An ongoing crime ignored by U.S. media

Diego Garcia: The Special Relationship's Dirty Secret

By Daniel Simpson

CRAWLEY, England - Allen Vincatassin is an immigrant with a difference: he wants to go back to where he came from but the British government won't let him. So he's importing his compatriots instead. 

Five hundred have joined this exodus since the chilly September dawn that greeted Vincatassin and the 18 friends and relatives he'd persuaded to trade tropical sunshine for a one-way ticket to Gatwick airport, where they hunkered under strip lighting by the toilets while he badgered officials to find them a hotel. The letter he'd received from London a few days earlier failed to deter him. "There is no question of our offering any temporary accommodation or other means of short term financial support," a Foreign Office minister had insisted. No matter. After three days of belligerent phone calls and eating out of cans, they were given 30 pounds each for food and rooms in the airport Travelodge. Vincatassin's audacity had paid off; their bills were covered for six months until they'd cobbled together enough cash between them to decamp to suburbia.

This was no asylum-seeking stunt, however, and it drew none of the usual tabloid newspaper hysteria about refugees exposing Britain as a "soft touch". All 19 carried British passports, thanks to an Act of Parliament offering them the right to settle in a country they'd never seen, although its flag still flies over the coral atolls they called home until their families were expelled to make way for an American military base. For decades, these dispossessed exiles have demanded the right to return to their islands in the Indian Ocean, but to no avail. Most remain where the retreating British Empire dumped them: in the shantytowns of Mauritius and the Seychelles. Appeals for assistance have gone unheeded since 1982, when a meagre payout was authorised on the condition it would never be repeated.

"The passport came as a lifejacket," Vincatassin reflects. A short man of 35, given to grandiloquence, he puffs out his chest and surveys the living room of a squat terraced house he shares with his wife and brother in Crawley, a drab commuter belt New Town, barely five miles from the London runway where they landed three years ago. "It was like enlightenment for me and I said, yes! At least if we are on their doorstep they'll have to do something." 

Not all of his fellow islanders are impressed by Vincatassin's quest to secure welfare payments for new arrivals to a community dispersed across the cul-de-sacs and crescents of Crawley's post-war housing estates. To some, it's a distraction from their ongoing struggle to resettle the depopulated Chagos archipelago and, as such, a symptom of identity crisis. The disputes over how best to seek redress from the British establishment reflect conflicting notions of what it means to be Chagossian; whether suffering is something to escape or to exhibit, whether a felicitous future lies in reviving a bygone way of life or in making the most of present opportunities. 

Olivier Bancoult, chairman of the Mauritian-based Chagos Refugee Group and claimant in a legal challenge to Britain's decree that the islands should remain uninhabited, is clear on how he sees it. "Here is not our country," he said during a recess at his High Court hearing in London, which he's flown in from Port Louis to attend. "If Allen Vincatassin cared about his fundamental right to return to his homeland, he should have taken up the case against the British government, not come here and settled."


Of the two-dozen Chagossian visitors shivering alongside Bancoult in the court's public gallery this winter, just three speak enough English to have more than the faintest idea what's going on. The case unfolding beneath them turns on arcane constitutional principles and its two judges have no power to send them home, but might just reinstate a theoretical right of return that Bancoult's lawyers have already established once, before the government revoked it. Anything further-reaching is almost unthinkable: the island of Diego Garcia hosts a precious Pentagon outpost and the United States remains as opposed to the presence of indigenous people as it was when it ordered Britain to deport them 40 years ago. 

"Our view," wrote Eric Newsom, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, in a letter to British officials in 2000, "is that any settlement of a resident civilian population even on the outer islands of the archipelago would significantly degrade the strategic importance of a vital military asset unique in the region to both our governments." In other words, forget about it. Four years later, Britain duly obliged. Although the High Court had ruled in November 2000 that the original expulsion of the Chagos islanders constituted "an abject legal failure", ministers simply reinstated the law that banished them, only this time it was even tougher. Magna Carta be damned; "No person has the right of abode," declared the July 2004 ordinance. To bypass Parliament, which would almost certainly have slapped down the legislation, the government used the Queen's ancient Prerogative power as a rubber stamp. As Britain has no written constitution, it is now up to the courts to determine whether, as the government insists, Her Majesty still has the right to do whatever she pleases to her subjects in colonial dominions.

"There is no precedent that we have been able to find in statute, case law, or indeed in history for what has been done," argues Bancoult's barrister, Sir Sydney Kentridge, who made his name defending Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko in their struggles against apartheid. Kentridge's opposite number says he has "a knockout blow", however, in the form of an 1865 statute granting the Queen unlimited power under colonial law unless Parliament expressly forbids a particular course of action. Regardless of which side the judges take when they hand down their decision later this year, the losing party is almost certain to appeal. An eventual Chagossian victory would be virtually meaningless in any case, the islanders' solicitor concedes, because it would change nothing in practice. "I don't see any hope that the government will take anything approaching a humane view or what one might call a rational view of these people's rights," regrets Richard Gifford, a London lawyer who has devoted much of the past eight years to preparing Bancoult's two cases and an unsuccessful class action for compensation. "I think they've made a policy decision: the exercise is simply to serve their master as best they can."

The United States itself has long since washed its hands of its role in what the Washington Post described in 1975 as an "act of mass kidnapping". Even if there were no legal duty to recompense the Chagossians, the chairman of a House of Representatives committee stressed later the same year, "it is certainly not a glorious chapter in the compassion of the United States to deny responsibility for those people." Three decades later, following Bancoult's initial victory in London, an American attorney filed a lawsuit against a string of secretaries of defence, from Robert McNamara to Donald Rumsfeld, but a judge ruled they had immunity against litigation by foreigners. Either way, both the Pentagon and the State Department lay the blame for what happened at Britain's door and refer probing questions to Whitehall. "Every time the British government feels uncomfortable they point the finger at the United States and every time the American government feels uncomfortable they point it at the United Kingdom," says Bancoult's Washington lawyer, Michael Tigar, who is appealing the decision against his client. "The two parties acted in concert all along the way."

Undeterred by all the stonewalling, Olivier Bancoult swears he'll never give up. An electrician by trade, he sill lives within walking distance of the tin-shack slum where he grew up in Mauritius, juggling his campaigning work with appointments to read meters. His family lost its hut on the Peros Banhos atoll, 100 miles north of Diego Garcia, when he was four. After a cart ran over his youngest sister's leg, Bancoult, his eight siblings and their parents boarded a boat for the nearest hospital, 1,000 miles away in Port Louis. When they tried to return home, they learned the local shipping company had cancelled all departures. Their island was officially off-limits; it had been "sold" to the U.S. military. This was depopulation by stealth: like hundreds of others in the late 1960s, the family had inadvertently signed up for a one-way passage. Their possessions were lost, their future bleak. Bancoult's father, an unskilled coconut farmer like his peers, failed to find work in Mauritius and died within a few years. One of his sisters set herself ablaze in despair. Two brothers drank themselves to death. "Animals have better treatment than us," he protests. "We have never asked for the closure of the base. As far as we are concerned we should just have the same rights as all human beings."

Fighting talk and faith may not be enough to sustain the expectations generated by Bancoult's original success in court. Five years on, fewer and fewer Chagossians believe they'll ever set foot on their islands again. "Many people want to move here," their leader acknowledges over dinner at his suburban hotel, "but the ticket from Mauritius is very expensive. Life in London is very expensive." Supporters in Britain chipped in to pay for Bancoult and his party to fly over to watch the case; another local sympathiser cooked the chicken and rice they're devouring in a corner of the hotel restaurant; all they've eaten since the morning are the leftovers they pocketed from the breakfast table. One of their number is here to stay; unlike most of the other Chagossians in the room, Jean-Paul Selmour is not wearing a woolly hat; he's acclimatising. "I think England will become my second country," he says. "I will take any job I can find. My 12-year-old daughter wants a better education."


Most mornings, from first light, Crawley's extravagantly named central artery plays host to impromptu gatherings of Chagossians. Singularly lacking in greenery, The Boulevard is landscaped out of concrete and tarmac and flanked by poky discount retailers. In the shadow of the T.J. Hughes department store, and its prominently displayed sales pitch: "Because everybody loves a bargain", two recent immigrants swap job-hunting tips. An open-air public telephone stands beside the bench where they've congregated; across the street lies an employment agency specialising in temporary work. Dieson Tiatous, a sprightly 19-year-old, has just finished his first night shift at a bakery. Already, he's looking for something different. "It was the same thing all night – very boring," he says. "I went to this office now," he nods in the direction of the agency, "and I asked them if they have other work and they told me yes, come back at one o'clock. Every day I need to come here in the morning and afternoon. I like it here but it's difficult to find a job."

Apart from the language barrier – Chagossians speak a Creole dialect and many, especially the elderly, are illiterate – there's paperwork to process and bureaucracy to negotiate. Enter Allen Vincatassin, pioneer of the Crawley community and now a one-man citizens' advice bureau, dispensing the insights he's gleaned from his own struggle to navigate his way around the system. Whether you need a translator, a new house, or guidance on getting a national insurance number, Vincatassin's your man. And he's indignant at the rumours that he charges for his services. "It's my mission," he says. "I help this community and I do it with joy." It's not just Chagossians who benefit, either. Other immigrants seek him out, so well established is his reputation as a fixer at the local social security office. "Everybody knows Allen," the duty manager says. When his mobile phone rings, Vincatassin flips into a different gear. "Do you have any witnesses?" he asks a woman from the Cayman Islands, who's just been evicted by her landlord and wants help finding temporary accommodation. "Is it your first year in the country? Tell them that you don't know the rules on how it works here."

Judging by the religious references that pepper his speech, including a self-conscious comparison of himself to Moses, Vincatassin derives much of his inspiration from his Catholic faith, bequeathed to Chagossians in part by their original colonial masters, the French. The rest seems to stem from the memory of his grandfather Michel, who put his name to the first attempt to claim compensation from Britain in 1975. "Every time my grandfather talked about the islands, he would cry," Vincatassin recalls. "I remember one day he stopped me and said Allen, if there is one thing that you need to do, the most important thing in your life and that's where success lies, it's to fight for this cause." 

Michel Vincatassin's writ against the British government was filed on the strength of an eviction notice. As a supervisor on the Diego Garcian coconut plantation, he'd been summoned by the island's administrator and told there'd be no work once the Americans arrived: everyone still remaining would have to leave. Michel insisted on having the order in writing; when a prominent Mauritian lawyer got wind of this document several years later, he contacted Michel and took up the appeal. Although Britain had awarded the Chagossians £650,000 in 1973, the money was paid to the Mauritian government, which waited five years to pass it on. Inflation had eaten away most of its value in the meantime and nobody had given any thought to the housing projects it was supposed to fund. After protracted legal hearings and a series of rejected offers, Britain eventually agreed to a second payout of £4 million in 1982, provided Michel Vincatassin dropped his case. He reluctantly agreed. There was another proviso, however: to qualify for compensation, the Chagossians had to sign a document waiving their rights both to future claims and to return to their islands. Debate has raged ever since as to whether they understood the papers they marked with inky thumbprints. Either way, at less than £3,000 a head, the payout was a pittance, considering the indebted and impoverished state of its recipients. 

"If you're thirsty, the first glass of water that appears before you, you are going to drink," muses Allen Vincatassin. "You won't take into consideration whether there is any poison in it." Arguments such as these drew little sympathy from the British legal establishment when the Chagossians filed a fresh suit in 2002. "Justice does not require an obviously unmeritorious case to be allowed to proceed," ruled the judge who threw out the claim, dismissing testimony from witnesses who swore they had no clue what they were supposed to have renounced. "Ill-treatment does not require a hopeless case to be allowed to continue." Mindful of these damning statements, Vincatassin has focused his attention on a different form of financial assistance: benefit payments.

Under the 1948 National Assistance Act, a cornerstone of Britain's welfare state, local authorities are obliged to house adults "who by reason of age, illness, disability or any other circumstances are in need of care and attention which is not otherwise available to them." This was the safety net that caught Vincatassin when he landed at Gatwick: West Sussex County Council stepped in to foot his bills. It set an expensive precedent that's cost more than £750,000 as fellow nationals flock to the same destination. Many recent arrivals have found work at the airport itself and the vast majority have settled within a 10-mile radius. Since more than 5,000 Chagossians remain eligible to relocate to the United Kingdom, local politicians are worried about the long-term implications. "Plainly the British government owes the Chagos islanders a substantial moral debt," says Crispin Blunt, the Conservative MP for Reigate and Banstead, "but if repaying this debt is left to a very small proportion of the British population then the goodwill these people deserve may rapidly dissipate."

Vincatassin agrees this is a concern, although he reports no hostility from Crawley residents. He's taking the government to court later this year to appeal against its ruling that Chagossians need to live here for six months before they're eligible to sign on for unemployment benefit and other centrally administered welfare payments, as he himself has done. Having been awarded full British citizenship in 2002, the islanders should be entitled to the same rights as UK natives, he argues: "I'm a British islander born on Diego Garcia, therefore a British Diego Garcian." When the council sought to cut its costs by offering people plane tickets back to Mauritius, Vincatassin was incensed. "I said if you want to send us back, send us back to Diego Garcia," he recalls. "If you can't send us there then we will settle here."


Paradise is a vision debased by countless package holiday brochures, but the U.S. Navy wasn't exaggerating when it dubbed Diego Garcia "Fantasy Island". Its vast deep-water lagoon, framed by a palm-clad horseshoe of coral limestone, offers "unbelievable recreational facilities and exquisite natural beauty," a Pentagon website boasts; living conditions on "the Best Kept Secret in the Navy" are described as "outstanding". Of this the former inhabitants are well aware. They once led simple lives there, husking the bountiful supply of coconuts and drying their kernels in kilns to yield a substance called copra, which they ground in donkey-driven mills to extract an oil used in cosmetics and confectionary. Although they owned no title to their land, the plantation managers let them build houses where they liked, providing sheets of tin and wooden planks, straw for the roofs and the stone that paved their floors, as well as rations of rice and corn. They kept chickens, pigs and goats, planted sweet potatoes and manioc in the fertile soil and cooked fresh fish over fires on the beach. Many never had to buy anything except clothes.

Life was not always so idyllic, however: the original Chagossians were slaves, imported from east Africa by French plantation owners. After defeating Napoleon in the early 19th century, Britain took control of the 65 "Oil Islands", as the archipelago was then known, and supplemented the workforce with contracted labourers from its newly acquired colonies in Mauritius and the Seychelles. When slavery was abolished, these groups inter-married and their children mostly remained on Diego Garcia and the neighbouring clusters of atolls, Peros Banhos and Salomon. By the 1960s, when American strategists were scouring the Indian Ocean for a foothold to replace bases the British could no longer afford, the permanent population of the Chagos islands had swelled to about 2,000. This was unacceptable to military planners, who feared they would be obliged, under Chapter XI of the United Nations Charter, to honour their "sacred trust … to develop self-government" for these people, thereby handing them the power to veto a foreign presence. Once the United States had decided to build what it euphemistically termed "an austere communications facility" on Diego Garcia, diplomats preoccupied themselves with the question of how to rid the island of its inhabitants without attracting worldwide condemnation. 

"We must surely be very tough about this," declared Sir Paul Gore-Booth, the permanent under-secretary at Britain's Colonial Office, in a 1966 briefing. "There will be no indigenous population except seagulls." A junior colleague appended a hand-written note to this document, presumably amused at its wit: "Unfortunately along with the birds go some few Tarzans or Men Fridays whose origins are obscure and who are being hopefully wished on to Mauritius." A £3 million backhander and the promise of independence secured the latter objective; the Chagos islands were duly hived off and reconstituted as the British Indian Ocean Territory, complete with its own flag: a bastardised Stars and Stripes featuring a Union Jack in the top left corner, 13 blue-and-white wavy bars and a palm tree embellished with a crown. Reclassifying the resident population as Mauritian migrant workers was more complicated, but Britain's willingness to "make up the rules as we go along", to quote a Foreign Office legal adviser, ensured it was done. In return, Washington rewarded Harold Wilson's Labour government with a $14 million discount on the Polaris nuclear missile system, which the Prime Minister had previously pledged not to buy. These agreements were concealed from Parliament and Congress, while officials concocted "a whopping fib", as one memo put it, to tell the United Nations. All that remained was to evict the islanders.

It would be difficult to find a Chagossian who could not recount in detail what happened next, regardless of whether it actually happened to them; their "deracinement", or uprooting, defines them as a people. It was a piecemeal process, drawn out over five years, in part to keep the plantations active for as long as possible so the cost of removing the workforce might be defrayed. Rations were gradually run down to persuade people to leave and those who ventured offshore found it impossible to return. Eventually, in 1971, a ship docked at Diego Garcia to evacuate those who remained. Before their eyes, the island's administrator demanded that their dogs, numbering around a thousand, be rounded up and poisoned with strychnine. So gruesome was the sight of the animals' plight, however, that he changed his mind and ordered them to be shot by an advance detachment of U.S. Navy Seabees, who had landed earlier in the year to bulldoze a runway. When this proved too difficult to accomplish quickly, the dogs were herded into a shed used to dry copra and gassed with exhaust fumes from military vehicles. Distraught, the Diego Garcians boarded their boat with a few bags of possessions and crammed into the hold for a 10-day voyage in the company of a cargo of fertiliser. Two years later, the Peros Banhos plantation closed and the final group of islanders set sail for Port Louis, where they, like the others, were simply left on the wharf to fend for themselves.

"The Chagossian cultural identity is all about suffering," stresses Steffen Johannessen, a Norwegian anthropologist who spent a year living with exiles in Mauritius. "In order to change their situation they have to expose it, because they're dependent on other people to help them." Most Mauritians treat "les Ilois", as the islanders are known in Creole, with disdain. On arrival, they received no practical assistance to integrate themselves into local society; nobody provided training that might have helped them find work. It is hardly surprising that many turned to drugs and prostitution, or that "sadness" is blamed for a spate of deaths and suicides in the 1970s. The communal sense of grief can take on a life of its own, as the Chagossians found to their cost when the judge who dismissed their compensation claim accused witnesses of falsifying evidence. "There was an element of 'collective' or 'folk memory'," he ruled. "Stories went round which became lodged in people's minds as events which had happened and then as events which they had witnessed."

For a while, a few years back, it seemed their luck might finally be turning. After declining to appeal a High Court judgement that invoked Tacitus ("They make a desert and call it peace") to declare the expulsions unlawful, the British government agreed in 2000 to investigate how to repopulate the archipelago's outer islands. The first phase of their study concluded resettlement was only feasible if the Chagossians had transport links to the outside world. Diego Garcia's 2.5-mile runway is reserved for the stealth bombers and B-52s stationed on what U.S. officials regard as "an all but indispensable platform" for policing the world. Without another airstrip elsewhere, it would be difficult to exploit the islands' tourist appeal, although they're already a popular yachting stopover. It's rare to find less than a dozen boats moored in the lagoons of Peros Banhos and Salomon, where they're allowed to lay anchor for months at a time on payment of daily fees to British officials. An organisation funded by the Foreign Office even publishes a leaflet suggesting visitors step ashore. "There is nowhere in the world like Chagos," it proclaims. "Get out and look for yourself."

The islanders themselves yearn for such an opportunity. For five years they've been waiting for Britain to honour a promise to let 100 of them visit the graveyards where, in a uniquely Chagossian tradition, they buried their umbilical cords beside the bodies of their ancestors. On five separate occasions, a date has been set, only for the trip to be cancelled at the last minute. In the meantime, phase two of the feasibility study on their resettlement concluded it would cost too much. The report ignored potential funding from a €20 billion European development budget for overseas territories and said rising sea levels caused by global warming would make human habitation "highly precarious". There are no plans to evacuate Diego Garcia, however, where two thirds of the 3,500 personnel at "Camp Justice" are Filipino civilians hired to work on the base. Chagossians who apply for jobs there are routinely rejected, as are their requests to return to the eastern half of the island, a designated nature reserve unused by the military. For them, the options are limited: lives of penury in Mauritius and the Seychelles or a struggle to escape by whatever means possible. "If I were Chagossian," ventures a retired British diplomat, "I would make for the UK and derive all the benefits of living here, with a future for myself and my children."


Even the Grande Dame of the struggle has lost hope. Tired of wrestling policemen and starving herself on the British ambassador's lawn, Charlesia Alexis has come to Crawley to die. She spends her days sleeping, or squinting at the television in a Turkish-run guesthouse under the flight path into Gatwick. "I don't have a future, that's why I say the future is here," she announces, as if addressing a crowd. "What else can I do? The British government owes me." At the age of 71, she may be little more than a figurehead, albeit one with the thickset neck and splayed nostrils of a prize fighter, but she remains an inspiration and a whack of her palm is still enough to shake a table. "When I met Charlesia at the airport I had goose bumps," remembers Allen Vincatassin, who is helping her apply for a pension that will buy plane tickets for her family. "I had tears in my eyes because she represents the old battles." Back in the 1970s, a return to her birthplace on Diego Garcia seemed as improbable to Alexis as it does today, but the hunger strikes and street protests she coordinated persuaded British officials to improve their original compensation offer. She sees her decision to move here in the same light. "I have come to open a door for my children so they can join me," she explains. "If they don't, their children will always have problems."

Vincatassin agrees. "This is the place they should have sent us originally," he says. "That decision would have been wrong too, but at least the islanders who are in the UK are in a better position." Over the past three years, he's personally welcomed seven parties of Chagossians to this enclave on the outskirts of London; others have arrived independently after learning of the example he set. "My role is to force the authorities to do what needs to be done," he stresses. Instead of spending more than £1.5 million on fighting the islanders in court, the government could have paid for their airfares and taught them all English, argues Xavier Siatous, who arrived in Crawley last summer, and promptly ran up a £600 phone bill speaking to the children he left behind. It's a moot point, but one that would resonate with Chagossians in Mauritius who can't afford to take advantage of their right to full British citizenship. Were it possible to resettle the islands tomorrow, only a minority of exiles would be likely to return, primarily the 900 or so survivors who were born there. Four decades on, even they are divided. "You can't undo a crime against humanity," says Siatous, once a fisherman on Peros Banhos. "When something like this happens you look for the way to go back, but really you have to find the way forward."

Charlesia Alexis still dreams about her island every day. A diet of fresh seafood would cure her diabetes instantly, she quips. But her days of shouting: "Give us back our Diego!" are past. Instead, she writes songs about her loss and awaits the free bus pass that will come with her pension. Her latest composition describes the journey to Britain, which was funded in part by royalties from a CD she recorded a couple of years ago. "Here, I will get my compensation," her husky lament concludes. "I will eat until I die." Although she's lonely without her three remaining children, and the 16 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren they've spawned, she prefers life in Crawley to the hardships of Mauritius and believes the other islanders would be wise to follow her. "I'm not saying they're leaving hell and coming to heaven," she cautions. "It's kind of purgatory here unless you can speak the language." For now, she copes by looking forward to a reunion with her family, although the memory of her mortality is never far away, and with it her fear that the campaign she started will wither once she's gone. "It's very sad," she reflects, looking vulnerable for the first time since she lowered herself into a chair. "To struggle you need natives, but we're dying every month. In a few years there won't be any native Chagossians left."

Photo in header by Steffen Johannessen


UPDATE (March 2015)

To keep in touch with this story, and to help, consult the UK Chagos Support Association.

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