In praise of human variety

Xenophilia opening page remarks


Publications by Guy Ottewell



Ilois, or Chagossians

On Diego Garcia and others of the sixty-five islands of the Chagos archipelago in the Indian Ocean, there was once a leper colony. The descendants of the lepers lived on as a society, called the Ilois or Chagossians, with a matriarchal culture. In the twentieth century there were somewhat over two thousand of them. The islands had become a British colony, called the British Indian Ocean Territory.
    During the Cold War, the United States military wanted to build on Diego Garcia, the largest island, a giant air and naval base for monitoring the Soviet navy and for strategic nuclear bombers. In December 1966, by an agreement that was kept secret, the U.S. got a lease on Diego Garcia for fifty years with an option on a further twenty; and Britain got a discount on the Polaris submarine-launched nuclear missile system.
    In 1971 it was decided that the whole archipelago—not just the island with the base on it—was to be "swept and cleansed" of its natives. There would be nobody but U.S. personnel and "guest workers" from Sri Lanka and the Philippines. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office propounded the fiction that the islanders were migrant workers, with no right of domicile.
    The methods of getting them out were kept secret from the British Parliament and the American Congress. The Chagossians were deprived of health-care and of essential supplies. To get these, they were tricked into making journeys to distant Mauritius and the Seychelles; and they were not allowed to return. By order of the British governor of the Seychelles, more than a thousand pet animals were killed by gassing with military vehicles. It was intimated that the same might be done to the people. Those who remained were summoned to the governmental office and informed that they were to be expelled. On the ship that transported them, children and pregnant women had to sleep in the hold on sacks of bird guano; horses had better accommodation.
    The people were dumped ashore on Mauritius and the Seychelles, no provision having been made for them. Most were illiterate, and were made to set their thumb-prints to a document they could not read, promising that they would not try to go home.
    Many died of "sadness". Many committed suicide, or went into prostitution, or became alcoholic. Most still live on Mauritius in abject poverty. Some hundreds of them came to live in Britain.
    In Britain, lawyers brought their case to the High Court in London, which in 2000 ruled that the they should be allowed to return. Robin Cook, Foreign Secretary, said the government would not appeal the ruling.
    But after 2000 Sep. 11 and the beginning of the "War on Terror", the base became more important to the U.S., which used it for bowmbing missions over Afghanistan. Tony Blair's government easily yielded to the pressure. In 2004 it bypassed Parliament and restored the ban by resorting to two obscure judicial procedures that had not been used for centuries, called "Royal Prerogative" and "Orders in Council".
    Yet again the islanders won back their right of return, in three judgments in successively higher courts, ending with the Court of Appeal, which in 2006 denounced the government's behaviour in strong terms—"outrageous, unlawful and a breach of accepted moral standards."
    The government appealed, despite the earlier promise not to, and in 2008 the Law Lords ruled—by three to two—that the government had acted within its powers. The Chagossians' last hope is the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg, which will hear the case in the summer of 2010
    The islanders do not even want to return to Diego García, from which most of them came, but to other islands such as Peros Banhos and the Salomon islands, more than a hundred miles away. The U.S. argued that allowing people onto any of the islands would compromise the security of its base, would allow terrorist to infiltrate. (Yet those islands were being visited by yachts and cruise ships.) And Britain argued that allowing people to settle on the outer islands would be too expensive (yet the European Union had earmarked billions of pounds for assistance, and the Ilois were offering to work as civilian contractors like the two thousand Sri Lankans and Filipinos). Further arguments by Britain wre that there was no fresh water (yet Ilois had lived and prospered on those other islands for centuries); and that global warming and rising seas could soon put the small islands underwater.
     Suspicion grew that Diego Garcia was one of the places where the U.S. was secretly holding Taliban and Al-Qaida prisoners. In 2007 the Council of Europe (investigating for the European Union) found that the C.I.A. had, between 2002 and 2006, been operating covert detention centers in Poland, Romania, and Diego García. The Diego Garcia base had been used as a staging-point in the "extraordinary-rendition" flights, by which suspects were secretly "rendered" to countries where there would be less compunction about torturing them. In 2008 an audit by officials in Washington found that at least two planes, each carrying a prisoner who was not allowed to get out, had landed at Diego García for re-fueling on their way to the U.S.'s prison camp at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. Till then the U.S. had assured Britain that no such flights were using British territory; and Prime Minister Blair was categorically denying that it ever happened.
    In 2010 the British government accepted a proposal, backed by many conservationists, to set aside the whole Chagos archipelago as a marine preserve, of 210,000 square miles, the largest in the world. Its seawater is the mostg unpolluted ever tested, its coral reefs are undamaged, it teems with seabirds, turtles, coconut-cracking crabs, dolphins, a thousand kinds of fish. Fishing and other exploitation will be be banned—and the islands will remain permanently uninhabited, except by the American base. The annoucement (released by Foreign Secretary David Miliband at the end of a working day before the four-day Easter parliamentary recess—despite an earlier promise to brief M.P.s before any decision) made no mention of the islanders. They and their sympathizers had said that they would welcome the plan, if they could be part of it. They could live in a small area, and would be better conservators of their ancestral environment than a military base is.