the Disillusioned kid: Debating Chagos, Part 1.
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Saturday, November 06, 2004

Debating Chagos, Part 1.

Activity around the expulsion of the Chagossians seems to be like buses. There's nothing for ages and then a whole load happens at once. Wednesday saw a demonstration by up to 80 islanders at Downing Street. They demanded that Tony Blair either allow them to return to the islands from which they were forcibly removed or house them in the UK. On the same day, there was an Adjournment Debate on the issue, the second this year. There was another debate on the following day, focusing on the role of local government, but I will blog about that seperately.

The debate was opened by Conservative MP for Reigate (one of the areas the Chagossians have sought to be homed in lieu of being allowed to return to the Chagos Islands) Crispin Blunt, who also secured the debate:
I see this debate not in isolation but as part of Parliament's role in the continuing unhappy and shaming saga of our country's treatment of a small group of its subjects and their descendants, namely, the Chagos islanders, who are drawn principally from Diego Garcia, the largest island in the chain.

I use the term "subjects" advisedly. Although it implies a rather unfashionable view of the relationship between the people and their sovereign, I am entirely clear that my sovereign—in practice, her Government—owes her subjects a profound duty of care. That duty of care is cast as a sacred trust on a sovereign power to promote the welfare and advancement of the people under article 73 of the United Nations charter, but our Government have shamefully and disgracefully honoured it over four decades, and mainly in the breach, in the case of the Chagos islands.

In coming to an understanding of this issue—embarrassingly late, given my service as a special adviser in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—and in raising it on behalf of my constituents, who are now being invited to pay the nation's price, I am still astonished that a liberal democracy in the early 21st century continues to behave in a shabby manner towards its subjects.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) for his work on the issue and for raising it in the Chamber on 7 July. I also pay tribute to the Father of the House, whose work over four decades on behalf of these unfortunate people is an example to us all.

My remarks should be seen in the context of the debate on 7 July, which focused on the Orders in Council, promulgated on European and local election day on 10 June, which prevented the right of return to the islands as lawfully established four years earlier in a British court. In pursuing the matter, I am in complete harness with my hon. Friends the Members for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) and for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) in that we all represent council tax payers of the borough of Reigate and Banstead. I am also grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) and for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) for their support, and for the presence in this debate of the hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt), whose constituents are also affected by the issue and who has been dealing with it for about a year.
Elsewhere he continued and was highly critical of the Government's decision to prevent resettlement through the use of legislation, commenting, "The only thing to be said for the Government's position on the Chagos islanders is that it is clear":
The lack of consultation and the way in which the decision was taken and promulgated were outrageous, and I am far from convinced that the decision was correct. Indeed, it is probably practically and morally wrong, but at least it is clear.

The Chagos islanders, in the Government's view, are not going home. That leaves 5,500 islanders and their descendants, who live mainly in Mauritius and the Seychelles and who are now entitled to British citizenship and residence, with no practical alternative if they are to extricate themselves from their largely poverty-stricken existence but to come here in increasing numbers. Some 900 passports have been issued so far by the high commissioners in Mauritius and the Seychelles. The Prime Minister was either misleading or misinformed when he told my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell last week that my hon. Friend was exaggerating the number of people who would come. Why does the Prime Minister think that 900 passports have been applied for when these people have perfectly good Mauritian travel documents of their own?

Now that the Government have slammed the door closed on people returning to the Chagos islands, they must prepare for a significant part of the community to come here. A failure to plan will result in the events that have engulfed the borough of Reigate and Banstead in the past month being repeated hundredfold. Uncontrolled immigration of those people would be a disaster.

I am advised that 95 per cent. of the original islanders are illiterate, as are 40 to 50 per cent. of their descendants, because of how the Mauritian education system works. If someone fails to meet the necessary standards at 12, their formal education comes to an end. The vast majority speak not English but a French patois, and even now interpreters are being sought to converse with the 32 islanders with whom the borough of Reigate and Banstead is coping, as classical French speakers are deemed inadequate to interpret the reviews of the islanders' circumstances.

The first groups of these British citizens have arrived destitute at Gatwick over the past two years. A few have already settled in the area. In the wake of the Orders in Council, we are facing an uncontrolled immigration of penniless and unqualified British citizens to one part of the country. The huge sympathy for their plight, when understood nationally, will almost certainly rapidly turn to anger and resentment as local services are overwhelmed.

The islanders are bound to concentrate in one area if immigration is uncontrolled, as they will lack the ability to communicate outside their group. The social problems that they endured in Mauritius will simply be repeated here. This country can and should avoid that. The least that we can do is properly prepare those in the community in Mauritius and the Seychelles who wish to exercise their right to move to the United Kingdom.

There is an overwhelming case for controlled immigration. I hope that the Minister will urgently consider a properly funded programme, which would teach such people English, equip them with the skills and training to enable them to be part of the United Kingdom work force, and provide services to enable them to identify jobs and homes in the United Kingdom before they leave Mauritius and the Seychelles. Legally, we cannot control their immigration but, practically, we can prepare for those British citizens, now habitually resident in Mauritius, who wish to come to the United Kingdom.

The Foreign Office is more than capable of administering a suitable programme over several years—that is how long it will take—that will help such people to meet the challenge. It could co-ordinate the resources of the British Council and other Departments in order to do that. I cannot imagine that any teachers sent to the Seychelles or Mauritius on programmes run by the British Council or other Departments will regard it as a punishment posting.

Also, if the Foreign Office administers such a programme, it will at least go a little way towards making up for its unhappy role in the affair of the Chagos islanders over the past four decades. Failure to make investment in such a programme will not save any money. It will cost far more to provide for education, training, housing and social services in the United Kingdom after an unprepared population arrives, and in all probability we would cause further social disaster for an isolated and mistreated people. If we do not deal with the issue now, in years to come, we may find that we have forced the islanders to turn to crime to support themselves, and the criminal justice budget will then make a contribution to this sorry saga.

The Government's decision to block a return to the islands requires follow-up action now. Telling the local authorities of Crawley, Reigate and Banstead, Surrey and West Sussex that they are on their own could be disastrous. Controlled immigration must be the objective of Government policy. As that means discharging our moral obligations generously, we will be doing the right thing for the right reasons. I invite the Government to do so.
This all seems reasonable. I've written before that given everything we've done to the Chagossians, allowing them to live in the UK and supporting them in their efforts to come here is the very least we can do.

The Government position in the debate was presented by The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Bill Rammell who expounded the usual platitudes. He insisted for instance, "The measures taken by successive Governments of the 1960s and 1970s to depopulate the islands did not—to say the least—constitute the finest hour of UK foreign policy." In the same breath, however, he defends policies which continue and consolidate that crime. In truth he has little new to say as the focus of the debate is on efforts to support those islanders who have come or intend to come to the UK, which is not really within his purview. Nevertheless he makes some interesting comments about UK policy regarding Chagos. A few stuck out when reading the debate and merit further comment.

At one point Rammell claims:
The islands were detached in 1965 to form part of the British Indian Ocean Territory, which was created to provide for the defence needs of Britain and the United States. The copra plantations were becoming no longer economically viable, and partly for that reason, and partly because of defence requirements, it was eventually decided that the islanders should be relocated. That was done in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The vast majority of islanders—some 1,200—were relocated in Mauritius, but some went to the Seychelles.
This raises a number of issues. The first is to note that the base on Diego Garcia has nothing to do with "defence" in the true sense. It is instead a platform for extending US offensive power, as its use in the recent attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate.

The claim that "the copra plantations were becoming no longer economically viable" is more complicated. It is possible that this was the case, although he would need to provide evidence to support this claim. Even if true, there seem two points which might be raised in response. Firstly there is no reason why the islands could not find another resource on which to predicate their economy, such as fish. According to a UK national report to the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, during the 2002/2003 fishing season (April 2002 to March 2003) a total of 1,467 tonnes of mainly of yellowfin and bigeye tuna, and 722 tonnes of skipjack, yellowfin and bigeye tuna were caught in the "British Indian Ocean Territory (Chagos Archipelago) Fisheries Conservation and Management Zone (FCMZ)". As it is, the Chagossians see none of the money this fishing generates, but there is no reason why this need be the case. Secondly there is a moral question as to why economic inviability should justify people being forcibly removed from their homes. Imagine if it was decided that farmland in Sussex was no longer viable. Would this justify farmers in the county being forced from their homes - not to mention having their pets gassed, being told that they may be bombed etc. - and sent to live in poverty in Scotland? I think not.

Elsewhere Rammell asserts, "Prior to Mauritius achieving independence in 1968, and with the agreement of the Mauritius Council of Ministers—that is an important point—the islands were detached in 1965 to form—". He is interrupted at that point, but presumably meant to say that the islands were detached to form the British Indian Ocean Territory. This explanation, while not strictly untrue ignores the fact that this was a violation of UN Declaration 1514 of 1960, which asserts the inalienable right of colonial peoples to independence, and Resolution 2066 of 1965 (which Britain never signed), which instructs Britain to "take no action which would dismember the territory of Mauritius and violate [its] territorial integrity".

In some ways the debate is encouraging. The issue has been debated in the very belly of the beast, suggesting that there is hope that there is hope of securing a victory in the future. At the same time the Government continue their unbroken policy of lies and deceit alongside the dispossession of the Chagossians, with the voices of dissent remaining few and far between. Optimism is not something I'm very good at, but watch this space. Times are a' changing.

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