Exiled Chagos islanders win right to return home

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Friday, May 12, 2006

Map of the Chagos Archipelago
Image: Grendelkhan / Hoshie.

The islanders of Chagos Archipelago have won a High Court battle that may allow them to return to the islands they were exiled from in 1971. The Chagossians (also known as Ilois) had previously won another High Court battle in 2000 which paved the way for their return, but this was overturned by Foreign Secretary Jack Straw using an Order-in-Council, a little-used piece of legislation involving the royal prerogative. Yesterday, the high court judges ruled that the use of this action was "irrational and unlawful". The government has 28 days to decide whether to appeal.

Of about 4,000 exiles from the Chagos islands, most live in poverty within the poor areas of Mauritius. All the exiles have British citizenship, with about 250 living in the UK. The case won in the High Court yesterday was brought by Chagossian community leader Olivier Bancoult, who has been fighting for the right of exiles to return to the islands for many years.

A US military base currently occupies Diego Garcia, the biggest island in the group, after having been leased the land by the British government. The base played a role in the Iraq war. Mauritius has claimed ownership of the island, but it is currently considered by the British to be part of the British Indian Ocean Territory. Under the treaty arrangements between the UK and the US, the US is allowed to stop people living on the islands.

It remains to be seen whether, and when, the Ilois will be able to return. Lawyers for the Ilois argued that although they would not initially be able to live in Diego Garcia, they should be allowed to return to another of the 52 islands within the group (which contains over 600 islands in total).

A spokesman for the foreign office said: "We are disappointed with the judgement." They have not yet decided whether to appeal.