Friday, November 12, 2004

House Points

Today's column from Liberal Democrat News.

Chagos chaos

The Chagos archipelago lies in the Indian Ocean, 1000 miles south of Cape Comorin. Horley is a town in Surrey, now rather dominated by Gatwick Airport.

They were brought together twice last week. On Wednesday in Westminster Hall and again the following day in a Commons adjournment debate. To understand why, you need to know a bit of history.

Until 1965 the Chagos Islands belonged to Mauritius. They had been inhabited since the eighteenth century by the descendants of African slaves and Indian plantation workers. People lived a self-sufficient life as fishermen and farmers in a landscape of rich vegetation and soaring palms.

But the Americans wanted a military base in the Indian Ocean and chose Diego Garcia, the largest of the Chagos Islands. So the group was hived off when Mauritius won independence and Diego Garcia leased to the US.

The Americans also wanted the islands cleared. Obligingly, Harold Wilson’s government invented the fiction that the islanders were merely itinerant workers and expelled them all. Their animals were slaughtered and they were shipped off to be dumped at the quayside in Mauritius.

In 2000 the High Court in London ruled that the government had acted unlawfully and that the Chagos islanders should be allowed to return. "It is clear from some of the disclosed documents that … the official zeal in implementing those removal policies went beyond any proper limits."

But this year the British government issued two Orders in Council overturning that judgement.

I didn’t know they could do that either. Isn’t the British constitution wonderful?

Then the islanders began to arrive at Gatwick. They have the right to settle here, but few resources, and councils have no duty to house them. For a while those islanders camped at the airport, but eventually some authorities took pity and found them temporary accommodation. Which is where Horley comes into the story.

Local Tory MPs have taken up the case – perhaps because refugees who want to go home are the kind they like best. But it is legitimate to ask why local councils should foot the bill for government duplicity.

And the whole sad story reminds us that there are no depths to which a Labour prime minister will not descend in his eagerness to suck up to the Americans.

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