Rosy Leveque’s upbringing in Mauritius reflected the difficulty that Chagossians have had integrating
Rosy Leveque’s grandmother was about to get the boat home after giving birth in Mauritius in 1969 when she was told that Diego Garcia, the Indian Ocean island where she lived, had been given to the US military. She would never be allowed to return.
This is just one story among many of the exile that, over half a century ago, the UK forced on the inhabitants of Diego Garcia and other islands in the Chagos Archipelago.
The British government split the territory from Mauritius — the former UK colony hundreds of miles to the south-west — to make way for a US base on a long-term lease.
“She was stuck in Mauritius with a newborn, and nowhere to go,” says Leveque, of her grandmother. Rosy’s own upbringing in poor Mauritian neighbourhoods reflected the difficulty that Chagossians have had integrating into Mauritian society.
The Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, ceded by the UK to the US for use as a Cold War military base © Getty
And the status of the Chagos islands, long contested between the UK and Mauritius, is in flux like never before.
Mauritius is now making assertions of sovereignty and even demanding that Google change its maps and mark the islands as Mauritian.
But Chagossians want to know how Mauritius envisages resettlement of the islands. They are also still fighting in the UK for British citizenship rights denied to them by their exile.
“We don’t believe that Mauritius has the best interests of Chagossians at heart,” Leveque says. “This is about self-determination.”
In February, an official voyage — ostensibly a scientific mission to examine seabed demarcation — allowed Chagossians to set foot on the islands without UK supervision for the first time since exile.
“It was a very emotional moment,” says Olivier Bancoult, chair of a Chagos refugee group and who was on the voyage. He and his parents were removed from the islands in 1972.
For some Chagossians, such assertions of Mauritian sovereignty contrast with the years of failure — amid expressions of regret from British governments — to secure their return to the islands. “They will always say they have deep regret,” Bancoult comments, adding: “but what did they do to improve our condition of living?”
Now chair of a Chagos refugee group, Olivier Bancoult was, with his parents, removed from the islands in 1972 © PA/Alamy
Other Chagossians tend to view the February trip as a publicity stunt for the Mauritian claim. It does little to clarify the British citizenship status of second and later generation Chagossians in Mauritius who want to live in the UK.
Leveque came to the UK after her mother sought citizenship under a 2002 British law that opened the door to first-generation children of the Chagos islanders, if they were born between 1969 and 1982.
But many Chagossians, who left Mauritius to rejoin family members in the UK, lost rights to citizenship that they would have had if their grandparents had been allowed to remain on the Chagos as a British territory.
The path ahead for them is hardly simplified by recent British politics. Whether it be the Brexit debate, the Windrush scandal or even refugees fleeing Ukraine, much controversy still centres on questions of who can come to the UK — and with what rights.
“After fifty years, all we’re asking for is to make these few hundred, potentially low thousands, children, British citizens,” Leveque says.
But, at the same time, it was important for Chagossians to join the Mauritian voyage to the islands to assert their heritage, argues Bancoult. It shows clearly that there was life there, he says. “People need to know that.”
As well as resettlement plans for the Chagos islands, questions loom about how the territory would be governed under Mauritian sovereignty — and about the geopolitics and military base usage, which were the root causes of the exile half a century ago.
As part of its overtures to the US to drop support for UK sovereignty, the Mauritian government has indicated that, if it did take over running the Chagos, it would renew the Diego Garcia lease, set to expire in 2036.
Chagossians “have never asked for closure of the US base,” Bancoult says. “We have asked for cohabitation.” When it comes to the future structure of island government, he is resolute: “Nothing is to be decided without the commitment of Chagossians.”
Yet reservations about what their position would be under Mauritian sovereignty remain among many members of the Chagossian diaspora.
Some point to last year’s amendment to the criminal code of Mauritius to prohibit speaking against its claims of territorial sovereignty.
For Leveque and others, the risk of resulting penalties casts a shadow over the prospect of returning to Mauritius. “I don’t think we’re safe,” she says. “I have so many cousins in Mauritius . . . I haven’t seen my family [there] in nearly 10 years.”