A tale of two islands

The awkward war of words over Gibraltar between Spain and the UK has been escalating from strong words to fishing-boat broadsides to bureaucratic barrages.  There’s even been reports of real gunfire.  It’s not hard to see why the Spanish government has upped the ante after the issue has been smouldering quietly in the background for years.  When a nation’s economy is struggling, nationalism has always been a useful distraction for a populace facing tough times.  Directing hate and fear at a manufactured threat is a sleight of hand trick that has been used by unscrupulous politicians since, well, forever.  Here in the UK all of the main political parties regularly deploy hate propaganda as a tool to attain their goals.  New (relatively so) kid on the block UKIP has learned that lesson particularly well, and has made xenophobia their war cry, albeit dressed up in a spiffing suit and tie.

It’s a sad personality trait of our species that the instinctual tug of tribalism can motivate people more than compassion and rational discourse.

So why is the UK so keen to keep Gibraltar out of Spanish hands?  Is it because of the tactical location of Gibraltar, where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean, is an ideal position for the UK to continue to project a last vestige of military power to protect UK interests abroad?  Could it be because Gibraltar is home to some UK firms who wish to benefit from Gibraltar’s flexible tax regime?  Or is it because some Gibraltarian residents have access to the highest levels of power?  Or could it be, like David Cameron has claimed, to “stand up for the people of Gibraltar”?

If you are a Chagossian from the Chagos islands, this claim will leave a bitter taste.

The Chagos islands are a string of small atolls in the Indian Ocean, south of India, halfway between Africa and Indonesia.  These little dots of green are part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).  But the Queen won’t visit these islands to be showered with petals and receive flowers from excited children waving flags.  No proud British citizens will greet the Queen here with praise and gifts.

Because the people of the Chagos islands aren’t there.

The Chagossians were ‘displaced’ from the islands in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the UK government to make way for a huge US military base on the largest of the Chagos Islands, Diego Garcia.  The location of the islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean makes it a nice launching point for military adventures in the Middle East and Asia.  You may remember Diego Garcia from such japes as extraordinary rendition (i.e. kidnap), torture and bombing raids.

The US military personnel stationed on the island call it ‘Fantasy Island’, such is it’s beauty, surrounded by a warm blue Indian Ocean teeming with marine life.  The UK government has classified it as uninhabitable.

I used the word ‘displaced’ above.  It’s one of those bureaucratic euphemisms that doesn’t really convey what happened, as euphemisms are meant to do.  Not even the word ‘evicted’ does what happened any justice.  It doesn’t paint a picture of people rounded up, taken from their homes with only what they could carry and dumped in foreign lands with no support.  Their livestock and pets killed.  Their homes and boats destroyed.  It doesn’t tell the story of the anguish, pain and tears of losing everything, having a huge part of your identity and culture taken away, a casualty of the continuing great game between nations.  It turns human beings subsequently blighted by poverty, addiction and suicides into un-people.  Such is the cruel reality of an empire which treats other people’s homes as its own assets to take and sell as it pleases.

Many of the Chagos people want to go home.  However, successive British governments, Labour and Conservative, have sought to continue this injustice and refused their return using the courts, Royal Prerogative and even the cynical establishment of a marine protection zone around the islands to ensure that any return would be unsustainable.  Even South Shields’ last MP, David Miliband, couldn’t dredge an ounce of humanity to allow these people back home to rebuild their communities when he served as Foreign Secretary.

The theft of the home of the Chagossians was a crime against humanity, and one of the most shameful episodes in recent British colonial history, along with the abandonment of the Palestinian people to the UN-sanctioned Israel land-grab.  The lease to the Chagos Archipelago ends in 2016, and if the US wants to extend the lease an agreement must be made by the end of 2014.  If David Cameron was really sincere about standing up for people, like those on Gibraltar and the Falklands, then he should be similarly passionate about standing up for the Chagos people, and return them to their home.

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