Thousands of Chagos islanders, deported from their homeland in the Indian Ocean by the UK government to make way for a US military base in 1971, will not be given the right of return to resettle, the Foreign Office will announce on Wednesday.
Hundreds of Chagos islanders living in the UK and Mauritius have been waiting for an announcement for more than two years. But cost, economic viability and objections from the US military have been significant obstacles.
It is expected that the British government will provide a further package of compensation to the islanders and that the announcement will be accompanied by an official apology for the forced movement of 1,500 people. Half of the exiles have since died.
Ministers are expected to release a written statement arguing that the cost of resettling the islanders on the British overseas territory is prohibitively expensive. The government will also argue that it would not be possible for the islanders to make a living since they would not be able to live on the centre of the islands and insufficient numbers would want to return. Some government estimates suggest the cost of returning to the Chagos archipelago might be as high as £100m.
Ministers have agonised over the decision for years, knowing that the UK government treated the islanders disgracefully but believing it would not be possible to take the land back from the US, given the importance of the military base to the Pentagon. It is one of the largest US bases outside the country and is seen as having huge strategic importance by the US defence department.
The lease for the US base on Diego Garcia comes up for renewal at the end of this year. It is capable of housing 5,000 people, including 2,000 military personnel.
The episode, described as one of the most shameful in British colonial history after the second world war, has been regarded as of such significance that it has been discussed both at UK cabinet and US National Security Council level. The issue had also been raised with Barack Obama and by the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who is a long-term campaigner for the Chagossians’ right of return.
“It is a basic human right recognised by all human rights conventions that people should have a right to return to their country of birth,” said David Snoxell, the co-ordinator of the all-party Chagos Islands parliamentary group. “What all the Chagossians want, even if they do not want to live there, is the right of return.”
He pointed to a KPMG report for the government which showed strong support for the right to return, which he said had been granted in principle in 2000 by the then foreign secretary, Robin Cook, but had subsequently been removed. Snoxell added: “If we do not get what we want today we will return to the issue of compensation.”
In total it is estimated there are 10,000 Chagossians and their descendants divided between Mauritius, the Seychelles and Great Britain. Some have been granted British citizenship. The all-party group had proposed that a pilot group of 100 Chagossians return to Diego Garcia to see if they could make a living, mainly by providing services to the military and from fishing and tourism.
James Duddridge, who was the minister for overseas territories until a Foreign Office reshuffle over the summer, visited Chagos earlier this year and came away convinced that resettlement was not the right solution. “We cannot undo an historic wrong, but we can mitigate it,” Duddridge told a Commons debate in October. “In all candour I must say that I do not believe it is right to repopulate the islands as part of that mitigation.
“I am not saying one could not populate the islands but the concept that the outer islands are an idyllic possibility is for the birds. They were difficult, overgrown, humid areas that were accessible only where the marines had gone in and chopped down foliage.”