One week after British voters decided to exit the European Union, the UK Supreme Court was set to decide the fate of a small group of British citizens who had no such vote when the UK and US governments forced the people to exit their homeland beginning in the late 1960s.
Known as the Chagossians, these little known refugees have long been denied the kind of democratic rights exercised in the Brexit referendum. Instead, Britain and the United States forcibly removed the Chagossians from their homes during the construction of the US military base on the isolated Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. Over nearly 50 years, the base has become a multi-billion-dollar installation, playing key roles in the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the same period, the people have lived in impoverished exile, mostly on the western Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and the Seychelles.
Before the recent ruling, Chagossians waited anxiously to learn if they would be allowed to return to their homeland.
An “Act of Mass Kidnapping”
The history of what The Washington Post’s editorial page called an “act of mass kidnapping” dates to the time of US independence. In the last decades of the 18th century, the ancestors of today’s Chagossians first arrived in Diego Garcia and the rest of the Chagos Archipelago as enslaved and indentured African and Indian laborers who worked on Franco-Mauritian coconut plantations. Following emancipation and Britain’s seizure of the Chagos islands in 1814, a new, indigenous society emerged.
Unfortunately for the Chagossians, in 1958, US Navy officials identified Diego Garcia as an ideal location for a base. By 1965, high-ranking US officials had convinced the British government to detach the Chagos Archipelago from colonial Mauritius (contravening UN decolonization rules) to establish the United Kingdom’s last-created colony, the British Indian Ocean Territory.
During secret negotiations, US officials insisted the territory come under their “exclusive control (without local inhabitants).” With the help of $14 million quietly transferred without Congress’s or Parliament’s knowledge, British officials agreed to take “administrative measures” to remove some 1,500 Chagossians.
Between 1968 and 1973, the two governments concealed the expulsion from the world. If anyone asked, Anglo-American officials decided to “maintain the fiction that the inhabitants of Chagos” were “transient contract workers,” as one bureaucrat explained. A British official called the Chagossians “Tarzans” and “Man Fridays,” in a tellingly racist reference to Robinson Crusoe.
Shortly after construction began on Diego Garcia in 1971, US Navy Admiral Elmo Zumwalt issued the final, chilling deportation order in exactly three words: “Absolutely must go.”