When a student, I vividly remember reading about the Chagossian people’s plight. It was in a book which detailed the various remaining UK overseas territories, and as I was reading the British Indian Ocean Territory chapter I could scarcely believe the account in front of me.
The Chagos islanders were forcibly exiled from their homeland by Orders in Council, bypassing Parliament, almost half a century ago during Harold Wilson’s premiership to make way for a UK/US military base. Vital though our defence is, it should not result in locals being permanently and totally evicted.
Anyone not aware of the Chagos story would be forgiven for reacting with shock at finding out that the removal from their homeland took place so recently in our nation’s history. Far from occurring hundreds of years ago during a colonial era, it is an event which is in the living memory of those affected and with consequences still being felt to this day.
Crawley is today home to perhaps the largest Chagossian population in the world. It is my privilege to serve this community in Parliament and since my first election to the House of Commons in 2010 I have continued to raise the necessity of their right to return to their home islands. As well as raising this in the Commons and during debates in Westminster Hall, including with David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions, and welcoming constituents to London to hand in petitions to 10 Downing Street, the call for justice goes on.
The motion I will introduce in Parliament on Tuesday 16th January, the British Indian Ocean Territory (Citizenship) Bill, focuses on improving conditions and restoring rights for Chagossians in Crawley and throughout Britain.
Current legislation assumes only one generation of Chagossians will be born in exile. While many members of this community born in exile have received British citizenship, their children have not.
When these families have come to the UK their children are treated as immigrants like any other by the Home Office. As such, they are subject to the usual financial costs and administrative implications.
Of course, had the population not been exiled almost 50 years ago, all born on the islands would already have British citizen status by natural right.
My Bill will not provide special privileges to the Chagossian people, but would seek to reinstate citizenship rights for descendants of those who were exiled, whose forced removal from their homeland meant that the ability to acquire such status was also taken away.
This week, Parliament has an opportunity to take a first step in ensuring that anyone of Chagossian descent – defined as people who can prove that they have one family member in the ascending line born on what is the British Indian Ocean Territory – becomes eligible to register as a British citizen.
Much is made of the often adversarial nature of our parliament. While Prime Minister’s Questions is an important part of our accountable democracy, the work that MPs undertake on a cross-party basis does not always receive the same coverage.
My bill has the support of MPs from all seven parties represented in the House of Commons. Such cross-party working is normal in the Chagos All-Party Parliamentary Group, of which it is my privilege to serve as a Vice Chair, and where I have seen at first-hand how this issue continues to cross traditional political boundaries. As democrats we seek to right a wrong done unto fellow Britons.
Henry Smith MP
Henry Smith is Member of Parliament for Crawley and a Vice Chair of the Chagos All-Party Parliamentary Group