In over 40 years, despite multiple court cases in two different countries (some lost, some won, some won and later overturned), hunger strikes, protests, media events, petitions to the UN, and even Kickstarter campaigns, the exiled people of the Chagos Islands, some 300 miles south of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, have yet to see justice.
Now, the hopes of the Chagossians are pinned to a study commissioned by the UK government – a study the Chagossians hope will be the answer they need to take them home.
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The Chagossians are the indigenous people of the Chagos Islands (today called the British Indian Ocean Territory, or BIOT) – a group of seven atolls comprising more than 50 small islands in the Indian Ocean. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Chagossians were forcibly removed from their ancestral homeland by the UK and US governments so the land could be leased to the Pentagon for 50 years.
Throughout the proceedings for the feasibility study in 2000, the Chagossians were never consulted.
During the campaign to remove the islanders, British agents, with the help of the US military, rounded up the Chagossians’ pets and gassed them. The people were then corralled onto a ship and dropped on the shores of the nearby Seychelles islands and Mauritius with no homes, food, money or support. A US military base was established on the island of Diego Garcia in Chagos. Today, the Naval Support Facility Diego Garcia, ironically nicknamed the “Footprint of Freedom,” is one of the most strategically important US military bases in the world.
Since the start of their exile, the Chagossians have been fighting to return to their island homes, and, thus far, both the UK and US governments have failed to take responsibility or provide any real recompense to the islanders. The UK-commissioned feasibility study – a draft of which was released in November of 2014 – is an important step in achieving some justice for this largely marginalized group of people. The study is intended to help determine whether a resettlement of the Chagossians is feasible on the islands.
This is not, however, the first feasibility study to address the issue of resettlement of the Chagossians. Another UK-commissioned resettlement study conducted in June of 2000 was ultimately deemed unreliable when it was found that a backroom “debriefing” meeting had been conducted between BIOT officials, the UK Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO), and the consulting company called upon to carry out the report.
Prior to meeting with BIOT officials and the FCO, the authors of the study seemed to conclude in favor of resettlement for “up to or around one thousand” and stated that there was “no obvious physical reason why one or both of the two atolls should not be re-populated.” However, following the “debriefing” meeting, the conclusion was substantially changed for the final version of the report (only a month later), citing many qualifications for resettlement, specifically noting the “fragile” island ecosystems.
Throughout the proceedings for the feasibility study in 2000, the Chagossians were never consulted. Meanwhile, the UK Foreign Commonwealth Office was in direct contact with the consultants and had already communicated – before the scientific research was carried out – what the hoped-for results of the study would be, further compromising the soundness of the research and the independence of the consultants.
After over 40 years of fighting, the Chagossians seem to be better positioned for the right to return than any other time since their forced displacement. In addition to the study – the full draft of which should be released any day – the US and UK governments have just entered into a two-year negotiation period on whether to extend the lease of Diego Garcia to the United States for another 20 years, an agreement that bears considerably on whether the Chagossians might return home.
The draft feasibility study focuses largely on the environmental impacts of resettlement and the financial cost. Ultimately, the draft concluded that there are “no insurmountable legal obstacles” preventing a resettlement on BIOT. Three options were considered in the study. The first option would involve the large-scale resettlement of approximately 1,500 Chagossians at an estimated cost of £413.9 million (roughly $625.9 million) over six years. Option two would involve a medium-scale resettlement of around 500 people, estimated at £106.9 million (roughly $161.4 million) over four years. The third option involves a pilot run of resettling 150 people “with incremental growth over time” with an initial population of about 150 people, costing an estimated £62.9 million (roughly $95.1 million) to establish and maintain for a three-year period.
While the costs that would be incurred through resettlement are explained in great detail and analyzed through every possible angle in the draft report, including the costs of energy, housing, public buildings, utilities, harbors, an airport, island transportation and defense, the ways in which the costs can be offset are mentioned only in passing. Below are just seven ways that the costs of resettlement could be managed to allow Chagossians to return home and achieve at least some semblance of justice from the UK and US governments:
The Chagos Islands are part of what is currently the largest no-take marine protected area in the world. This means that the waters surrounding the islands are some of the most pristine on the planet, with diverse ecosystems of fish and coral. A high-end eco-tourism industry could be very lucrative for the Chagossians.
The island country of Palau derives a majority of its annual GDP from the tourism and eco-tourism industry to the tune of millions of dollars per year. In Costa Rica, similarly, the economy relies heavily on eco-tourism. For the Chagos Islands, many of which are uninhabited and likely unable to support a permanent population, the islands could be set up as prime destinations for those interested in exploring islands with little human influence. The BIOT is currently a frequent resting place for “yachties” who anchor on the uninhabited islands, and the nearby Seychelles Islands already support a thriving eco-tourism sector. While the Chagos Islands offer many challenges in comparison to places like Palau and Costa Rica (which are able to support large influxes of tourists), this could generate a strong source of sustainable income for the Chagossians and offer many areas for employment by targeting only very high-end travelers at a smaller scale.
Scientific Research/Monitoring of the Marine Protected Area
Scientific research to monitor the health of the marine and terrestrial ecosystems would be an essential component of Chagossian resettlement, especially in the careful study of the marine protections in place. The Chagossians have already expressed an earnest desire to maintain the health of the islands and to ensure their sustainability with a human settlement. Training the islanders to carry out scientific monitoring of the islands and to collect information regarding the migration of protected bird and fish species, take samples of soil and water, and monitor the abundance of aquatic life would be an easy way to both generate income for the Chagossians and maintain the integrity of the vital ecological communities in and around the islands.
Work on the Diego Garcia Military Base
The US military base on Diego Garcia employs some civilian workers for various occupations on the base. Preferential hiring of Chagossians on the base would be a natural way to supplement some of the costs of resettlement. In more recent years, a few Chagossians have been hired in this capacity, so expanding this program should be quite simple. Civilian jobs on military bases are varied and provide work in many different professions and thus could accommodate many of the skills Chagossians already have.
Chagossian resettlement would require a restructuring of BIOT administration, and Chagossians would need to be a central part of the governance of the islands. While there would likely be very few governmental and administrative positions, they would nonetheless help to provide a consistent income to some of the resettled islanders, meanwhile giving the Chagossians some autonomy over their own governance.
Small-scale agriculture and Subsistence Fishing
Just as was their practice when the Chagossians originally inhabited the Chagos Islands, the islanders could once again look to the fertile land around them for sustenance. While the marine protections on the island state that it is a “no-take” fishing zone, the Diego Garcia base is currently allowed to engage in sport fishing. Eliminating this practice and allowing the Chagossians to provide for themselves through subsistence fishing would bolster their self-sufficiency. Likewise, small plots of family gardens and small-scale agriculture would be similarly helpful.
.io Domain Name
One of the largest potential “cash crops” for the Chagossians is the .io domain name that is associated with the Indian Ocean territory. The domain name has become increasingly popular for tech companies who see the “io” as a reference to the tech term “input/output.”
Currently, the .io domain profits are going to the UK government and some of those profits are being used for the administration of the BIOT. If the Chagossians were able to return to their islands, the profits would go to the permanent inhabitants and administrators of the Indian Ocean territory – i.e. The Chagossians themselves. The domain name of .tv brings millions of dollars per year to the people of the small island of Tuvalu. Likewise, profits from .me benefit the people of Montenegro. The .io domain could potentially provide millions of dollars to the Chagossians to support resettlement and cover the cost of maintenance of the settlements going forward. Additionally, this would open up potential jobs for the Chagossians to manage the promotion and sales of the domains.
Possibly the single most important thing to consider when looking at the potential costs for resettlement of the Chagossian people to their homelands is the reparations due hem for their decades of undue suffering brought on by both the UK and US governments. This should be central to the conversation on how to pay for and sustain a resettlement of the islands.
A study conducted by anthropologist and American University professor, David Vine; Rutgers University professor of law and economics Philip Harvey; and senior research associate at Johns Hopkins University S. Wojciech Sokolowski found that damages owed to the Chagossian people fall between $5.4 billion and $13.2 billion from 1970 through 2008.
The calculation took into account harms suffered by the Chagossian people during the initial expulsion from their land and the over 40 years in exile, and it considered both the direct harms incurred by the individuals first expelled from the islands and the indirect harms incurred by the decedents of those individuals.
The highest cost estimate of the feasibility study found that large-scale resettlement of around 1,500 people would cost approximately $625.9 million over six years. For the roughly 5,000 Chagossians living today – a people who were exiled from their homes in a brutal campaign, who lost their land, their pets, their income and jobs, the connection to their ancestors buried on the islands, and their cultural heritage, and who have suffered for decades in exile, often in extreme poverty – $625.9 million seems a small price to pay for justice.
As negotiations between the UK and the US governments regarding Diego Garcia and the US military base begin, it is imperative that US officials work a resettlement option into the agreement.
The UK government has yet to take any responsibility for the injustice done to the islanders over 40 years ago and has thus far not provided any compensation to the exiled community. While the violence committed against the Chagossians cannot be undone, the US government can take considerable steps toward mitigation of those crimes. This includes full resettlement of all of the Chagossian people who wish to return – both first generation and subsequent generations born in exile. This also includes substantial reparations in part through resettlement assistance and continued aid as the islanders rebuild their homes and communities.
Both governments have abdicated responsibility for their role in the exile and years of suffering imposed upon the Chagossian people. The feasibility study and renegotiation of the base offer an opportunity for both the US and UK governments to work toward restitution for the Chagossians so that they might finally see justice and return home once again.