Chagos islanders face second exile

The poor treatment of Chagossians is blight on Britain’s conscience. It must end now, writes Tom Guha.

Fifty years ago, a community on a remote Indian Ocean atoll suffered a brutal exile at the hands of the British government. Today, that community, the Chagos, are going through the same process again. Only this time their lives in Britain are at risk.

The Chagossian people were British subjects living on a UK Overseas Territory – the Chagos Islands. They had lived there peacefully for generations but were expelled by the British government, who leased the islands to the US military.

The inhabitants were dropped at Indian Ocean ports in Mauritius and Seychelles with little or no support. Many lived in conditions of abject poverty, without access to clean water or a roof over their heads.

Seeking a better life, many came to Britain in the early 2000s, when the right to claim British citizenship was given to all native Chagossians and their children.

The process has been fraught with difficulty and the community continues to be largely impoverished. Not the Chagossians’ fault. Their unique history is so poorly understood that British authorities have been absolutely ill-equipped to support them.

The most prevalent issue is the struggle Chagossians face to keep their families united. The problem is a result of current legislation assuming only one generation will be born in exile.

In other words, children born in Mauritius or Seychelles to Chagossian parents are regarded by the UK Home Office as immigrants like any other, despite their parents and grandparents being British citizens.

This puts an enormous financial burden on Chagossian families, who have to raise roughly £10,000 (USD$13,797) for the ‘naturalization’ for each of child they bring to the UK.

Missed payments or simple administrative mishaps can lead to tragic consequences.

Take Chris for example (not his real name). Despite being brought up in this country by British citizens, Chris faces deportation to Mauritius.

‘He doesn’t know Mauritius and would have no support,’ a family friend says with concern. ‘All his real friends and family are here.’

He has been offered a place at university which he is unable to take, unless his family can afford the eye-watering visa costs and fees of immigration lawyers.

Chris’s case is typical. Despite being culturally and linguistically assimilated with British society, the threat of detention or deportation looms like a spectre over many Chagossian children, waiting for them once they reach adulthood.

Putting aside how emotionally scarring this second exile must be, symbolically it is difficult to think of anything more insulting.

But it is also impractical. Talented Chagossian children with the prospect of degrees and jobs instead end up languishing in poverty in a foreign country they have little connection with, or incarcerated in detention centres.

Restrained by their past, the ability of Chagossians to grow and contribute to society is hampered.

Thankfully MPs are beginning to wake up to the issue. Yesterday (16 January) Henry Smith, MP for Crawley, presented a Bill to Parliament that would allow anyone of Chagossian descent to acquire British Overseas Territories Citizenship.

‘Successive British administrations have shown scant regard for the rights of the Chagossian people. This Bill is our chance for Parliament to send a clear message that elected representatives in the UK not only recognize the treatment of the Chagossian community, but that we want to help them,’ Smith said.

Henry Smith, MP for Crawley, with Chagossians.
Henry Smith, MP for Crawley, with Chagossians.

As well as being symbolically important, the Bill would cut the cost of acquiring British citizenship for Chagossians to roughly £2,000 (USD$2,757). The Bill was backed by MPs from all parties and passed its first reading.

In 2016 the Government stated their commitment to ‘improving the lives of Chagossians where they are now.’ There is nothing they could do to demonstrate this more than supporting the Bill and waiving all the fees.

The Chagossian community have so much to give to British society but instead, many remain stuck in this unnecessary battle. With the burden at least slightly eased, I am confident the community as a whole can begin to flourish.

Tom Guha is Chair of the UK Chagos Support Association, an advocacy group that support the Chagossian community. The UK Chagos Support Association have launched a ‘fighting fund’ to help cover the costs of Chagossians facing immigration problems.