A Chagossian group based in the UK has demanded to be a part of the announced talks between Mauritius and the UK on the future of the Chagos. The episode shows just how and like the Chagos itself, Chagossian groups in exile have a history of being used by major powers. And why they and the Mauritian state do not share the same endgame when it comes to their homeland.
1) The UK-based groups
“The Chagossian community must be part of the talks between the British and Mauritian governments on the Chagos archipelago,” a UK-based group, Chagossian Voices, said in a statement reacting to the recent announcement by the Mauritian and UK governments that they had agreed to open talks about the future of the Chagos and hope to reach an agreement by early 2023. The episode highlights the complex – and often contradictory politics – within the Chagossian diaspora. And it’s even a more complex relationship with the sovereignty claims of the Mauritian state when it comes to the Chagos.
The Chagossian groups in the UK came into being after 2002, when the UK recognized Chagossians as British citizens leading to the creation of a Chagossian community – mostly moving from Mauritius – in the town of Crawley. According to the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, between 2002 and 2006, 1,406 UK passports were handed out to Chagossians from Mauritius and Seychelles. Since then, the politics of Chagossian groups within the UK has concentrated mostly on lobbying the UK government to enlarge immigration rules to allow for more people of Chagossian origin and their families to come and live in the UK as well as government support for housing and jobs.
The main demand of the UK-based groups has been that the law only recognized native-born Chagossians and those born to such parents between 1969 and 1985 as eligible for UK citizenship, complicating matters for family members born afterwards to migrate to the UK. However, with recent amendments to the UK’s British Overseas Territories Act, the eligibility for UK passports has been broadened to include third and fourth-generation Chagossians as well. “We have always been worried that one of the things that the UK would do in the long-run is to get support from Chagossians themselves, and this move to broaden the giving out passports looks like it’s part of that,” says Ram Seegobin of Lalit, “eventually they would try to argue that this should be settled with the consent of Chagossians themselves by holding a referendum amongst these groups for self-determination.”
Given that the claim to British passports rests wholly on the premise that the Chagos is British territory, not surprisingly, UK-based Chagossian groups have opposed Mauritian sovereignty over the islands, and ended up totally backing London’s claims to sovereignty. For instance, when Port Louis contested London’s unilateral declaration of a marineprotected area around the Chagos, some UK-based groups such as the Diego Garcia Society backed London’s move. And London has in the past attempted to utilize such groups to justify its own continued occupation of the Chagos. At the International Court of Justice (ICJ) (which eventually ruled in favour of Mauritius) for instance, London argued that Mauritius only spoke of resettlement of Chagossians, who were Mauritian citizens, which would not be acceptable to Chagossians in the UK and Seychelles. An argument that the ICJ rejected.
Earlier in 2022 when Mauritius sponsored an expedition to the Chagos to map out the Blenheim Reef – as part of its ongoing maritime boundary dispute with the Maldives at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), the expedition was slammed not just by London, but also by political allies of the Chagossians in the UK, such as Crawley MP Henry who criticised the expedition as a “political statement”, and Chagossian voices, which criticized the move as “an obscenely expensive vanity expedition without proper consultation with the Chagossian community”. While another group, the British Indian Overseas Territory Citizens Group, stated that the expedition came at a “problematic time” for UK-based Chagossians in their own fight for British citizenship eligibility.
When the ITLOS dismissed London’s claims on the Chagos, ChagossianVoices sent a statement to the tribunal arguing that despite the 2019 ruling by the ICJ, they did not recognize the Chagos as Mauritian (the same as London’s stance) stating that, “we reject the veracity of the ongoing hearings in ITLOS”. We have to be clear about what the issue is right now, says Milan Meetarbhan, former Mauritian UN permanent representative, “For the Mauritian state this issue is about sovereignty and after the ICJ decision the question now is how to exercise that sovereignty effectively. If there is evidence that those opposed to Mauritius’ position are being used by a foreign power to try to influence proceedings that will have to be taken into account. If they have maintained UK’s sovereignty in the past, whether to consult with them is not a matter for Mauritius, but the UK government”. According to Seegobin, “they (the UK-based Chagossian groups -ed.) have always been on UK’s side, so there is no reason to include them in such talks”.
2) The Mauritius-based groups
The Mauritius-based Chagos Refugee Group (CRG) founded in 1983 and based in Cassis, though not opposed to Mauritius’ sovereignty claims as the UK-based Chagossian groups are, has nevertheless embarked on a dual strategy. Starting in 1997, the CRG has fought a long and complicated legal battle within the UK court system. Initially by opposing a 1971 ordinance prohibiting resettlement on the Chagos. After an initial legal victory in 2000 where a court ruled that the ordinance was invalid and seemingly opening the door for resettlement; in 2002 a feasibility study commissioned by the UK government ruled out resettlement of the Chagos as prohibitively expensive.
Another set of ordinances in 2004 once again prohibited resettlement on the Chagos. After victories in the High Court and the Court of Appeal against this ordinance, in 2008 the House of Lords ruled against the CRG. In 2012 the European Court of Human Rights too ruled that the case by the CRG was inadmissible. A second feasibility study took place, this time arguing that resettlement was possible, until in 2016 the UK government ruled out resettlement as an option entirely.
“A decade ago, the CRG had a funny position where they wanted the right to go back and work in the US base on Diego Garcia,” recalls Seegobin. To do that, the cases the CRG fought in British courts were as British subjects not being allowed to resettle on what they recognized as UK territory. Since then, three factors have turned the CRG around to Mauritius’ point of view: firstly, as Seegobin points out, “they had reached the end of their legal possibilities within the UK courts, so that helped convince the CRG to throw in its lot with the Mauritian government”. Secondly, a new generation of Chagossians had grown up living and working in Mauritius and were less hostile to Mauritian claims on the islands. And thirdly, with successive Mauritian governments conceding that they would allow the US base to operate on Diego Garcia if they got the Chagos back, the possibility to live and work near the base as a future option for the CRG and its supporters did not seem threatened. “Now it’s a complete 180 degree turn by the CRG,” says Seegobin, with the CRG now openly backing Mauritius’ claim at the ICJ and the UN. However, this does not mean that the CRG has completely abandoned its dual strategy of working with Mauritius as Mauritians of Chagossian origin looking to return to Mauritian islands, while at the same time going through UK courts as British subjects looking to return to islands they acknowledge as British. Even as Mauritius – with CRG backing – was at the ICJ in 2019 and subsequently opened a maritime dispute with Maldives at the ITLOS, the CRG was still working with Seychelles-based Chagossian groups to fight cases in UK courts to quash London’s 2016 decision not to allow resettlement. That fight once again failed in a July 2020 judgement.
3) The Seychelles-based group
By far the most nuanced position is that of Chagossian groups in the Seychelles, headed by the Seychelles Chagossian Committee (SCC) founded in 1997. With the return of the Farquhar and Aldabra islands to Victoria in the 1970s, it has no territorial claims of its own on the Chagos, meaning that Seychelles has traditionally backed Mauritian sovereignty over the islands. What this means is that unlike UK-based Chagossian groups, those in Seychelles have found it hard to sustain an anti-Mauritian attitude to the Chagos question. While on the other hand, not being based in Mauritius themselves, they have not been as full-throated in their support for Mauritian sovereignty as the Mauritiusbased CRG has been lately. Expectations of UK passports amongst Chagossians in the Seychelles and potentially benefitting from a £40 million package announced by London in 2016 – of which the British government figures showed only £570,000 had been spent by November 2020, while media reports put it much lower at £12,000 – have translated into mistrust of Port Louis. So, when Mauritius started its case at the ICJ in 2018, the Seychelles-based SCC broke with the Mauritius-based CRG arguing that “the Mauritian government’s demand is motivated by the commercial gains, rent from the United States and new fishing grounds… we do not want Mauritius to get our islands”. However, as Mauritius began raking up legal victories at the ICJ and the ITLOS, the position of the SCC began to change from outright hostility to Mauritian sovereignty to proposing what it dubbed a “Rodrigues plus” formula which would allow the Chagos full autonomy; allowing it control of its territory with its own laws and political structure while recognizing Mauritius as its administering power. The point for Seychelles-based Chagossians is to allow for a formula that would allow non-Mauritian Chagossians to have a say on the islands: “We do not want Chagossians to be diluted as an average Mauritian. We want Chagossians outside of Mauritius to benefit equally on our land” (sic). “Generally speaking, anybody who is not a Mauritian citizen will have to abide by Mauritian law, so any resettlement will be governed by Mauritian law and any restrictions on movement on the Chagos that are placed by an agreement between Mauritius and the UK,” concludes Meetarbhan.