Thursday, 3 July 2014

Chagos Islanders take hope that their exile may one day be ended

Taken from current edition of Big Issue in the North magazine, please buy a copy when you see a seller. 
Chagos Islanders forced into exile over 40 years ago have welcomed a Foreign Office feasibility study on resettlement.
The Chagos Archipelago comprises more than 60 tropical islands in the Indian Ocean and is officially part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), with Mauritius also claiming sovereignty.
The Chagos contain the world’s largest coral atoll and a healthy reef system that has so far proven resilient to climate change.
Britain expelled over 1,500 islanders between 1965 and 1971 to permit the US to lease land for a military base until 2016. Around 4,000 troops are located at Diego Garcia, which has in recent years
been accused by human rights observers of operating as a secret detention centre for high- profile international opponents of the US.
In 2010 the Labour government established the world’s largest marine reserve around the Chagos Islands.
Legality challenged
WikiLeaks cables later revealed that the Foreign Office, in discussions with the US, whose massive base on Diego Garcia makes it the only inhabited island in the Chagos, had asserted that the marine park would force an end to resettlement claims by former residents and their descendants.
Mauritius is currently challenging the legality of the reserve at the Hague-based permanent court of arbitration and believes success could help unravel Britain’s territorial claims and lead to the exiled islanders’ return.
KPMG has now been commissioned by the Foreign Office to undertake a feasibility study for the resettlement of BIOT. This is due to be completed in January next year, which could mean a resettlement decision could be taken before the general election in May.
Researchers will visit the Chagos and consider the likely costs of establishing and maintaining a settlement over five, 10 and 20 years, whether such a settlement could be self-sustaining and if it should be small, large-scale or only for occasional visits by Chagossians. The study team will also seek to quantify the demand for resettlement and the profile of those who want to do so.
KPMG staff have already met some Chagossians living in Britain. There are two significant communities, one around Crawley and the other Manchester-based, where the 200-strong community includes Claudia Naraina, whose father – who is still alive – and grandparents were born on Chagos.
‘Genuine initiative’
Naraina has never visited the islands herself. She is hoping to do so shortly because
the Foreign Office has been facilitating trips there in recent years. There have also been some scientific expeditions that her friends have joined.
Naraina, who helped form the Manchester Chagos Archipelago community group last year,
is keen to live on Chagos and views the islands as home.
She welcomed the feasibility study as “a genuine initiative in response to Chagossians’ constant fight for the right to return home”.
She added: “Some people had lost hope but this latest initiative has seen new groups being formed to discuss and move forward the proposals.”
The environmental impact of resettlement options will consider the impact on flora and fauna and the marine reserve. Sea level rise and other climate change effects will also need analysing. Naraina said: “Returning islanders can be part of protecting the environment and would work together with scientists doing so”.
There are also employment considerations, as there will need to be a range of skills among those who return if any new settlement is to be self-sustaining. Naraina, married with two children, isa healthcare professional and believes many Chagossians have abilities and work records to make life sustainable.
Taxpayer bill
The KPMG study will calculate the likely financial costs of resettlement, covering housing, schools and clinics, power generation, waste facilities and telecommunications. The British taxpayer can be expected to foot the bill.
Naraina believes they would be happy to do so. She said: “I think most people know we simply desire to return to a place we call home and from which we are forcibly exiled.

“I believe the British government is keen to move this forward before the next election and I am hopeful of a positive outcome.”

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