The Chagossians: The Indian Ocean islanders exiled from their home and struggling to make ends meet in Britain

Citizens of the UK-owned Chagos Islands were forcibly removed from the islands to make way for America's largest overseas military base

Katie McQue
Saturday 11 April 2015 06:19
Refugees from Diego Garcia at a meeting with the Foreign Office in Crawley, Sussex, where many live
Refugees from Diego Garcia at a meeting with the Foreign Office in Crawley, Sussex, where many live

For Bernard Nourrice and his wife, Willie, their life is contained in a bedsit above a garage in West Norwood, in south London. It feels a long way from an Indian Ocean island paradise. “We have no sitting facilities; nowhere to relax, apart from the bed,” says Bernard.

Their home is dark and cramped, but Willie has added homely touches; pink floral bedding, a collection of stuffed teddy bears, and family photos on the walls. “What can I do? This is my home now. I try to keep it nice,” she says.

Her 59-year-old husband is a British citizen but also a refugee from Diego Garcia, a UK-owned territory in the Chagos Islands – from where the British Army forcefully evicted his family, and thousands of others, when he was a small child in the 1960s. It was then leased to the US government and has been host to America’s largest overseas military base ever since.

The Chagossians were banned from returning, a mandate that has been upheld to this day. Discarded on the docks of the nearby Seychelles, Bernard’s family were left to fend for themselves.

When the financial crisis took hold in 2008, Bernard lost his job as a hotel worker in the Seychelles. Told he was probably too old to find employment there again, the British embassy advised him to move to the UK, where he would be entitled to financial assistance. He is one of about 2,000 Chagossian refugees to have relocated to the UK in search of a new life.

Most have settled in Crawley, near Gatwick, the airport where most of them landed. They’re a community of refugees and their families who keep their culture alive by holding gatherings flavoured by with spicy traditional Chagossian cooking and traditional dancing. But their life is rarely merry.

“Reaching here, the situation is not what I was told. It’s so painful; we go through so many difficulties,” says Bernard. “The stress is killing people. On Diego Garcia we were free. Here we are not.”

Both Bernard and Willie now work long hours as care assistants in a south London nursing home. They wake at 4.30am to catch the bus by 5am. Barely making ends meet and with retirement looming, the couple’s future is daunting.

Together with the diaspora in the Seychelles and Mauritius, the UK-based Chagossians have fought for the right to return home. In Crawley, the fight is led by Sabrina Jean, 42, the daughter of a Chagossian refugee. She has promised her elderly father, who also lives in Crawley, that she will do everything in her power for him to live his final days on his homeland.

Sabrina grew up in Mauritius, only hearing stories of the Chagos Islands. Wherever she travels, she carries a bottle of sand from Diego Garcia with her. “Chagos sand is so different,” she says, playing with it between her fingers, smiling.

Desperate to overcome poverty in Mauritius, Sabrina left her husband and three young children behind to begin to make a life for them in the UK. She worked two jobs, from 6am to 2pm in a McDonald’s restaurant, and from 3pm to midnight in a Royal Mail sorting office, six days a week. After six months she was able to pay for her family to join her.

“But when they first came here, we stayed just in one room. My husband and I slept on the floor and my three kids in one bed,” she says. “When I left my daughter in Mauritius she was two years old. So when she came here it was very difficult for her to adapt with me again. Everything with her is dad.I understand because I left her for six months. Although it was difficult, I had no choice.”

In late March, before Parliament disbanded, the Government said it would push back a decision on whether it is feasible to resettle some of the Chagossians until after the general election. This is a crucial delay since the UK is due to renegotiate its leasing of Diego Garcia to the United States by 2016.

Some believe these delays are a ploy by the Government to wait until the issue goes away. Most of the first generation Chagossians are elderly, and are dying in poverty before their dream of returning can be realised.

“The big problem that the Chagossian community in the UK has is finding money for funerals,” says Sabrina. “When one of our people passes away it’s very difficult for us.”

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