Photo courtesy of Rakesh Peddibhotla 

Diego Garcia, one of the Chagos Islands which are still controlled by Britain, has become a hell for Sri Lankan Tamil refugees who are trapped on this remote Indian Ocean island. The Chagos Islands is Britain’s last African colony, a reminder that colonialism has not been entirely defeated.

Human Rights Watch declared that the US and UK governments must pay reparations to Chagossians for the criminal forced displacement that these governments committed against them. Further, a UN court ruled that the UK has no sovereignty over the Chagos Islands and must end its unlawful occupation of them.

The UK has relied on a dubious legal theory which states that the UN Refugee Convention does not apply to Diego Garcia. In other words, the UK knows perfectly well that its actions in Diego Garcia are in direct violation of international law. Even more explicitly, the UK has stated that it somehow does not have international obligations to protect people in Diego Garcia because it is a military base.

How did Britain come to control the islands? Mauritius was a British colony from 1810 to 1965. However, when Mauritius became independent, Britain split the Chagos Islands from Mauritius and created a new colony known as the British Indian Ocean Territory. After this step, the US and Britain jointly expelled the Chagossian people from the islands.

Chagossians have a unique culture that blends African and South Asian influences. This is due to slavery and indentured servitude, as hundreds of people from Africa were brought to Chagos as enslaved people. Likewise, many people from South Asia were brought to the islands as indentured servants.

US President Joe Biden has spoken at length about the idea of a rules-based international order particularly when discussing the actions of the Russian and Chinese governments. A rules-based international order is not Western, it is international. Adhering to a rules-based international order means listening to the decisions of the UN and not to the talking points of a rogue British state. For these reasons, President Biden must pressure the British government to immediately relinquish sovereignty of the Chagos Islands to Mauritius and to pay reparations to the families of displaced Chagossians.

In recent years, Diego Garcia has become a judicial vacuum that consumes Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. The refugees sail from Sri Lanka into the Indian Ocean and are then found at sea outside of Diego Garcia. The UK Navy takes them to the island. Many of them have been stranded at Diego Garcia for years. As of 2023, there have been at least 12 suicide attempts as well as at least two sexual assaults at the camp. There have also been hunger strikes, which even children have taken part in. These people are essentially living in a prison.

Sri Lanka’s ally, India, has historically backed Mauritius’ claims to the islands not least because the majority of Mauritius’ population is of South Asian descent. Most of the Indian population in Mauritius are descendants of indentured laborers who were taken (often after being lied to about where they were going) to Mauritius from India during the colonial era. Chagossians, the indigenous people of the Chagos Islands, are an Indo-African ethnic group.

The Sri Lankan government has not been supportive of the people stranded at the islands. Their Tamil identity no doubt plays a role in this. Tamil refugees who return to Sri Lanka risk arrest or worse. One refugee fled Sri Lanka after many of his relatives went missing or were shot dead by the military. When he returned to Sri Lanka from Diego Garcia due to facing miserable conditions on the islands, he was arrested for not carrying a passport when he left the country.

The UK sought to diminish the Chagossians’ indigenous identity in hopes of legitimizing their illegal claim to the islands. Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart wrote in 1968 that “there was an indigenous population and the Foreign Office knew it.” However, the British government attempted to perpetuate the fiction that Chagossians were not an indigenous people because indigenous people are entitled to protections under international law and thus their indigeneity would even further strengthen the legitimacy of their claim to the islands.

The UN refugee agency stated recently that the island was not a suitable location for migrants. Given the illegality of the UK’s occupation of the islands in the first place along with the dreadful conditions that these migrants are living in, the only solution is for the UN or the US to step in and terminate the UK’s occupation and relinquish administration of the islands to Mauritius.