Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Seventh Report

British Indian Ocean Territory (Chagos Islands)


458.  The British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) lies about 1770 km east of Mahe (the main island of the Seychelles). The Territory, an archipelago of 55 islands, covers some 54,400 square kilometres of ocean. The islands have a land area of only 60 square kilometres and 698 kilometres of coastline. Diego Garcia, the largest and most southerly island, is 44 square kilometres. The climate is hot, humid and moderated by trade winds. The terrain is flat and low and most areas do not exceed two metres in elevation.


459.  The islands were known to Arab sailors in early centuries. Diego Garcia got its name from the Portuguese who, in the sixteenth century, were the first Europeans to discover the Islands although they did not settle on them.

460.  In 1776 French colonists were permitted to develop coconut plantations on the Islands on the condition that they also established a leper colony there. They brought in slaves from Madagascar, Mozambique and Senegal. When the British took over the Islands in 1835 after the Napoleonic Wars, the slaves were freed. These slaves developed their own economy exporting coconut oil, which was much in demand in the 19th and early 20th centuries in Europe and the Indian subcontinent. They brought in bonded labourers and their families from Mauritius and the Seychelles.

461.  The Chagossian people (also known as the Ilois) developed a distinctive Creole language and their own culture. Workers were paid mostly in rice, but also in cash. The social system was matriarchal (almost certainly a legacy of the leper colony, since women survive leprosy better than men). The majority of the Islanders were Christian. As the population grew, the Outer Islands were also settled, although visits were only occasional as the smaller islands are all more than 100 miles from Diego Garcia. There was a schoolhouse on Diego Garcia but little if any formal education.[688]

462.  The Islanders were forcibly removed from BIOT by the UK in the late 1960s after a decision was taken to "lease" one of the islands of the archipelago, Diego Garcia, to the United States (see paras 43 to 47, Chapter 2, Part One for further details of recent history and legal challenges).

Evidence received

463.  The Committee received submissions from 18 individuals or organisations regarding the British Indian Ocean Territory, including the Chagos Refugees Group, the UK Chagos Support Association, the Chagos Islands Community Association, the Diego Garcian Society, Reprieve and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition.

464.  The Committee heard oral evidence from Mr Louis Bancoult, leader and Mr Richard Gifford, legal representative, Chagos Refugees Group.

Key recommendations

  • We conclude that there is a strong moral case for the UK permitting and supporting a return to the British Indian Ocean Territory for the Chagossians. We note the recent publication of resettlement proposals for the Outer Islands by Chagos Refugees campaigners. The FCO has argued that such a return would be unsustainable, but we find these arguments less than convincing. However, the FCO has also told us that the US has stated that a return would pose security risks to the base on Diego Garcia. We have therefore decided to consider the implications of a resettlement in greater detail. (para 69)
  • On Diego Garcia itself, we conclude that it is deplorable that previous US assurances about rendition flights have turned out to be false. The failure of the United States Administration to tell the truth resulted in the UK Government inadvertently misleading our Select Committee and the House of Commons. We intend to examine further the extent of UK supervision of US activities on Diego Garcia, including all flights and ships serviced from Diego Garcia. (para 70)
  • We recommend that British Overseas Territories Citizenship should be extended to third generation descendants of exiled Chagossians. We also recommend that the Government provide more guidance to those Chagossians wishing to resettle in the UK. (para 74)
  • We conclude that any resolution to the UK's sovereignty dispute with Mauritius over the British Indian Ocean Territory must take Chagossians' wishes into account. (para 419)

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