No return for the islanders of Diego Garcia: The Cold War may have ended, but there is no peace dividend for the Ilois forced from their home


11 August 1992

SHORTLY after the Gulf war, a senior British diplomat suggested to a British journalist that he should visit Diego Garcia, the Indian Ocean island owned by Britain and loaned to the United States as an airbase. He said that now the Cold War was over and because the island had proved so important in the Gulf war, he was sure Washington would have no objection to a visit and some publicity; the base had preserved the aquatic wildlife so well that it would be worth an article.

The US was duly asked by the British government if such a visit could take place. The Pentagon said no.

The island comes under British sovereignty and has a token British police unit and some customs officials. It is clear, however, that Britain has little say in what happens on Diego Garcia. Britain agreed to cede the islands to Mauritius 'when no longer needed for defence purposes'. That may be some time. In 1990, a US Air Force white paper on US military power in the 21st century said that the entire globe could be covered by bombers flying from three secure bases: one in the US, and the others in the US Pacific territory of Guam and in Diego Garcia.

The island, which is the only US nuclear base in the Indian Ocean, was the refuelling and rearming point for B52s bombing Iraq during the Gulf war. A horseshoe-shaped atoll, part of the Chagos archipelago, it has a long runway and a naval dockyard.

In 1966 Britain paid pounds 3m to Mauritius for the Chagos islands, which became part of the British Indian Ocean Territory. A United Nations resolution of 1965, which asked Britain not to dismember Mauritius before independence, was ignored and the agreement which gave the island for no payment to the US for 50 years was signed the following year. At that time there were 1,800 islanders, known as the Ilois, who were descended from a mixed Tamil, Malagasy and African community established by the French in the 18th century. They made a living from fishing and growing coconuts but were steadily moved to Mauritius.

In 1971, the last 800 were forcibly taken to Mauritius and have since lived in the slums of Port Louis, the capital. In the 1970s, many Ilois families were suffering from poverty and malnutrition. Adverse publicity forced Britain to increase the original pounds 650,000 resettlement grant to pounds 4m, but it was a 'full and final settlement' granted in return for a promise from the Ilois families never to return to the islands.

Mauritius has constantly asked for the return of the island but it is unclear whether it would allow the return of the Ilois. The resettlement money is administered by Mauritius, and lawyers acting for the Ilois have difficulty in gaining access to the statutes of the trust fund.

Today many of the Ilois, who number about 4,000, have integrated into Mauritian society and their children are getting an education unavailable to their parents. But the older generation has not given up the dream of returning to the homeland, although they know the copra industry is no longer viable. Sylvio Michel of the Comite Ilois Organisation Fraternelle says they would at least like to be allowed to tend the graves of their ancestors. The part of the islands where they once lived is not used by the US and has become a wilderness.

The US, the leasor, can claim it has no responsibility for the islanders but it is clear that even if the British wanted to allow them to return, Washington would not agree.