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Diego Garcia – The Ilois People Fight Back

30 April 1999

By John Madeley

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the British government forced c. 2,000 Ilois people from the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean into exile in Mauritius to make way for a US military base on the largest island, Diego Garcia.

Now the Ilois are fighting back. In March this year, at the High Court in London, a judge gave one of the Ilois, Louis Bancoult, the right to challenge the British government over his claim that he and others were illegally sent into exile some 30 years ago. He will also be able to fight for the legal right to return to the Chagos. The judge said that he was satisfied there was at least an arguable case.

A full hearing is expected to be held later this year. This could deeply embarrass the British government because the Chagos Islands are part of the British Indian Ocean Territory, a British colony.

Britain’s responsibility

It was the British (Labour) government of the 1960s who were responsible for the Ilois’ plight. An Ilois told me, ‘We didn’t want to go, we were born there, so were our fathers and grandfathers who are buried there.’

The Ilois were moved because the USA wanted to build a military base to monitor the Soviet navy. Britain had earlier leased the Chagos islands to the USA for 50 years. The Ilois were put into boats, taken to Mauritius over 2,000 km away, and turned into poverty-stricken exiles. They had to wait seven years before the British government gave them any financial help to resettle. The British government tried to present the Ilois as ‘contract labourers’ on the Chagos Islands. But the government was contradicted by its own film, shot in the 1950s, which spoke of the Chagos being inhabited ‘mostly by men and women born and brought up in the islands’.

Gross injustice

They are the victims of gross injustice and of Cold War politics. Yet all are British subjects.

In Mauritius, the exiles found it hard to obtain work and some committed suicide. In 1982 the British government found further compensation – provided that the Ilois agreed to their ‘preclusion from returning to the Chagos’.

But the desire to return has not gone away. ‘I would go back tomorrow if I had the chance’, one of them told me.

The High Court ruling has given the islanders hope. ‘The significance of the judgment is that it enables the issue which has lain dormant for 30 years to be brought out into the open and for the government to be made accountable for what’s happened,’ said Bancoult’s solicitor, Richard Gifford.

In 1982 the Ilois cause received support from a British backbench MP on a World in Action documentary television programme about the Ilois. That MP was Robin Cook, now Britain’s Foreign Secretary. Since taking office, Mr Cook has been quiet over the Ilois people. Meanwhile, with the Cold War over, Diego Garcia is used as a launching pad for US bombers to attack targets in Iraq.

The Ilois have suffered enough. Is it not time for the British government to admit that a mistake was made in the 1960s, and to do all it can to work with the Ilois to help them return home?

John Madeley is the author of the MRG Report Diego Garcia – A Contrast to the Falklands.

This article was first published in the 53rd edition of our ‘Outsider’ newsletter on 1 May 1999.