Henry Smith MP speech in the Westminster Hall debate on the British Indian Ocean Territory and the Chagos Islands

Full text of Henry Smith MP's speech in the Westminster Hall debate on the  British Indian Ocean Territory and the Chagos Islands on 25th October 2016.

Henry Smith (Crawley)

It is a pleasure to serve once again under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. As a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the Chagos islands, I thank and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on securing this important debate.

About three decades ago, I remember reading a book that outlined, chapter by chapter, all the remaining British overseas territories, many and varied as they were. When I came to the chapter on the Chagos islands, I could barely believe what I was reading. As recently as the late 1960s, through Orders in Council, the then Wilson Administration forcibly evicted the people of the Chagos islands from their homeland, and they were dispersed, mainly to Mauritius, but also to the Seychelles and other parts of the world. It was a story that I would have expected to have read from 150 or 200 years ago, a colonial account, but it was just within my lifetime.

Little did I think that 20 years later, I would be personally involved in the situation. I was leader of West Sussex County Council, an area that contained Gatwick airport, the main route from Port Louis in Mauritius, when many Chagos islanders who had been exiled to that country started arriving at Gatwick, and we needed to house them and support those British citizens coming to the UK mainland. Since then, I have had the privilege of representing, in my constituency of Crawley, the largest Chagos islander community in the UK, and possibly one of the largest populations anywhere in the world. There are many more Chagos islanders in Crawley than there are, sadly, on the Chagos islands themselves; I do not think that any indigenous islanders are permitted on the islands.

Over the years, we have heard excuse after excuse for why Chagos islanders cannot have right of return to the British Indian Ocean Territory. We have heard arguments that the US objects on military grounds to the islanders’ presence, yet there are US air bases in this country and around the world where civilians live in close proximity, and indeed, as we have heard, work there. Why should it be any different for the British Indian Ocean Territory?

Sir Henry Bellingham

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of any examples from his constituency of Chagossians who have applied for jobs on Diego Garcia, or any opportunities that the Americans have publicised and  made available? Is there any appetite among the Chagossians in his constituency and elsewhere to secure some of those jobs?

Henry Smith

I thank the former Minister for overseas territories for the attention that he has always given the issue. I can answer the last part first by saying that yes, the Chagos islanders would very much like to live and work in their homeland, but I am not aware of any employment opportunities being offered by the US authorities or the British authorities, who are also present on the island.

Other excuses have been used over the years, including environmental reasons such as sea level rise. There is some evidence to suggest that due to the uniqueness of the ocean topography there, in a rare exception, sea levels are falling slightly around the Chagos islands. During the devastating Indian ocean tsunami on Boxing day more than 10 years ago, the Chagos islands were not affected by the tsunami risk. Then, as we rehearsed a few moments ago, there are the arguments involving the marine protected area, but it does not extend right up to the shore—there is a limit, three miles out, I believe—and subsistence fishing is allowed, so it is not really a reason either.

Chris Bryant

I still want to nail down this particular issue. I have never thought that the marine protection zone played any role in whether people could or could not be resettled in the Chagos islands. The overwhelming view that I heard from Chagossians was that they wanted the marine protection zone to be put in place, for the protection of their own future livelihood.

Henry Smith

I think that the marine protection zone is a distraction, and another reason why there should not be a bar to resettlement.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Romford mentioned in his opening remarks, we are now coming up to a break clause in what is essentially an agreement between the United Kingdom and the United States about the future use of Diego Garcia, which occupies a strategic location. It was strategic during the cold war and the various Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, and given the ongoing turmoil in the middle east, it remains so. It is in Washington’s interest to continue to have an air base there. We have only until the end of the year, just over two months, to sort out the issue, which is why this debate is so important. We are in a strong position to set conditions for the United States. If it wants to renew its military presence on Diego Garcia for a further 20 years, the US should help us facilitate a right of return for the Chagos islanders.

Bob Stewart

How many people are we talking about when we talk about those who wish to return to the Chagos archipelago? How many people are there already—I think it is about 3,000 maximum, and they are transitory—and how many people from there want to go back?

Henry Smith

I am grateful for the interest that my hon. Friend is showing in this debate. I have yet to meet a Chagos islander or somebody of Chagos descent who does not want the right of return. I think hundreds of people, or possibly a few thousand, want to return. However, the important thing is the principle of being allowed to return. As for the makeup of the current population on Diego Garcia, it is of course US and British military personnel, as well as a lot of Filipinos who work on the base in a service capacity.

Andrew Rosindell

Perhaps my hon. Friend can enlighten me because I am puzzled by this. The former Minister said the Americans absolutely object to Chagossians going there, but Filipinos go there. How can that be right? I do not understand what the problem is. As it is their homeland, the Chagossians are surely the right people to help on the airbase. This puzzles me.

Henry Smith

I am as perplexed as my hon. Friend. It is one of those appalling ironies that appear time and again when we debate this sorry matter in British history. I am a patriotic person, but on this issue the British Governments of many persuasions over many decades should be ashamed.

I do congratulate the Government on convening an independent commission on the right of return, which has concluded that return is possible. Mention has been made of the international aid budget. The costs of return have been estimated at well below £100 million, which is a small fraction of the overseas aid budget. As my hon. Friend the Member for Romford says, the British overseas territories have first call on that budget.

In conclusion, there is no reason why Chagos islanders should not have the right of return. We cannot turn back time and we cannot undo the past four and a half decades, but we can put things right now. Time is running out with regard to the leverage that we have with the United States and their lease renewal, so I therefore implore the British Government to do the honourable, decent, British thing and allow these British citizens to return to the British Indian Ocean Territory.