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. Richard Dowden and George Bennett consider their plight

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.

(Map omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss