From a one-story house with mustard-colored walls off a bustling road in Mauritius, Olivier Bancoult is defying the U.K. by plotting a return to the tiny tropical island where he was born.
A 55-year-old native of the remote Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean, Bancoult heads a group of mostly elderly women who, like him, were expelled shortly after Britain bought the archipelago from its then-colony Mauritius in 1965. His campaign has taken him to London and the United Nations and secured him a meeting with Pope Francis.
As a young boy, Bancoult and the other roughly 2,000 inhabitants of Chagos were deported to the U.K., Mauritius and Seychelles. The new owners then gassed the residents’ pets, closed the coconut plantations and allowed the U.S. to build a military base on the biggest island of Diego Garcia. With the exception of the air force base seen as crucial for U.S. operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan, the U.K. has kept the islands free of inhabitants by declaring an area the size of France a protected marine reserve in 2010. Only a few people are allowed to visit briefly each year, and they can’t stay overnight.
“My mother died here, without ever having been back to her home,” Bancoult said in an interview. “I won’t let that happen to me.”
At a time when politicians in Britain are evoking its imperial past as the U.K. prepares to quit the European Union, the country is under international pressure to give up its last African colony, a sign of its diminished global importance when only 80 years ago it held sway over almost a quarter of the world’s population.
“What Britain is facing today is having to confront its colonial past, whether it’s Chagos or Northern Ireland,” said Philippe Sands, a London-based lawyer who serves as Counsel for Mauritius. “It’s the story of its empire coming back to haunt it.”
In February, the International Court of Justice ruled the 1965 excision of the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius unlawful because it wasn’t based on the free will of the people concerned. In an advisory opinion, the court stated that the U.K. has an obligation to end its administration of the archipelago “as rapidly as possible.”
Then, in May, the UN General Assembly affirmed the ruling by an overwhelming majority, with 116 member states voting in favor of a resolution setting a six-month deadline for the U.K. to withdraw. Only six members rejected the proposal — the U.S., Hungary, Israel and Australia among them. The deadline expires on Nov. 22.
“A UN General Assembly resolution doesn’t mean you have to comply, but obviously it’s very embarrassing for them,” said David Brewster, a senior research fellow at the National Security College in Canberra, Australia. “That’s what happens when you alienate your allies.”
At the end of his September visit to Mauritius, Pope Francis chided the U.K., saying it needs to respect the wishes of international institutions.
But things are unlikely to change overnight.
The U.K. argues it can’t give up the Chagos Islands for security reasons. It doesn’t recognize Mauritius’s claim over what it calls the British Indian Ocean Island Territory, or BIOT, a spokesperson for the U.K.’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office said in an email.
“The joint U.K.–U.S. defense facility on the British Indian Ocean Territory helps to keep people in Britain and around the world safe from terrorism, organized crime and piracy,” the spokesperson said. “The status of BIOT as a U.K. territory is essential to the value of the joint facility and our shared interests -– an arrangement that cannot be replicated.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has repeatedly said the U.K. should respect the international court’s opinion, cooperate with Mauritius and ensure the people of Chagos can return home.
Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth, who won an election last week, has vowed to pursue the decolonization process with “unflinching determination.” But he’s also tried to allay concerns about the future of Diego Garcia, saying he has no objections to the base and is ready to enter into a long-term arrangement with the U.S.
Today, the Mauritius government is redrawing its national maps and has set money aside to help the Chagossians prepare for an eventual return. The post office even issued special stamps to celebrate the court ruling.
Still, organizing and funding the relocation of as many as 9,000 people to an archipelago that’s more than 1,100 miles away and has no schools, hospitals or any other public services will cost significantly more than the $1.4 million the government has set aside.
That’s why there are “extra-parliamentarian groups in Mauritius that question the government’s ability to administer the Chagos Archipelago,” political analyst Catherine Boudet said by phone from the capital, Port Louis.
Bancoult is confident the returning residents can make a decent living, mainly from tourism and fishing. And he’s planning to charter a boat for their return when the day comes.
“There are already people living there who weren’t born there,” he said, referring to the foreign employees at the military base. “We’ll bring our birth certificate to show that we have a right to live there too.”