Friday, 27 April 2018

Make Some Noise

Richard Vaughan writes:

Children of exiled Chagos Islanders raised in the UK face being split from their parents and deported as part of the Home Office’s crackdown on illegal immigration. 

The Chagossian people were forcibly exiled from their island home in the Indian Ocean by the British Government in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which leased the islands to the US military to build a base there. 

The inhabitants were sent to the Commonwealth nations of Mauritius or the Seychelles and legislation was subsequently passed to give native Chagossians and the first generation born in exile British citizenship. 

Nothing has changed 

But crucially their children have been denied the same rights. It has meant children who came to the UK as dependants of Chagos Islanders with British citizenship since 2003 are viewed as migrants from Mauritius and the Seychelles once they turn 18. 

Families now face charges of around £10,000 to try to gain British citizenship for their children. Dieuma Soopramanien, a Chagossian woman in the UK trying to get citizenship for her children, said: “Fifty years ago they separated us. Now they are doing it again. Nothing has changed. I’ve lost £6,000 to the Home Office just trying to keep my kids in the country.” 

It comes as the Home Office is under fire following the Windrush scandal and the “hostile environment” that attempted to create for illegal immigrants in the UK. Their plight will be raised by Tory MP for Crawley Henry Smith in the Commons today, who is due to give the second reading of his private members’ bill, which would give them an opportunity to secure British Overseas Territories Citizen status. 

We owe it to them 

“Our nation’s treatment of the Chagossian people is a blight on our country’s conscience—one that we can start to put right by helping these Britons all to become British overseas territories citizens,” Mr Smith said. “We owe this to these people.” 

Earlier this month, shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry urged the Prime Minister to support other Commonwealth members in their efforts to right the “historic wrong” of the Chagos Islands. 

The Home Office was contacted for comment.

I bet it was. But thankfully, we have Benjamin Zephaniah instead:

I am the Windrush generation. I didn’t travel from Jamaica holding my mother or father’s hand – but I travelled as a seed on those ships. So, when we talk about the Windrush generation we are talking about my contemporaries, my relatives, my school friends. I feel their pain. And I know that I would feel it even more if it wasn’t for the fact that I was born in England.

The Windrush scandal – which really is a scandal – is one that has brought into sharp focus the difficulties many people face as they try to build a life in the UK. Lives that they have been building for more than half a century in some cases.

When I hear the story of the father who missed his daughter’s wedding, I feel a fire burning in the pit of my stomach. When I hear of a mother mourning her son who she saw driven to death by the stress caused to him by the Home Office, that fire burns more, because I know that could have been me, and that could have been my mother.

Yes, the Chagossian community is relatively small. Roughly 3,000 live in the UK and several thousand more live abroad, which might be why they are often overlooked – but their story is equally tragic and has echoes of the tragedy of the Windrush generation. 

The Chagos Islands are a UK Overseas Territory, like the Falklands or Gibraltar. They are members of the Commonwealth – that place where equality and democracy are promoted. That place where we are supposed to take care of each other. 

But in the 1960s and 70s, the islands’ inhabitants were violently removed by the UK government and discarded on the docks of Mauritius and the Seychelles. The UK government had leased Diego Garcia, the archipelago’s largest island, to the US military. 

Since being forced out of their homeland, the Chagossians have faced extreme racism and poverty. Many valiantly fought for their right to return, and continue to do so, but so far they have been unsuccessful. The campaign continues.

But today, many Chagossians in the UK face an altogether different challenge. Marie Milaze, 44, was born in Mauritius to Chagossian parents. Following a legal change in 2002 she, like all the first generation of Chagossians born in exile, was given British nationality. She has three children stuck in Mauritius, and now lives in Crawley with her son, Mervin. But Mervin, who has just turned 18, could face deportation if Marie cannot raise the money for a visa. 

The Home Office is asking for £2,500 for his initial visa – never mind the cost of obtaining citizenship by “naturalisation”, which could set her back more than £10,000 over five years. Outrageous, I say. She and her children have done no crime. They did not ask to be taken from their homeland and made stateless. 

Marie’s story is sadly typical. Many Chagossian families do not meet the income criteria to bring children with them and even the few who do struggle with immigration fees. For half a century the Chagos Islanders have suffered at the hands of the UK government. That they are being punished for trying to build a life in the country that caused them this hardship is frankly insulting.

Of course, the legal reasons for the problems experienced by the Chagossians are different to those of Windrush – but there are a number of striking similarities. Both groups are now trying to live and contribute to a country that has already caused many of them – and their ancestors – a level of hardship unimaginable to most. Both are now facing deportation for doing so.

The UK’s largest Chagossian community is in Crawley, West Sussex. In January, the local MP Henry Smith tabled a bill that seeks to allow anyone of Chagossian descent to register as a British national. It is not the revolution I would like – but I and the community have seen in the bill a glimmer a hope. “It will not solve everything. But it would make my life so much easier,” says Marie.

The bill is unlikely to become law unless the government supports it. The people of the Chagos – like those of the Windrush generation – have been treated with utter contempt by their government. As the government begins to make amends with those of the Windrush generation, the home secretary has a unique opportunity to show some integrity and some willing – and stop the horrific second exile of the Chagos Islanders. 

Make some noise for the Windrush generation, then make more noise for the Chagos Islanders, because none of us are free until all of us are free.

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