Islanders evicted by Britain thirty years ago are still living in poverty

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The Independent Online

The British Government was accused in the High Court yesterday of illegally evicting the native inhabitants of a chain of Indian Ocean islands 30 years ago to make way for an American military base.

The British Government was accused in the High Court yesterday of illegally evicting the native inhabitants of a chain of Indian Ocean islands 30 years ago to make way for an American military base.

Sir Sydney Kentridge QC, appearing for the islanders of the Chagos Archipelago - known as the Ilois - who now want to return home, launched a unprecedented legal challenge to their eviction. "This application for judicial review arises from a very sad and by no means creditable episode in British colonial history." he said. "Many of them still live in poverty, or near poverty."

Sir Sydney told Lord Justice Laws and Mr Justice Gibbs that, between 1967 and 1973, the UK dispossessed the whole population of the Chagos. The islanders say 2,000 people were involved but the British Government says it was half that number.

"It is not in dispute that this was done without the consent of the Ilois, without consultation with the Ilois and without any arrangements for their re-settlement," Sir Sydney said. "They were taken largely to Mauritius, and a few to the Seychelles. When the ships carrying them arrived at Mauritius they were simply dumped on the dockside with no provision made at all for their housing or subsistence.

"It was only some time much later that some financial and other assistance was given by the UK government, and also by the Mauritius government," he said. Mauritius had mass unemployment at the time and the Ilois found themselves "on the fringes of society".

The legal action has been brought in the name of a representative islander, Louis Bancoult, the chairman of the Chagos Refugee Group in Mauritius.

Mr Bancoult was born on Peros Banhas in 1964, when the Chagos were part of the colony of Mauritius, which the British had taken from the French during the Napoleonic wars.

Mr Bancoult and his family went to Mauritius - some 1,200 miles away - in 1967 for medical treatment and were prevented from returning to the islands and had reluctantly remained in Mauritius ever since.

Describing the actions of the British as "discreditable", Sir Sydney said that, by November 1973, the islands had been cleared of their resident population. This was all to enable the Americans to build a military base on the largest island - Diego Garcia.

The Independent revealed at the weekend that the British Government had been paid £5m by the Americans to make the islands available for a base.

Under the agreement, the US insisted that the islands should be removed from the control of Mauritius and brought under direct UK control "to avoid any political difficulties".

The US also required that the permanent population should be removed, first from Diego Garcia to outlying islands and eventually from the whole archipelago.

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