The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Human Rights Watch demands reparations from Britain, U.S. for exiling Chagos islanders

The Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean. (Anne Sheppard/Pictures From History/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)
8 min

More than 50 years after the British government secretly planned, with the United States, to force a mass deportation of the Indigenous people of the Chagos Archipelago, Human Rights Watch released a scathing report Wednesday demanding that both governments pay reparations to the people forced off their homeland and allow them an “unfettered permanent return.”

In the report, Human Rights Watch also demanded that King Charles III issue a full apology to the Chagossian people for “the crimes and other abuses committed against them by the United Kingdom, as called for by Chagossians, and reiterate that the UK government will guarantee full reparations for the harms they suffered and that such abuses will never be repeated.”

At the time of the forced exodus, the Chagos Archipelago — a collection of islands and atolls in the Indian Ocean — were considered a British colony. In the 1960s, according to the report, the British government agreed to allow the United States to build a military base on Diego Garcia, which was then the largest inhabited island in the archipelago.

Under a clandestine plan, the people on Diego Garcia were forcibly removed. The British government then divided the Chagos Archipelago, splitting it off from the island of Mauritius to form a new British colony, which would be called the British Indian Ocean Territory. At the time, according to Human Rights Watch, Britain falsely claimed that there were no people living permanently on Chagos.

Sign up for the About US newsletter to get more stories on race and identity

The Chagossian people are descendants of enslaved Africans forcibly brought from the continent and Madagascar to the Chagos Islands, where they were forced to work on coconut plantations overseen by British and French enslavers. Over the next hundreds of years, the Chagossians would become a distinct people, creating their own Chagossian Creole language, culture and music. The people of Chagos have fought over the years for justice and a right to return to their homeland.

From 1965 to 1973, the British and U.S. governments forced the displacement of the entire population of the inhabited Chagos — including in Diego Garcia, Peros Banhos and Salomon, the report said. The people were taken to Mauritius or Seychelles, where they ended up living in abject poverty, without adequate food, housing and jobs.

“The UK and U.S. governments treated them as a people without rights, who they could permanently displace from their homeland without consultation or compensation to make way for a military base,” according to the report.

“The United States, with the United Kingdom, instigated, planned and was jointly responsible for the forced displacement of the Chagossian people, a crime against humanity,” said Clive Baldwin, lead author of the report. “The U.S. administration could start righting these wrongs today by publicly announcing it supports the right of all Chagossians to return to all the islands.”

The U.S. base on Diego Garcia continues to employ people from around the world, the report said, but Chagossians say they don’t believe they can work there because of a prohibition on families joining them.

Tiny Mauritius learns the limits of Biden’s invocation of the international ‘rules-based order’

Baldwin said reparations would mean a right to return and “full financial compensation for all the harms inflicted on them.” The United States, he said, “should come clean about its role in the last 60 years in the forced displacement of the Chagossians from their homeland, and in preventing their return, by publishing all relevant documents.”

On Wednesday afternoon, a State Department spokesperson said the State Department is aware of the Human Rights Watch report concerning the treatment of the Chagossians in the 1960 and 1970s.

“The United States remains steadfast in its respect for and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals around the world and acknowledges the challenges faced by Chagossian communities,” the spokesperson said. “The manner in which Chagossians were removed is regrettable.”

The spokesperson added: “And we welcome the advocacy of Human Rights Watch to promote respect for human rights globally.”

In January, Erin M. Barclay, the acting assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, responded to Human Rights Watch in a letter but did not address the demand for reparations and a right for Chagossians to return to their homeland.

“The United States acknowledges the challenges faced by Chagossian communities,” Barclay said in the letter dated Jan. 19. “We appreciate the United Kingdom’s efforts to improve the livelihoods of Chagossians wherever they live, including its commitment to an approximately 40 million [pound] support package.”

The three-paragraph letter, which did not explain the mass deportation of Chagossians, stated that “over the years the UK has provided educational and community support, sponsored heritage trips by Chagossians to the islands and revised nationality laws while assisting Chagossians pursuing British citizenship and opportunities to build a future in the United Kingdom should they wish to do so.”

The U.S. government, human rights officials said, ignored in its response the crimes Human Rights Watch documented against the Chagossians. Instead, they said, the State Department praised the British government.

Tanya Greene, head of Human Rights Watch’s U.S. program, said Washington should acknowledge its role in the forcible removal of the Chagossian people.

“The Biden administration has the opportunity to finally take a step in the right direction and acknowledge the fact that the African ancestry of the Chagossians is part of why the U.S. treated them as if they could be exiles thousands of miles away from home, and kept there indefinitely,” Greene said. “Keep in mind, this removal happened recently, in the 1960s — and not the 1760s. The U.S. benefited and continues to benefit from the forced removal of the people of Chagos to build a U.S. military base on their land.”

Greene said the Chagos people should be consulted about the generational harm. “These Indigenous people have the right to self-determination,” Greene said. “They are due restitution, the right of return, compensation for their losses, and a guarantee of non-repetition. If luxury yachts from all over the world can dock in Chagos, the people of Chagos can claim their homeland.”

In a letter to Human Rights Watch, Zac Goldsmith, Britain’s minister of state for overseas territories, commonwealth and energy, wrote, “The remaining Chagossians were removed from BIOT,” the British Indian Ocean Territory, “in the late 1960s and 1970s and the UK has made clear its deep regret about the manner in which this happened.”

In 1973, Goldsmith said, Britain paid the Mauritian government 650,000 pounds “to meet the cost of resettling those displaced from the islands.” That money was later distributed among Chagossian families living in Mauritius. Britain paid an additional 4 million pounds to settle “claims arising from the resettlement process.”

Goldsmith said that over the years, the British government has conducted feasibility studies, ultimately deciding “against resettlement on the grounds of feasibility, defence and security interests and the cost to the British taxpayer. There remains no right of abode in BIOT.”

Human Rights Watch argues that the U.S. and British governments paid “considerable sums, including sums in kind,” to build the U.S. base on Diego Garcia.

“The UK financially compensated the Mauritian government for the loss of the Chagos territory,” according to the report. “The coconut plantation company owners were bought out and compensated by the U.K. In return for the base, the U.S. gave the U.K. a substantial discount on nuclear weapons it sold to the U.K. But the Chagossians, who had suffered the international crime of forced displacement, initially received no compensation.”

After lawsuits and demonstrations led by Chagossian women, Britain paid the Mauritius government small sums for Chagossians in Mauritius. “But the U.K. government required Chagossians who received payments to sign, or thumbprint, a document purportedly giving up their right to return to Chagos,” according to the report. “Those who signed it said that it was written only in English, a language unfamiliar to many of them, with legal terms that they did not understand nor had explained to them. Chagossians exiled to Seychelles received nothing.”

Rosemond Saminaden, who had been forced to leave Peros Banhos in 1973, said in the report that people were told to leave the island because it had been sold. They were promised houses and work in Mauritius.

“So, we had no choice but to get on the boat,” the report quoted Saminaden as saying. “Those promises were, however, lies. We arrived in Mauritius to find that no such arrangements had been made for us. The captain of the boat … was so distressed by our conditions that he threatened to take us right back to Peros Banhos because he had never been involved in transporting people who had nowhere to go.”

Saminaden said they slept on the boat in the harbor for three days.

A Chagos plantation company owner gave her and a few others about $2 each.

“Immigration officials then offered us an uncompleted abandoned estate occupied by animals,” Saminaden recalled. “We refused this and then they took us to the dock workers estate where we lived for 15 years. It was only slightly better than the cow shed — it was one bedroom for my entire family to live in. But it was rent free, and we had no money.”