David Snoxell is Co-ordinator of the Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group.
In December 2013, my piece on ConservativeHome discussed whether the Government would make a decision on resettlement in time for the election. In March 2010, William Hague had declared in a letter to a member of the public: “I can assure you that if elected to serves as the next British Government we will work to ensure a fair settlement of this long standing dispute”.
Or as Nick Clegg put it in April 2010 in an email from his office, “the Government has a moral responsibility to allow these people to at last return”.
The Coalition Government started with good intentions, the Foreign Secretary telling a constituent in July 2010 that he would look at the situation over the next few months and that it appeared that the best solution would be for the Chagossians to return to the outer islands. This was followed two months later by a letter to a constituent from Vince Cable in which he announced:
“I remain committed to ensuring that the plight of the Islanders is resolved in a just and fair way. The Liberal Democrats have actively supported their cause in the past and we will continue to aid their campaign to see justice done. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, is also committed to a fair settlement of this long-standing dispute. Steps have already been taken to ensure their return”.
What then are the chances of the Government honouring its commitment before the next election?
Since the publication in November of the draft KPMG feasibility study, commissioned by the Foreign Secretary in 2013, the chances are much better. Although the final report will not be issued until the end of January it is clear that KPMG were not convinced by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) arguments against resettlement, deployed over a decade – US opposition, defence, security, legal, environmental, climate change, rising sea levels, increased storminess and conservation.
Clearly the US has no objection to a limited resettlement even on Diego Garcia, providing security is safe guarded. The study is therefore based on the assumption that resettlement is feasible.
But there remains the cost hurdle. The KPMG estimate for the only practical option, which is a pilot resettlement on Diego Garcia for 150, is too high. Last month, the Chagos Islands All-Party Parliamentary Group, of which I am the Co-ordinator, wrote to the new Foreign Secretary and KPMG to suggest ways of halving their estimate of £64m over three years.
The Group argues that there needs to be a gradual approach towards resettlement starting with about 50 volunteers, initially without families, which can be built up as and when it proves successful. Members suggest temporary rather than permanent accommodation with facilities akin to the living conditions of the Filipinos working on the neighbouring US base.
The KPMG estimates are based on UK housing standards, which was not what the Chagossians asked for. Costs could be much reduced by sourcing materials and infrastructure in the region. The Group calls for DFID expertise and involvement, especially as the assistance needs of the Overseas Territories are a first call on the Aid budget. The costs need not fall solely to the British tax payer – the FCO should seek funding from the US, EU (EDF), UN Agencies, international NGOs and the private sector.
They will be pushing at an open door. Some years ago the EU Commission promised to consider funding once the right to return had been restored. Given their complicity in the expulsion of the Chagossians, the US will surely want to help and could do so in kind by offering facilities and support from their base. The APPG notes that employment opportunities exist on the base, in heritage restoration, conservation, monitoring of the Marine Protected Area, scientific research and environmental work for BIOT, along with small scale agriculture and fisheries.
KPMG has received comments on the draft from interested parties, not least the Chagossian community whom they are to consult again this month. So we can expect the final report to be more flexible and imaginative than the current draft. Hague, as Leader of the Commons, has already indicated that the House will want to discuss it.
Obviously, to be of any use, a debate should precede ministerial decisions on the report. So the timetable is pointing towards a debate in the first half of February, followed by a decision on resettlement in March, just in time for the election. The APPG proposal is a compromise, the lowest common denominator, which all “stakeholders” – the Chagossian groups and their worldwide support network, FCO officials, conservationists, scientists, human rights advocates and the US – should be able to accept.
Sadly, the number of Chagossians who were expelled between 1968-73 continues to diminish. 2015 will be the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of BIOT and the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta which provides that no “free man” shall be exiled. There could be no better way of celebrating the freedoms and the Rule of Law enshrined in Magna Carta than by allowing the Chagossians, who are also British, to return home.
This would be welcomed by the UN, African Union, Commonwealth and international community, and would strengthen the credibility of the UK’s promotion of international human rights.