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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
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

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £45,000

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a solutions / s...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Test Development Engineer

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you inspired to bring new a...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Motor Engineer

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific