ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Chagos Islands: An Exiled Generation

Located in the Indian Ocean, south of the equator, the Chagos archipelago is a chain of 64 coral islands spread over 21,000 square miles of ocean. Geography, however, has been its bane, foisting upon an entire generation of its people, the Chagos islanders or the Ilois, the status of history’s forced victims. Forty years and more since the forced eviction of the Chagos islanders and after a long, legal battle waged against the UK government, a British court of appeal last May upheld their right to return, a judgment that was first passed in 2000. The court also ruled illegal the government’s 2004 “order in council”, which had sought a ban on the islanders ever returning. Behind the story of eviction and legal wrangling lies a saga of imperial arrogance, cold war machinations and US military ambitions, and of people forcibly rendered into refugees. A saga with familiar echoes elsewhere.

The Chagos islands were administered as a dependent territory of Mauritius, which was a British province from 1814 till its independence in 1965. That same year, in disregard of a United Nations general assembly resolution against the dismemberment of Mauritius, Britain clubbed the islands with three other island groups that formed part of the Seychelles, and renamed it the British Indian Ocean Territory. By an “Exchange of Notes” on December 30, 1966, Britain leased the islands to the US without payment and permitted it to construct a defence installation there. Premeditated first by cold war exigencies, the ostensible reasons, then as now, however, remain the same – to maintain a military base close to “unstable” west Asia and to guarantee the safe flow of Persian Gulf oil. In 1972, the US navy was permitted to erect a “limited communications facility” on Diego Garcia, an island at the southern tip of the island group. The following years the Diego Garcia “facility” was expanded, and some 4,000 American military personnel were stationed there.

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