REPORTER: Nick Lazaredes

Last month, at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, the Chagos Islanders prepared for what they hope will be their last legal hurdle in their struggle to return home. But even though they've won court judgements three times before, British Government appeals have prevented them from going back to live on the islands from where they were removed. Now some of their British supporters are getting worried about the outcome.

MAN: I think it's brilliant we've got as far as we have at the moment. I'm dubious whether the judiciary here is independent any longer. I don't know whether we're going to win.

It was in 2002 that I first learned of this shameful episode in British colonial history. They were exiled from their island paradise more than 35 years ago. When I first met the Chagos Islanders, they were living in poverty on the island of Mauritius. My guide to this population of over 3,000 people was their leader, Olivier Bancoult.


OLIVIER BANCOULT, CHAGOS REFUGEES GROUP: What we want - to be able to return back to our native land and to have a wonderful life, like other people.

Descended from slaves, the islanders had lived for generations on the Chagos archipelago. But in the late '60s, they were removed from their island en masse to make way for the US military air and naval base on the island of Diego Garcia.

ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE: Diego Garcia isn't near anywhere. 1,200 miles from India, 2,000 miles from east Africa and the Persian Gulf, it's remoteness which has made this ragged horseshoe of coral so strategically important.

The base on Diego Garcia is regarded as the jewel in the crown for the US military. Afghanistan and Iraq were bombed from here, and its location makes it ideal for keeping Iran in check. Part of its appeal is because it's the only US military base without an adjacent civilian population. As British Government documents show, clearing out the civilians was achieved with the whisk of pen and a clear dose of contempt.

ARCHIVE: "Unfortunately, along with the birds, go some few Tarzans and Men Fridays whose origins are obscure and who are hopefully being wished onto Mauritius. D.A. Greenhill."

Indeed, soon the islanders had all been wished onto Mauritius and abandoned.

THERESE NESTOR, (Translation): I know where the best fishing spots on Peros Banhos are. Fish big as that.

When I first met Therese Nestor in 2002, she was barely surviving. She spent her days dreaming about returning to her island of Peros Banhos in the Chagos archipelago.

THERESE NESTOR, (Translation): When I was on the island, I was always on the move. I had my knife to go fishing and carried a basket. I had enough to eat. No worries at all. I ate well. But here...there's only rice to eat and your eyes pop out like periwinkles on rocks.

Tragically, Therese died a year after I filmed with her. She would never see her island again. But five years on, and after winning a series of legal battles in Britain's High Court, the remaining Chagos Islanders are edging closer to the dream of returning home.

INGRID: We call upon the people of the United Kingdom, the global African community, and all those who respect justice, to support us in our campaign to win our freedom.

The courts first ruled in 2001 that the islanders' removal was illegal. But the Blair Government hit back using a legal loophole called the royal prerogative, using extraordinary powers of the Queen to invalidate the islanders' claims. That too was ruled illegal last year, and with their options running out, the British Government is appealing.

OLIVIER BANCOULT: The barrister, the government barrister, tried to explain to the judge the reason why the Queen had the prerogative to remove people. But it seems that the judge is not accepting.

Sensing another court victory, Olivier decided that this time he would bring a large contingent of islanders with him to London to ramp up the pressure.

OLIVIER BANCOULT: This is why we had to travel, and we want to present the physical appearance of the Chagossians - how we are suffering, how we cannot accept that our right is banished. That is why we are here - we just want that we receive the right, as all human beings, to be able to live on his birthplace.

INGRID: Give us back our... Islands! Give us back our... Islands! Diego! Garcia!

Fresh from the court hearing, the islanders braved the English cold to muster a protest opposite the entrance to 10 Downing Street.

OLIVIER BANCOULT: We are here just to demonstrate in a very good way, not to disturb anyone, just to let people know what wrong has been done to us.

Angry at the government's repeated legal stalling, many ordinary Britons have begun supporting the islanders' demands to return home.

REPORTER: Why did you write that?

MAN: Well, because of the enormous injustice done to the Chagossian people. And the fact that the British Government has consistently denied them that justice, and even to this day, the government has appealed the decision of the High Court to try and overcome what is probably one of the grossest injustices that this country has ever seen.

Labor MP Jeremy Corbyn - one of the islanders' strongest allies - says it's clear that Britain is hell-bent on maintaining the strategic status quo on Diego Garcia.

JEREMY CORBYN, LABOR MP: The issue of the use of Diego Garcia for military purposes, for extraordinary rendition flights, and for nuclear-powered submarines to go in and out of it, is, I think, at the heart of the whole thing.

Last year, during a respite in the legal hearings, the British Government gave permission for a small group of Chagossians to revisit their islands. It was an emotionally charged experience. The main purpose of the visit was a pilgrimage to tend to the graves of their family members. Olivier and his mother Rita were there.

OLIVIER BANCOULT: The island has been abandoned, even the church and the graveyard, and she was very upset and very sad of that, because she could not accept that the place where she received her first communion, the place where her parents are buried, is being left abandoned, and she is very upset and very sad at that.

Accompanied by US military officers who monitored their every move, the islanders were only allowed on shore for a matter of hours. And not long after the visit their case was back in the courts again with a fresh challenge from the British Government.

LORD AVEBURY, UK PARLIAMENTARY HUMAN RIGHTS COMMITTEE: I think the matter should rest, both from the Chagossians' point of view, and also from the British taxpayers', because good money is being poured into a fruitless appeal now, and could be another one later on, to deny the rights of these people to go back to their homes.

Lord Avebury, who sits on Britain's parliamentary human rights committee, is one of the islanders' strongest supporters. He believes the islanders will win the latest appeal and says any further efforts by the Blair Government to try and out-manoeuvre them are likely to backfire.

LORD AVEBURY: Jeremy and I both wrote to them after the first decision saying "Don't go to the Court of Appeal because you'll have egg on your face." Now they're going to have egg on their face, with luck, and they don't want to have it again, a second time.

It's quite clear that the reason Britain is prepared to risk egg on its face is Diego Garcia's importance to the American military machine. Until now, the islanders have stated that they will co-exist with the US military base, but their generosity is wearing thin.

OLIVIER BANCOULT: I feel very upset, upset. Why? Because my birthplace is being used to kill innocent people. I personally think it's time for them - instead of just continuing with the bomb - just letting people return back home, and let us take advantage of all the natural resources that we have on our birthplace.

REPORTER: Would you like to see the military base stay, or eventually go?

OLIVIER BANCOULT: Since now, we have never asked for the closure of the US military base, but what we want, to respect our rights.

SONG, (Translation): We are an exiled people. From over there, on the other side. From the Chagos archipelago.

The court's decision is expected within weeks. Even if the islanders win again, the Blair Government seems determined to stop them returning. But islanders say that no amount of court action will deter them from the dream of regaining their island paradise, the only place they call home.

SONG, (Translation): We have no identity. We have no nationality. We are an uprooted people living in abject poverty.




Feature Report: My Island Home

Reporter/Camera
NICK LAZAREDES

Producer
AMOS COHEN

Editor
NICK O’BRIEN

Music
VICKI HANSEN
© 2019 Journeyman Pictures
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