Some tragedies attract a great deal of press and other tragedies appear to be lost in obscurity, for reasons known only to those people who have the choice to talk about something and choose to remain silent and hope it will go away. Among the cases of largely obscure tragedies is the fate of the Chagos Archepelago, a group of islands in the Indian Ocean that have no inhabitants. That’s right, these islands don’t have any people, but not because they are unsuitable for life. Far from it. Rather, they are uninhabited because of the continuing influence of Cold War politics that have turned the island group’s erstwhile inhabitants into among the world’s most obscure refugees this side of the Rohingya . And that is a story worth telling, even if I am repeating myself slightly .
In the 1960’s, the people of the Chagos Islands were unceremoniously kicked out of their home because the United States desired a naval base on its island and apparently wanted a place where there was no one else to complain about its activities. So, Great Britain, being a good ally, found a suitably remote place in the Chagos Islands and deported all of its residents, renaming the territory with a suitably vauge name (the British Indian Ocean Territory) and letting the United States build its base all for a discount on missile sales for its own submarines. And there the matter rested for some time, without a great deal of apparent outrage or attention even in a world where independence movements have attracted a great deal of sympathy.
As has not been an isolated occurrence , the wikileaks scandal has found a way to make obscure international relations problems into more well-known issues by bringing these matters into public scrutiny. In this particular case, there have been public inquiries as well as a promised visit to the International Court of Justice in the Hague over the fate of the Chagos Islands. According to leaked documents, an American diplomat asked about the long-term security of American interests in the Chagos Islands and a British counterpart stated confidently that after the United Kingdom had made the place a marine reserve and that there was no human footprint or “man Fridays” on the island . I like Robinson Crusoe as much as the next man , and find Friday to be a deeply sympathetic character, but probably the expression was made as an ethnic slur, and one that is likely to infuriate the inhabitants of the Chagos Islands (even in their present refugee state) as well as their related peoples.
Even if the United Kingdom fails in its attempt to secure its hold over the Chagos Islands (and the United States and United Kingdom’s current agreement only lasts until the end of next year, after which there must be an extension or renegotiation), the drama of these islands seems likely to continue. Repatriation of the island group’s residents is likely to be a contentious issue, and an expensive one, and possibly embarrassing, depending on what the United States has done with the place over the past four fifty years. Likewise, the eventual fate of the islands remains unclear, as Mautius has a claim over the island group and the group might have its own ambitions of independence as well, despite their small size. It would appear that for all of the obscurity of the region, the Chagos Islands have a firm place as one of the many points of great contention and conflict in this world, even if few people have ever heard of the place. It does seem as if it will be a difficult matter for the Chagos Islanders to return home, and make it their own again, after the long exile and the obscurity of their fate thus far. May their fate and their hopes not be forgotten.