Chagossians promised aid go hungry as coronavirus renders them jobless in a foreign state
Chagos Islanders living in exile from the territory claimed by Britain, and left destitute by the coronavirus downturn, have been refused support by the UK government, leaving some unable to buy enough food.
They question why a £40m support package – which was announced by the UK government in 2016 to assist Chagossians living in the UK, Mauritius and Seychelles – isn’t being used to help them during this time. The fund has gone largely unspent since its launch.
“We struggle to afford food. My mum is diabetic and needs medicine. We can’t buy it,” says Dominique Pierre, a now-jobless Chagossian living in Port Louis, the Mauritian capital. “We are cutting her pills in half to make them last, but she really needs to take one per day.”
Worried about how long they can sustain themselves, members of the community contacted the British High Commission in Mauritius to request help.
“Unfortunately, we regret to inform that there is no mechanism currently in place to implement a plan for the Chagossian community,” the Foreign Office responded in an email, seen by the Observer.
The plight of the Chagossians began in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the 2,000-strong population of the Chagos Islands was forcibly removed by Britain to allow the US military to establish a strategic air base on the largest island, Diego Garcia.
Islanders were exiled in Mauritius and the Republic of Seychelles, where many claim to have suffered discrimination and been excluded from employment and education opportunities. In 2002, native Chagossians and their children were given the right to British passports. Since then, more than 3,000 have emigrated to the UK, the majority settling in Crawley, West Sussex.
The £40m fund, which was to be spent over 10 years, was launched in November 2016, when the British government announced it had extended the lease for the US to continue hosting its military base on Diego Garcia. While the base is in operation the UK government has forbidden the exiled islanders from resettling, despite their long campaign for their right to return.
The fund, branded hush money by critics, was created as part of a “Chagossian Development Plan” created by the Foreign Office and US State Department during a meeting in June 2016, in the run-up to the lease extension, a document obtained by a Freedom of Information request shows.
About £580,000 of the fund has been spent so far. This money has been used to pay for some English lessons and also short visits by small groups of Chagossians to their homeland.
When members of the community asked the Foreign Office to deploy the package directly to improve their situation, including assisting with access to housing and immigration fees, their requests were declined.
“We recognise this is a worrying time for many Chagossians,” the Foreign Office said in a statement. “We have already established a fund worth approximately £40m to support long-term employment, health and education programmes for Chagossians, and are looking at ways to support the Mauritian government as they deal with the economic impact of Covid-19.”