In 1776, the first Ilois were brought by French settlers as slaves to work on coconut plantations in the Chagos Islands. They came largely from Madagascar and Mozambique. Britain took over the exploitation of the Chagos Islands in 1814, and continued to practice slavery there until its abolishment in 1835. With slave labour outlawed, British plantation owners brought labourers from South Asia, who mixed into the Chagossian population. Chagossian society is traditionally matrilineal.
As a condition of Mauritian independence, the British government in 1965 persuaded nationalist politicians to relinquish claims to the Chagos Archipelago, a group of islands including the coral atoll Diego Garcia (land area: 60 sq km), some 2,400 kilometres to the north-east of Mauritius. The aim was to provide a base for the US and British military. Britain, with US assistance, then secretly removed the 2,000 mainly Creole residents – the Ilois – from Diego Garcia and eventually deposited about 1,200 of them in Mauritius, where for years most lived in slums. The Washington Post exposed the plot and dubbed it an ‘act of mass kidnapping’ in 1975. After a long fight for compensation, the Ilois received some money for housing and cash grants from the British government in 1978 and 1982 – on condition that they would renounce rights to return home to the islands, since 1966 officially known as the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). Many Ilois continued to express their wish to return, even if only to visit family graves – although some wish to attempt re-settlement. In 2000 and again in 2006 the High Court in London ruled in favour of the Ilois, but the UK government over-ruled the first verdict through an order-in-council, and appealed the latter decision in February 2007. A Court of Appeal ruled that the Ilios have a right of return to the outer islands of their territory, but the UK government lodged an appeal in the House of Lords in June 2008. In October 2008, the Law Lords ruled in favour of the government.
In 2000 the High Court in London ruled in favour of the Ilois, and the UK government, led by the then-foreign secretary, Robin Cook, pledged to uphold the court’s verdict. But following September 11th, the strategic importance of the secret military base on Diego Garcia assumed a new importance for the ‘War on Terror’ allies. The UK government over-ruled the first verdict by exercising the ancient right of sovereign prerogative, through an order-in-council. However, the UK High Court in 2006 and then the Court of Appeal in 2007, unanimously ruled this move unlawful.
In July 2008, the UN Human Rights Committee called on the UK government to ‘ensure that the Chagos islanders can exercise their right to return to their territory and should indicate what measures have been taken in this regard. It should consider compensation for the denial of this right over an extended period.’
The legal action moved to the highest court in the land – the House of Lords – in June 2008. In October, Law Lords by a 3-2 decision, agreed with government defence and security concerns in denying the Chagossians’ right to return. UK Foreign Minister David Miliband reiterated the government’s regret about the expulsion of the Ilois, but claimed that there was no further legal requirement for compensation. For their part, the Chagossians vowed to continue their struggle, turning to political appeals in Britain and a possible legal suit before the European Court of Human Rights.
In April 2006 a group of some 100 Ilois were allowed to visit the Chagos Islands for the first time since their expulsion. After the October 2008 legal ruling denying them a right to return, the UK government stressed that while visas would still be required for further visits, these would be nothing more than a formality for the Chagos Islanders.