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Last Updated: Monday, 3 April 2006, 09:30 GMT 10:30 UK
Paradise regained - for a few days
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs Correspondent, BBC News website

Ile du Coin, plam trees and beach
Islanders who were forced into exile by Britain to make way for the US Indian Ocean base on Diego Garcia are finally paying a return visit this week.

Having been taken by ship from Mauritius, they will go to a number of the outer islands in the Chagos archipelago, as well as Diego Garcia itself. They will tend graves, hold services and wander among derelict former plantations, where some of the older ones once lived. A plaque marking the visit will be set up on each stop.

Cemeteries have been tidied up by British forces but have deteriorated because they are made of coral and crabs have undermined the structures.

There will be 102 Chagossians, two priests, a stonemason, a doctor, a nurse and a British official on the 12-day visit. The total Chagossian population these days is some 4,000. Most of them live in Mauritius, though some are in the Seychelles and some have moved to Britain.

No British media have been allowed to go along, a move said by the Foreign Office to be for reasons of space. Naturally, the media is suspicious that the British government does not want adverse publicity. There will be video of the events, shot by a Royal Navy cameraman who will give it to the media afterwards. The islanders will also be given DVDs.

The Chagossian leader, Olivier Bancoult, will be accompanying his mother on the visit.

"Everyone is very excited to make the trip," he told the BBC news website. "We haven't been able to see our birthplace, we haven't been able to put flowers on the graves of our ancestors. It will be an unforgettable opportunity for us. We need to pay tribute to the people buried there.

"My plan for the future, together with the group, is to continue with our struggle. We will continue with our struggle because we need the right to live on our birthplace, and compensation to right all the wrongs we have suffered."

No resettlement

However, the chances of them being allowed back to settle there in the foreseeable future are very low.

"It is not practical," British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told reporters.

The main obstacle is the agreement between the US and UK, which dates from 1966. An exchange of notes gives each country a veto on who is allowed onto the islands. According to Foreign Office officials, the US government reaffirmed in 2005 that not even the outer islands could be re-inhabited because of the new security situation created after the attacks of 9/11.

There are about 2,000 US personnel on the base, with 2,000 support workers from the Philippines. However, the presence of these workers is regarded as a lesser security risk than having residents who could come and go at will.

"As long as there is a need for security, I don't see how they can go back," said Mr Straw.

The agreement lasts until 2016 and can then be renewed for another 20 years. The base has played a key role in all the operations undertaken by the US Air Force in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years. Mauritius has been promised sovereignty, but only when there are no more defence requirements.

The British government also has a practical reason to deny any return. A feasibility study carried out in 2002 found that life on the outer islands would be "precarious" and would need "costly" support from the government, which it is not prepared to give.

Boddam island ruined plantation
Islands used to support copra plantations

At the time of their forced departure, the islanders' main employment was in the production of copra - coconut fibre and oil. The oil was traditionally used in lamps. However all that is now abandoned.

Court case pending

The only hope the islanders have is a judicial review of Orders in Council made by the British government in 2004. Hearings were held in December and January, and a ruling is expected in April. The orders - decisions taken by the government alone under powers granted by law - prevent the islanders from going back by making any landing in the Chagos subject to immigration control.

The orders themselves replaced the original ejection order, made in 1971, which was declared invalid by the High Court in 2000. The court was scathing about that ordinance, saying that it had "no colour of lawful authority" and was "an abject legal failure".

Cemetery on Ile du Coin
Islanders will visit graves

The ordinance was issued by a commissioner appointed when the Chagos Islands were split off from Mauritius, to enable construction of the base to go ahead unhindered. The court said the commissioner had been in charge of "peace, disorder and good government", and this meant that the inhabitants had to be "governed, not removed".

However, despite reports to the contrary at the time, the ruling did not declare the actual expulsion unlawful, only the mechanism by which it had been achieved, something the UK sought to rectify with the Orders in Council.

The history

The story of the Chagos islanders is not one of Britain's finest hours.

The court case in 2000 revealed that the British government had created what it itself called the "fiction" that the inhabitants were simply contract workers not entitled to rights of residence.

One document quoted a Foreign Office official as saying that the government had to be "very tough about this" and that "the object of the exercise was to get some rocks which will remain ours; there will be no indigenous population except seagulls who have not yet got a committee (the Status of Women Committee does not cover the rights of Birds)."

The islanders are still demanding further compensation, though a British court ruled in 2003 that the resettlement assistance they have been given over a number of years, amounting to 14.5m ($25m) in today's terms, had settled those claims.

Life as it used to be
Over recent years, the government has apparently felt that some amends should be made. The visit is one example. Foreign Secretary Robin Cook was known to feel bad about the Chagossians, and they were granted British citizenship in 2002.

The trip is said by the Foreign Office to be simply a "humanitarian" one. And, if all goes well, another visit might take in future.

But resettlement is a long, long way off.

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19 Oct 04 |  Southern Counties
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12 Oct 04 |  Southern Counties

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