Page last updated at 09:48 GMT, Wednesday, 22 October 2008 10:48 UK

Islanders return hopes dashed by ruling

military base on Diego Garcia
Many islanders believe the Americans are not going to leave Diego Garcia

Thousands of Chagos islanders have had the right to return to their homeland in the Indian Ocean overturned by a House of Lords judgement.

The former residents, evicted from the British overseas territory between 1967 and 1971, hoped their heritage could be rebuilt around a new tourist industry and fishing.

But the largest Chagos island of Diego Garcia, which the UK leased to the US for a military air base remains an issue of contention.

Roch Evenor, 51, was among the 2,000 islanders relocated as part of the secret deal with the US.

He was moved from Diego Garcia to the Seychelles as a child, before settling in the UK, where he now works as an NHS administrator.

The number of the exiled population and their dependants has grown to an estimated 4,000, with many of the 1,000-strong UK community living in Crawley, West Sussex, and working as cleaners or packers.

Mr Evenor, of Rotherhithe, south London, said: "In our language we have a saying that says: 'Where your umbilical cord is buried, this is your place'.

"Mine is buried there. I haven't had the chance to go there to see where it is buried."

Mr Evenor said the US had taken over Diego Garcia because of its strategic position and he could not envisage it leaving.

Royal prerogative

In 2000, High Court judges ruled that Chagossians could return to 65 of the islands, but not to Diego Garcia. In 2004 the government used the royal prerogative - exercised by ministers in the Queen's name - to effectively nullify the decision.

Chagos Island map

Last year, the court overturned that order and rejected the government argument that the royal prerogative was immune from scrutiny. The government asked the Lords to rule on the issue.

Ministers have maintained that the UK control over security matters and this country's legal relationship with its overseas territories was at the heart of their appeal.

The US had also indicated that any return of islanders would compromise its military presence.

According to Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP for Islington North, who has voiced his support for the cause of the Chagossians in the House of Commons, the islanders were "victims of big-power politics".

He said: "These islanders were inconvenient to the nuclear wishes of the United States. This was an injustice of mammoth proportions.

"It was a racist approach to a group of people who had looked after the islands, preserved the islands, who were just in the way."

Most of the islanders were sent to Mauritius and the Seychelles where they encountered racism and discrimination as well as poverty.

In 2002, the islanders were given the right to British passports.

'Sheer desperation'

Bernadette Dugasse, 51, from Norbury, south London, says she moved to the UK after years of hardship in the Seychelles.

Recalling her childhood in Diego Garcia, Ms Dugasse said: "Everybody was free. We lived like Adam and Eve in paradise. Everyone was auntie, uncle, brothers and sisters.

"[But] life in the Seychelles was very hard. We'd been deprived of our childhoods.

Bernadette Dugasse
Ms Dugasse says she experienced a hard time in the Seychelles

"I started to study as a nurse. But then I was told that I was not born in the Seychelles, so I'd have to stop.

"I started to apply for a job with a hotel. Some hotels said: 'You're not qualified to do that job. If you want you can do the cleaning of the toilet'."

Ms Dugasse said: "I still have it in my heart and in my blood that I'm from Diego Garcia. [But] I don't think we will ever return to live on Diego Garcia."

Visits for Mauritius-based Chagossians to Diego Garcia, as well as several of the outlying islands, were arranged in 2006.

But apart from the military base - used by the US for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan - the islands have remained largely uninhabited.

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg is being asked to rule on a separate appeal by the islanders against a refusal by the UK to grant them compensation.

The islanders' UK-based solicitor Richard Gifford says the case before the Lords was also likely to be taken to Strasbourg.

Bernard Nourrice
Mr Nourrice does not believe the US will vacate Diego Garcia

He added that it was still necessary to obtain the "political decision to facilitate the rehabilitation of islanders" before anyone was able to move back.

A Foreign Office-backed study in 2000 concluded that short-term habitation for limited numbers on a subsistence basis was possible, but said that any long-term resettlement would be precarious and costly as the islands lack basic facilities and infrastructure.

Mr Gifford noted there was evidence of an emerging "political will", citing July's report from the Foreign Affairs Select Committee which concluded there was a case for the government to support a return.

Better life

A recent settlement plan backed by campaigners suggested eco-tourism and fishing industries could provide future jobs in the Chagos islands.

Mr Gifford said many Chagossians in the UK struggled to integrate in the UK.

"But let's not forget they want to go back to the Chagos Islands," he said.

"They only came here out of sheer desperation."

Ahead of the Law Lords' ruling, Bernard Nourrice, 53, another former Diego Garcia resident who ended up in Britain in search of a better life, retained a more modest outlook on his hopes for the future.

"The Americans will never leave Diego Garcia," he said.

But he added: "Surely as I was born on that island, it's still in me that one day I will be buried in the place where I was born."


SEE ALSO
Fresh battle over Chagos exiles
05 Feb 07 |  Southern Counties
In pictures: Chagossians' visit
10 Apr 06 |  In Pictures

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