos Islands was to remain under British control, becoming part of the British Indian Ocean Territory. Soon afterwards, British authorities began the process of forced deportation of natives from their homes on the only inhabited island of the archipelago, Diego Garcia, so a US military base could be built on the island.
Best illustrated in journalist John Pilger’s 2004 documentary, Stealing a Nation, the British government secretly forced the expulsion of the Chagossian inhabitants through trickery, fear and finally force. Those who travelled to see family on Mauritius during this period were told they would not be permitted to return home and were now permanently stuck in Mauritius. Pet dogs were known to have been gassed en mass by British servicemen on Diego Garcia in the hope of scaring the Chagossians to leave of their own accord. When this failed, in 1973 the remaining inhabitants were rounded up and forced to leave by boat to Mauritius or the Seychelles. Today, the US military base on Diego Garcia is America’s largest outside its own mainland.
‘We are not refugees, we have been deported by the British government’ – Corinne Chan
Britain has repeatedly said it would return the Chagos Islands to Mauritius when they are no longer needed for alleged ‘defence purposes’ in the Indian Ocean, yet it has never released a timeline for the return.
The legality of British actions is still disputed. Today, Thursday 22 June, the UN votes on a Mauritian resolution to refer the issue to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The spotlight is on Britain’s actions in 1965, when it decided to break up the Chagos Islands from the rest of the Indian Ocean colony, three years before Mauritius’ independence. Mauritius claim this was a breach of UN resolution 1514 of 1960 , which banned the break up colonies before independence.
Stefan Donnelly, vice-chair of the UK Chagos Support Association, is forthright: ‘The vote is a great opportunity to raise awareness of the struggles faced over decades by the people forced from the Chagos Islands. Whatever the outcome, the people of the Chagos Islands should be at the centre of any decision about the future of the Islands.’ However, he stressed that this sovereignty issue does not deal with the issues closer to home, and the strive towards improving conditions for the Chagossians living in Crawley.
A modern town, 45km south of central London and close to Gatwick Airport, Crawley sits in the northern tip of West Sussex. It is home to some 110,000 people, and to the largest community of Chagossians in Britain.
‘Most Chagossians living in Crawley moved over in 2003 when a large amount of them won British citizenship’, Donnelly explains. ‘It was the first time a significant amount of the population came to Britain.’
But it was luck and expediency that led the community to settle in the Sussex town. ‘Most of them had arrived into Gatwick with very little money and very little to do’, Donnelly says. ‘They became the responsibility of the local council [Crawley Borough Council] and were given little to no support.
‘The Chagossians who had arrived were basically told that the government would offer no support whatsoever to them.’
Bontemps, vice-chairman of the Chagos Islanders Movement, explains the harsh reality that met his uncle who arrived from Mauritius in 2003. The Mauritian capital Port Louis, where Bontemp’s uncle and the majority of the exiled Chagossians lived, was far from the ideal place for the deported community.
‘There was a high crime rate and a big drug problem,’ Bontemps says. ‘The idea was that we could attempt in Crawley a better future for our kids, a better life for the next generation.’
He says that, on arrival, his uncle was left without a place to go to, and was forced to sleep rough in Gatwick Airport for around three weeks.
Some 14 years later, at the meeting in Crawley, questions are being voiced, answers demanded.
In 2016, a UK Supreme Court ruling upheld the government’s decision to deny the right of Chagossians to return to their homeland. Rather than allowing for the right to return home, £40 million was pledged by the government to be used to support the community and projects, notably in Crawley, where the majority reside.
‘Why can’t Chagossians decide what they want to do with the £40 million pledge?’ a member of the audience asks Conservative candidate and now MP of Crawley, Henry Smith. Smith is one of the vice-chairs of the Chagos All-Party Parliamentary Group and has been a vocal supporter of ensuring rights for the Chagossian community since his election in 2010.
Chagossians protest against their deportation and impossibility to go back to the Chagos Archipelago.
UK Chagos Support Association
‘We must fight not only for your right to return, but also fight for the improvement of your life here in Crawley,’ Smith states. ‘This means that we must ensure that the £40 million pledge to the Chagossian community is realised.
‘It is important that the acceptance of this money should not be an acceptance of the loss of the right to return home,’ he says.
How the money will be used and distributed is also a key point of discussion within the community, with fears over who will handle it and how.
Vanessa Chateaux, a Chagossian living in Crawley, says, ‘There are difficult challenges with preserving our culture when in exile.’ She asks the political candidates at the meeting whether a cultural centre could be opened in Crawley with some of the £40 million to ensure Chagossian heritage is maintained.
Bontemps says, ‘It would be good if we had some sort of cultural centre, a place where the elders and youth of the community could meet.
‘People ask us where we are from and who we are. Immigrants? Refugees? None of the British people know what has happened to us’ – Frankie Bontemps
‘Those Chagossians who have been successful; who have gone to university, have a well-paid job, could be used as role models to the youth of our community.’
Smith agrees that the idea is feasible.
The £40 million, offered by the UK government to the displaced Chagossians after a policy review, can be used only for community projects. However, the high costs of certain aspects of life have plagued the group since landing at Gatwick.
‘There have definitely been financial problems for the community in Crawley,’ Donnelly explains. ‘Access to services and benefits has been hard to come by.’
Finding affordable housing within the Crawley area has proved near-impossible. Chagossian and Crawley resident Corinne Chan asks the candidates what they would do to help those who cannot find an affordable home.
‘Finding affordable housing is a problem, rent has gotten higher and higher while many Chagossians are on low wages,’ she explains.
Gesturing towards her sister, Chan explains her predicament. ‘My sister has been here for 14 years. She is still living in a hotel, but there are so many cases like this.’ As for other non-EU immigrants, Chagossians who are not eligible for citizenship must have an indefinite leave of remain in Britain to apply for council housing, a leave normally granted after five years living in Britain with a valid visa. After five years, they can be placed on the waiting list – but italready has about 3,000 people on it.
‘We are not refugees, we have been deported by the British government,’ Chan states. ‘We should be entitled to free housing. On Diego Garcia we owned and lived in our homes for free.’
Chan’s views echo the sentiment shared by much of the community; that as a group forced into exile by the British government, that same government should be doing as much as possible to ensure the community’s prosperity.
‘Many of the elderly in our community have died while in exile,’ Chan explains. ‘We are now British citizens but we should be treated as special guests. We are an exceptional case.’
‘There is no support system in place,’ financially or just for advice, Donnelly says. ‘Many in the community have no idea what support or benefits they are legally entitled to.’
During the heated stages of the meeting, it becomes apparent that other costs for Chagossians have increased their problems. A member of the audience claims the process to obtain a British passport can cost thousands of pounds for them, including admin costs – compared to £70 for most British citizens.
Bontemps says problems learning English have meant difficulty in finding well-paid jobs, exacerbating the financial problems for most Chagossians.
‘The language has been the main barrier. It has meant that most Chagossians in Crawley work in very low paid jobs.
We have lots of skilled people in our community but these skills are not transferable to the local Crawley economy.
‘I was a boat builder back in Mauritius,’ he says, but for 10 years he could only find work as a cleaner at Gatwick. Similar problems mean most local Chagossians earn about £15,000 a year, below Britain’s poverty line.
On arrival, access to education also proved difficult. ‘A lot of Chagossians had trouble getting their children into schools,’ Donnelly explains. Even when Chagossian parents successfully enrolled their children at local schools, integration and support plans were not in place for the exiled children.
The arrival of the Chagossian children was messy and very haphazard, one Crawley-based teacher tells me.
A Chagossian wears a t-shirt saying "Our unforgotten islands; Chagos Archipelagos", created by the British Chagos Support Association.
‘Schools were given no information on who they were, what their background was,’ he explains. ‘They were not properly briefed, no integration process was put in place.’ Confusion also surrounded the new arrivals, with many people not understanding the newcomers’ nationality or their predicament. ‘Unlike refugees or asylum seekers who are made certain integration would take place, this was not the case for the Chagossians,’ he says.
Another observer notes that the Chagossians’ enrollment was not met with excitement, and in some cases even hostility. ‘Schools were not keen to accommodate them, they had their own academic challenges to focus on,’ he says.
Many young Chagossians were kept off the school’s data and were moved around constantly between schools. A teacher who wished to remain anonymous recalls that, as punishment and for reasons unknown to him, some of the children were banned from speaking their native Creole on the school premises.
One notable success story in Crawley education stands out. A former teacher explains how a dedicated person or persons saw to it that the young Chagossians ‘went from being the most marginalized group in school to the most successful group it has ever produced.’ Patrick Allen was, until 2015, head of music at Ifield Community College, home to the lauded Chagossian Drummers, founded by Allen in 2009.
Allen recalls that, in one particular class, four Chagossians were working together on a musical piece with a combination of instruments.
‘What they came up with was absolutely amazing. Their music was incredibly precise and performed with passion, commitment and immense skill. You would expect it from much older and much more advanced music students.’
This led to the formation of a number of Chagossian performing groups, including dancers.
Allen explains that they were not only talented musicians, but also ‘incredibly socially and emotionally sensitive children. Everyone quickly realised they were something special,’ he says. After Allen put the Drummers together with the school choir the collaboration began to flourish. The collaboration became closely involved with the BBC Singers, frequently performed on BBC Radio 3 as well as winning awards in music festivals. In 2011 they represented Britain at an international music festival staged by the European Broadcasting Union.
This musical success reflected the success of the integration process itself. ‘It brought the Chagossians into the school and made them feel better about school,’ Allen explains. ‘It saw a huge acceptance and amplification of what they were doing.’ The change was immediate once the music began. ‘Music can be immediate, it can change someone’s mind in a flash,. The embracing of their music was also an acceptance of them.’
However, the group declined once Allen left the school in 2015, and looking back, he believes that West Sussex has been in some ways a problematic location for the exiled Chagossian community.
‘West Sussex education and support services were not ready or geared towards the needs of the community, and were somewhat taken by surprise by their arrival,’ Allen says. ‘The Crawley Borough Council is well motivated towards them, but is also limited in its powers and resources. The community received a warm welcome from many Crawley residents, but Chagossians also became a target for racists and bullies.’
The biggest issue remains the separation of families due to archaic immigration and citizenship laws surrounding Chagossians. For them to be eligible for British citizenship, they must have been born during or after the year 1969 on Diego Garcia. The cut-off date itself has seen families split between those eligible for citizenship and those not. It is also probable that many Chagossians travelled to Mauritius to give birth, thanks to the superior medical facilities. Equally, the law sees that, although citizenship can be transferred by descent, this is limited to immediate second-generation descendants, causing further confusion and heartbreak.
At the pre-election forum, one Crawley-based Chagossian is distraught while explaining that she has two young British-born sons and had received a letter that day saying that without a visa, she must leave the country.
Another elderly Chagossian, speaking in Creole, says she has been married for 47 years, has a family living in Crawley, but is still being refused a visa to stay in the country. ‘These are typical cases but there are so many, hundreds even, like it,’ Bontemps maintains.
Marie Ainee, 79, tells how she was one of those deported from Diego Garcia almost 50 years ago. Her son has recently died in Crawley, while her grandson is 17 and has lived in the town for 10 years. He has not yet been granted a visa and is stuck in limbo. In another example, Dominique Elysee explains that he was born in 1968, one year before the window to apply for citizenship opened. ‘All my siblings, all four of them, have citizenship,’ he says. ‘I am the only one in my family without a British passport.’ He constantly worries about being forced to leave the country and his family.
Paradise lost: a picture of Diego Garcia island, the largest island in the Chagos Archipelago, taken by Crawley-based Chagossian Frankie Bontemps upon a visit.
Frankie Bontemps’ Chagos Islanders Movement meets most Saturdays in Crawley. It campaigns for the right to return, while also attempting to improve conditions for those living in Crawley.
‘If we could, all of us would be living on the Chagos Islands,’ he explains. ‘If we were British citizens as they claim, where were our rights at the time of deportation? We should have had rights, but they dumped our parents on Mauritius.’
Bontemps’ aunt was on Diego Garcia until 1971, one of the last islanders to leave, and he first moved to Crawley in 2006. He is a father of four, his two youngest being born in Britain, while his eldest two can’t apply for British citizenship as their father is of British citizenship only by descent.
He is a vocal campaigner against the British government and their treatment of the exiles, especially the lack of monetary assistance. Since 1972, the government has pledged and initially provided compensation, to be distributed by the Mauritian government.
‘It was given to the corrupt Mauritian government,’ says Bontemps, who estimates that only about £12,000 was ever received by the community. ‘You cannot compensate someone who’s lost their home where their family has been living for generations. In 10 years’ time there will be no natives left. This issue is non-negotiable, it is the fundamental right for humans to live in their birthplace, their ancestral home.’
Bontemps describes what he calls the ‘secrecy’ that has persisted for years, allowing the Chagos Islanders to be forgotten by society or simply ignored. ‘People ask us where we are from and who we are. Immigrants? Refugees? This all has been done in secrecy. None of the British people know what has happened to us.’
He recalls one example when he was working as a cleaner at Gatwick in 2006. His manager expressed surprise that Bontemps had left the sunshine of Mauritius to live in Crawley.
‘I returned the next day with a copy of Stealing a Nation to give him’, Bontemps says.
The following morning his manager returned, tears in his eyes. ‘He said he was ashamed to be British, that he had no idea what his government had done to our people.’
Half a century since their forced exile, the right to return home and the search for acknowledgment still seems a distant hope for the Chagossian people.