One week after British voters decided to exit the European Union,
the UK Supreme Court was set to decide the fate of a small group of
British citizens who had no such vote when the UK and U.S. governments
forced the people to exit their homeland beginning in the late 1960s.
Known as the Chagossians, these little known refugees have long been
denied the kind of democratic rights exercised in the Brexit referendum.
Instead, Britain and the United States forcibly removed the Chagossians
from their homes during the construction of the U.S. military base
on the isolated Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. Over nearly 50
years, the base has become a multi-billion-dollar installation, playing
key roles in the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the same
period, the people have lived in impoverished exile, mostly on the
western Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and the Seychelles.
Before the recent ruling, Chagossians waited anxiously to learn if
they would be allowed to return to their homeland.
An “Act of Mass Kidnapping”
The history of what the Washington Post’s editorial page
called an “act of mass kidnapping” dates to the time of
U.S. independence. In the last decades of the 18th century, the ancestors
of today’s Chagossians first arrived in Diego Garcia and the
rest of the Chagos Archipelago as enslaved and indentured African
and Indian laborers who worked on Franco-Mauritian coconut plantations.
Following emancipation and Britain’s seizure of the Chagos islands
in 1814, a new, indigenous society emerged.
Unfortunately for the Chagossians, in 1958, U.S. Navy officials identified
Diego Garcia as an ideal location for a base. By 1965, high-ranking
U.S. officials had convinced the British government to detach the
Chagos Archipelago from colonial Mauritius (contravening UN decolonization
rules) to establish the United Kingdom’s last-created colony, the
British Indian Ocean Territory.
During secret negotiations, U.S. officials insisted the territory
come under their “exclusive control (without local inhabitants).”
With the help of $14 million quietly transferred without Congress’s
or Parliament’s knowledge, British officials agreed to take “administrative
measures” to remove some 1,500 Chagossians.
Between 1968 and 1973, the two governments concealed the expulsion
from the world. If anyone asked, Anglo-American officials decided
to “maintain the fiction that the inhabitants of Chagos”