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The European Court of Human Rights urgently needs to decide on the Chagossians’ right to return

chagos 300x225 The European Court of Human Rights urgently needs to decide on the Chagossians’ right to return

(Getty Images)

Yesterday, Chagos Islanders in Mauritius, Seychelles and the UK learned that one of the stalwarts of the struggle for the right of return to their homeland, Charlesia Alexis, had died in Crawley. Charlesia’s birth certificate reveals that she was born at 8am on 8 September 1934 on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. So how had the 78-year-old woman ended up living in a council flat in West Sussex? It’s a long story.

In the 1960s at the height of the Cold War the US, fearful of what the Soviet Union would get up to in the Indian Ocean if it was left unchecked, selected Diego Garcia as the location for a base. Like some of her compatriots, Charlesia was prevented from returning to the Chagos Archipelago, part of the British colony of Mauritius, after she and the rest of her family had accompanied her husband to Port Louis to receive medical treatment in 1967. The rest of the 1,500 or so islanders were then forcibly removed by the British authorities between 1968 and 1973, and dumped at the quaysides in Mauritius and the Seychelles. The removal of an entire population was unprecedented. Little wonder that the late Robin Cook said that the episode was “one of the most sordid and morally indefensible I have ever known”.

Like many Chagossian women forced to eke out an existence in the slum areas of Port Louis, Charlesia was not one to accept her fate. Along with Lisette Talate and Rita Bancoult, she founded the Chagos Refugees Group. Demonstrations and hunger strikes were organised in the late 1970s. The campaign had the desired effect. In 1982 the then British government led by Margaret Thatcher paid compensation to the islanders in ‘full and final settlement’ of all claims. Many illiterate and Creole-speaking Chagossians, desperate for money, signed the English-language legal document with a thumbprint without realising that they were signing away the right of return to their homeland on which their African slave ancestors had lived since the late 18th century. They felt betrayed.

Thus began in 1998 a marathon legal battle in the British courts led by electrician Olivier Bancoult, the newly appointed leader of the Chagos Refugees Group. Although all of the judges in the lower courts unanimously found in favour, in 2008 the Law Lords decided against the Chagosssians’ right of return by a narrow 3-2 majority. The case is now before the European Court of Human Rights. The islanders are supported by the former British High Commissioner to Mauritius, David Snoxell, novelist Philippa Gregory and conservationist Ben Fogle.

In the meantime, Chagosssians and their descendants had been granted British citizenship in 2002. Those who had money for the airfare came to the UK and created a 2000-strong settlement in Crawley near Gatwick airport. Charlesia arrived in 2004. By all accounts hers was an odd existence – she had a council flat, some material comforts unavailable to her in Mauritius, and yet she could not read and could only speak a few words of English.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, Charlesia always dreamt of returning to her homeland – three of her children are buried in Diego Garcia – but, alas, was prevented from doing so because of the length of the legal process. Nevertheless, there are still around 700 or so native-born Chagos islanders, who are still alive. Morality dictates that they should not be asked to wait any longer for a decision on the right of return by the Strasbourg court.

Dr Sean Carey is a research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Roehampton

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