S1 E10 What can we learn about British citizenship from the Chagos Islanders?
Michaela Benson [MB]: Welcome to “Who do we think we are?”, a podcast exploring some of the forgotten stories of British citizenship. I am your host, Michaela Benson, a sociologist specialising in citizenship, migration and belonging, and professor in public sociology at Lancaster University. Join me over the course of the series as I debunk the taken-for-granted understandings of citizenship and explore how thinking differently about citizenship helps us to make sense of some of the most pressing issues of our times.
Jerome Simon [JS]: Twenty years ago, we had the British Overseas Territories Act, and we thought that was godsent; that it was a really good solution. Twenty years down the line, we realised that quite a few people were left out.
MB: That was Jerome Simon, one of our guests on today's show. He was talking about the campaign that he's involved with, which calls for amendments to the Nationality and Borders Bill to correct the unequal access to British citizenship among Chagos Islanders. And that campaign is called the British Indian Ocean Territory Citizens Campaign. Jerome and our other guest, Rosy Leveque are part of the BIOTC platform, and through that platform, they address the issue of British citizenship for the Chagos Islanders. But they're also very keen to amplify the voices of the Chagos Islanders, to engage in a broader conversation about their rights as people exiled by the British from the Chagos Islands in order to make way for the US's Diego Garcia naval base. We'll be hearing more from both Rosy and Jerome later in the episode, where they'll explain in their own words the particular issues that are being faced by the people of Chagos. Okay, it's time to put your thinking caps on.
Now, today, we're going to be talking about Britain's overseas territories, or rather, Britain's relationship to its overseas territories and their citizens. So, my opening question to you is: If I asked you to name Britain's overseas territories, where would you start?
Maybe a simpler question is: How many are there?
This is a story that is caught up in the dispute between Britain and Mauritius over the sovereignty of the islands, where becoming a sovereign state has never been on the table. Now, the Chagos Islands have been in the news over the last month, not only because of the amendment to the Nationality and Borders Bill, but also because of a five-day expedition to the islands of some of those forcibly displaced in the 1960s and 1970s. This will have been the first time that they were able to set foot on the islands since that point in time.
And that story of the human face of a population forcibly displaced is one that runs through to the themes of today's episode. I'll be exploring the broader context and history of the status as the Chagos Islanders in British nationality legislation. And George goes back into the archives to explore the changes introduced to the British Overseas Territories Act of 2002. Then we'll hear more from Rosy and Jerome about the uneven outcome of that Act, which has meant that the descendants of Chagos Islanders born outside Britain's overseas territories, found themselves ineligible to status through British nationality law. They'll also introduce us to the amendments that they're hoping to see brought into force and I should stress that we're recording this as the Nationality and Borders Bill progresses through the House of Lords. And it's possible that by the time this episode goes live, we will know what the outcome of that amendment actually is. Now, the amendment specifically would allow those descended from those born before 1983 on British Indian Ocean Territory, the right to register as British Overseas Territory citizens, and therefore as British citizens. And we're going to try and cover all of that in no longer than 30 minutes.
I'm going to start with a bit of the backstory from a very abbreviated account of how the whole population of the Chagos Islands was forcibly displaced. Now, you might remember that in our episode about the Hong-Kongers with John Vassiliou, I highlighted how they weren't consulted about the changes to their status introduced through the British Nationality Act and the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the future of Hong Kong. And they were pretty miffed about it. Now imagine this: two big world-powers reach an agreement that means that a territory of one of those powers is offered to the other for a military base. The agreement also includes a commitment to pass on this territory uninhabited.
But here's the rub. The territories aren't uninhabited. What to do? There are people living and working there who, let me just add, weren't consulted before the agreements were reached. Between 1965 and 1973, the entire population of these islands was forcibly displaced. Every single person was evicted from the Chagos Islands, with no right to set foot or enter.
Yep, those are the headlines.
Now, I first came across this story of forced displacement in the work of the anthropologist Laura Jeffery. Her book, published in 2011, documented the experiences of forced displacement that saw families torn apart, that scattered the population of the Chagos Islands between the Seychelles and Mauritius. It highlighted the challenges and hardships that they faced in making lives and homes for themselves. I'll include a link to her work in today's episode notes. But it's the onward migration that she also focuses on that is of particular significance here. Alongside her research was Chagossians in Mauritius. She also worked with those who'd made their way to the UK and documented the unevenness in their eligibility in acquiring citizenship status.
This is where the backstory converges with the changes to nationality legislation that we've been discussing over the course of the series. Until the British Nationality Act of 1981, the Chagos Islanders would have been citizens of the UK and colonies, at least on paper. But through this Act, they—like the people of Hong Kong, Gibraltar, the Falklands and the other remaining dependent territories—had this status repealed and became eligible for a new status as British Dependent Territory citizens. And I know that I've mentioned before that this status didn't permit them the right to live in the UK, and was largely empty of the rights you might ordinarily expect of a status labelled "citizenship". So far, we're on familiar ground.
But then, in 2002, a new Act has passed, the British Overseas Territories Act. This reclassified those eligible for British Dependent Territory citizen status as British Overseas Territory citizenship. And unlike the earlier changes, this shift was more than a nominal change. It allowed those holding it to register as full British citizens with the right to live in the UK. Just pause to think about that for a second.
After decades of eroding the rights of former citizens, a new Act is brought in that potentially reverses this? Of course, by this stage, the Hong-Kongers are out of the picture. So it's only a relatively small number of people who suddenly find themselves eligible for citizenship through this route. But of course, for those people, this was a potential game changer.
Let's head into the archive with George to hear more about how this was announced.
George Kalivis [GK]: Today, I am going to read you a short report by Anthony Browne, published in The Guardian on the 12th of May 2002, under the title "Last colonial subjects given full UK rights". The text reports on the, then upcoming, implementation of the British Overseas Territories Act 2002, which had received Royal Assent on the 26th of February in the same year. It reads:
"After more than four centuries, Britain's colonial history will officially come to an end next week, when more than 200,000 inhabitants of islands scattered around the world are granted full British citizenship. The British Overseas Territories Act which comes into force on the 21st of May, grants the right of citizenship to all inhabitants of Britain's overseas territories and formerly abolishes the term 'colony'. It will allow them to leave, train and work in Britain or anywhere else in the European Union. However, it does not allow British citizens the reciprocal right to live overseas. The 14 overseas territories range from impoverished Caribbean islands to idyllic tax havens, and tiny isles in the South Pacific to the pristine wilderness of Antarctica. Inhabitants of the Falklands were given full British passports after the war with Argentina in 1982. At present, the inhabitants of the territories have British Dependent Territories passports, which give only limited right of access to the UK—several inhabitants of Saint Helena have been deported by immigration officials for overstaying their visas. Foreign Office Minister Baroness Amos said: 'It is no longer appropriate to use the terms such as dependent territories, which fail to reflect the nature of our relationship with the overseas territories." Many of the inhabitants had full British citizenship before 1981, when the Conservative government took the right away from all dependent territories in order to stop residents of Hong Kong moving to Britain prior to being handed over to China. Sukey Cameron, chair of the UK Overseas Territories Association, which had been campaigning on the issue, said: 'It gives access to training and education that isn't available anywhere else. It is good for young people to travel overseas, but we expect islanders to return home." The islanders had argued against allowing British citizens the right to live there because they feared that they would be swamped. 'The governments of the territories concerned made clear that granting European citizens the right of abode would risk fundamentally altering the social, cultural and economic fabric of the territories,' Amos added. It appears to lead to the bizarre anomaly that British citizens, as members of the EU are allowed to leave in French and Dutch overseas territories in the Caribbean, but not their own."
Now, many things have changed since then, and more are probably to change in the near future; for better or worse. I aligned with the points that Baroness Amos made. I just wanted to note, the Overseas Territories governments were basically reluctant to offer free movement to UK citizens after years during which their populations were denied free movement into the UK, right? In this context, is it that surprising that they were not opening their borders to UK-based British citizens?
MB: Listening to George a couple of things stood out to me: that claiming of the British Overseas Territories Act as "the end" of Britain's colonial history, and also that understanding of who has the right to determine who can cross borders and on what terms. But, it's also who this Act did not extend to that I want to turn to.
For those born outside British overseas territories, despite ancestry that would locate them there, this status seems to have been out of reach. And this is the issue that Chagossians in the UK and their advocates have been campaigning around.
On the 28th of February 2022, peers in the House of Lords voted in favour of the amendment to the Nationality and Borders Bill presented by Baroness Ruth Lister, which would address this issue and allow those descended from persons born before 1983 on British Indian Ocean Territory, to register as British Overseas Territory citizens and British citizens.
Now, the government will now have to address this and there are no guarantees that it will pass. But it means that the door is not closed. Let's hear more from Rosy and Jerome. I started our conversation by asking them to tell me a little bit about their family history and their relationship to the Chagos Islands.
Rosy Leveque [RL]: My mother was born in exile in Mauritius in 1969. My grandparents were not allowed to go back to the Chagos Archipelago after the birth of my mother. They were taught that the islands had been sold to the British. My grandparents themselves were born on Peros Banhos and Salomon Islands in the Chagos Archipelago, and my great grandparents and ancestors were all born on the Chagos Islands.
JS: My mother was born on Diego Garcia, one of the origins of the Chagos Archipelago; two of the others you heard from Rosy, which were Peros Bahnos and Salomon Islands. My father was born in Mauritius, but his father was from Diego Garcia as well. So from my mother's side and my father's side, all my ancestors actually come from one or several of the islands of Diego Garcia. And that's how I'm linked, and Rosy as well, to these beautiful islands.
MB: I mean, already, you start to get a picture that I think not very many people are familiar with, about the kind of the forced movement of, of your people, essentially. So part of the backstory to this, to your campaign and to the platform, is about Britain's role in displacing and exiling people, isn't it?
JS: Yeah, by a treaty order of 1965 was what started the process of creating BIOT, as it is the British Indian Ocean Territory, and starting its purpose as a navy support base, or something with a military twist to it. It wasn't known in the days what it would actually become. A 1971 order was to make sure that no civilians were allowed on the ordnance. So in 1965, when it was created, civilians were still there, babies were still being born, people were still getting married, people were still being buried on those islands; until 1971, where now force could be used.
MB: So what happened next?
JS: Well, that's the way the exile happens when, when people were being sent to Mauritius. Actually, some of them landed in the Seychelles because sometimes the ships don't make it to harbour because of many technical problems. So families were divided into the Seychelles, some of them to Mauritius. Some of them didn't make it ... those perished along the way. But that is the story then, all the forced exile starts there.
MB: When we're thinking about the BIOTC status, and I should just like spell that out a little bit, a little bit more so that that people understand that BIOTC status is a category in British nationality law that specifically relates/refers to the British Indian Ocean Territory Citizens. That's right, isn't it?
JS: It is indeed. So this, this word itself "BIOT citizens" did not come to light until recently. Actually, this year, we started looking into the archives, and we realised that BIOT is a territory, and a territory has its own citizen. And it's not that we invented the word itself, the word existed and it was found. So the citizenship itself is a battle that it is ongoing at the moment. And this citizenship matters a lot because anyone anywhere in the world has an identity—we are trying to find ours bouncing back and forth between Mauritian and UK governments saying "this space is mine". The people themselves haven't had a voice. So we are now trying to not only raise our voice, but to say: "Hey, listen to us. This is our right, and our citizenship." Citizenship is one of the main topics that is coming up at the moment.
MB: So, at the moment, it doesn't exist in British nationality law as a BIOTC citizenship. But what you're trying to say is that that is something that you would like the British government to consider. Is that right?
JS: Indeed. As it exists today, it's the British Overseas Territory citizens, which is what is going on among all the other overseas territories, Bermuda, Anguilla, Saint Helena Montserrat, among others; even British Antarctica, if you're born there, you are a British Overseas Territory citizen. If we go by what is applying to the other, which is overseas territories, we do not qualify because we're not, we are not on the land. Hence, why we are we creating the specific of British Indian Ocean Territory citizenship.
MB: I think that's really, really helpful in terms of spelling out. So first, you were displaced, and then you were denied. And I think that that's the kind of, you know, a really distinctive position of people from those islands. So, it's over to you Rosy now to tell me a little bit more about the journey that the campaign has been on.
RL: Sure. So in terms of the BIOT citizens platform, the platform was created in early 2021. We raise awareness of their rights as British citizens. We share with them information for the Chagossian community to have a better understanding of their story and their history. We help in translation in Creole for the community to understand the truth of what's happening and what has happened in the past. And also to make sure that they understand what types of decisions were made on their behalf. We want this community to come together as one to know that they have a voice. When you really look at it, the citizenship issue is only one small dimension of this. And we know, we're starting to make ourselves known with the relevant associations and institutions within the UK.
We want BIOTA, who are the British Indian Ocean Territory Administration, to start taking responsibility for the Chagossian community themselves. Right now, this administration office only looks after the territory itself, and it completely turns a blind eye to the people and the nation. And this needs to change. The people are just as important as the land. And not to mention they are our lands and our ancestors' lands.
MB: I suppose one of the things that's happened recently is that you saw an opportunity to call for amendments to nationality legislation in respect to buy out citizens. So what were you asking for?
JS: What we were looking for was for the bill as it is to be adapted to cater for specific needs of our community. As it is in its current form, it addresses issues that are faced by all the older British Overseas Territories, and, and if we do not add the specific amendments, then what it will become is what has been done twenty years ago. Twenty years ago, we had the British Overseas Territories Act, and we thought that was godsend; that it was a really good solution. Twenty years down the line, we realised that quite a few people were left out.
Quite a few people did not have access to the full British citizenship because of policy reasons, because the bill itself was too specific; way too specific over years, over marital status or status of our grandparents, the place were they're born. And now we're trying to look at all the conditions possible so that more people from our community can benefit from it.
MB: And when we spoke last week about this, you described to me some of the things that were happening. Of course, you come from a set of islands, essentially, and you were talking about, you know, how where people were even born became kind of caught up in this. And I wondered if you could reflect a little bit more on that Jerome?
JS: Some of the typical stories that was happening was because most of these people were either coming to Mauritius for emergencies, medical emergencies most of the time, or just to visit relatives, or just to do some shopping. The typical case that we were talking about last time was my grandmother, late grandmother who came to Mauritius because my grandfather was unwell. So she spent a week in the hospital, taking care of him, being there not having anywhere to live, just walking back and fourth around the hospital wards. And then finding out that she cannot go back while her sister was still over there. And her sister was sent to the Seychelles. And they only met, my grandma left Mauritius in this not late 1960s and met her sister in 1982. And these are just typical stories are what happened among families.
Some of them probably never met again, because they didn't have the means to travel to the Seychelles, or from the Seychelles to Mauritius—there were not cheap tickets in those days—to meet their families who sadly passed away without ever seeing each other.
MB: I think it just shows, you know, as you've described it, that so many things were out of people's control. And, you know, obviously, you had a situation also where the British government were actively intervening and forcing people not to return. So yeah. So, Rosy, I think you've got a little bit more to say about exactly what you were calling for in respect to the Nationality and Borders Bills. I wondered if you wanted to introduce that.
RL: Yeah, so in terms of the Nationality and Borders Bill, the Chagossian Amendment, referred to as NC2 was put forward by MP Henry Smith at the Commons report stage. And this amendment gives any descendant of the Chagos Islands who can prove that they are of Chagossian heritage, the right to register as British Overseas Territory citizens and therefore British citizens. 245 MPs voted for the amendment and 306 voted against the amendment, which was really disappointing to say the least a defeat of 61 MPs.
The UK government has time and time again, you know, expressed the regret over the manner in which the Chagossians were forcibly removed from their homes in the early 60s and late 70s. So, I mean, there was no real justification for rejecting Henry Smith's amendment at the Commons report stage. In the latest briefing document, which was currently, well, which is currently being presented to the House of Lords by PRCBC and Amnesty International, they quite rightly outlined that one of the government's main justification for not supporting the amendment was and I quote here, Kevin Foster, the Minister for Future Borders and Immigration: "it would undermine a long standing principle of British nationality law dating back to 1915, under which nationality or entitlement to nationality is not passed on to the second and subsequent generations born and settled outside the UK and its territories, creating quite a major precedent."
The government's position shows their reliance on correcting this great injustice—eviction and forceful exile of British people by the UK Government—and they're simply refusing to correct these wrongs. The first generations born in exile, the second generations born in exile, third, and the fourth generations being born in exile. It's because of the initial expulsion of these people that they cannot be born on their territory and continue to live in exile in Mauritius and Seychelles and abroad. And this is truly something that the UK Government has to start taking responsibility for.
We do remain hopeful that this amendment will go through in the Nationality and Borders Bill as a first priority.
MB: But, but what next? What next for you beyond that kind of, those legal roots?
JS: I think it's a now or never chance for our community to show what it can do, but then come out of it victorious and build itself as a stronger community for the future. I think that's what's next in, in, in a nutshell.
RL: Yeah, pretty much exactly that. I mean, we continue to give the Chagossian community a voice, as Jerome rightly said; the community is evolving, and we want everyone to know what their rights are and how to fight for their rights.
MB: I found this conversation with Rosy and Jerome really eye opening. What really stood out to me listening to them, was the layering of historic injustices that have led to this situation. Hearing Chagossian voices shows the fallout not only of decolonization, and the transformations to rights that this brought for former imperial citizens, but it also points to the case of those who, because of early decisions by the British government, were written out of those rights.
And I think that this is a pertinent reminder that the struggles over citizenship that we see, for example, in the amendments proposed to the Nationality and Borders Bill, bear the marks of these former injustices.
For me, this offers an important reminder of the role of those longer histories in making sense of contemporary British citizenship legislation, and its exclusions. As Britain's colonies became independent countries in their own right, and were able to control their borders, their populations were given citizenships that aligned with these new nations. But we have to remember that not all of those territories became independent and developed local citizenships.
What happened to the people of Hong Kong was one example of that; handed to another sovereign power, they never had the right to self determination. The negotiations between Britain and China that led to this set this process in motion. And what this shows is how foreign relations might shape the outcome of local citizenship struggles. Indeed, we only have to look to the Falkland Islands and how their citizens were made for British citizens because there is dispute over their sovereignty to see this in action.
Now, those examples point to the processes through which differentiated rights were introduced into British nationality legislation. But what if the people denied access even to such differentiated rights because of historic injustices? What if, like the Chagos Islanders, you no longer have access for reasons entirely beyond your control to a territory that would offer you such a status.
The planned obsolescence that was written into the design of the British Overseas Territory citizens status has furthered the racialized exclusion of families already exiled and forcibly displaced. I think against this background, it's unsurprising that the British Indian Ocean Territory citizenship campaign is caught up in a broader project of bringing the people exiled from the Chagos Islands together to celebrate on the one hand their shared heritage, while also documenting those experiences of violent displacement at the hands of the British state.
You'll find links in the Episode Notes to more resources and news about the campaign, as well as the broader history of the Chagos Islands.
Now, before I go, I want to mention that we're taking a bit of a break to catch up on the production of these narrative episodes. We'll be back with the next episodes, focused on the outcome of the Nationality and Borders Bill after Easter. If you've got something you want to share about the bill, do drop us a line as we'd love to feature some of our listeners on the podcast. But in the meantime, we've got some plans afoot for something a bit different.
You’ve been listening to Who do we think we are? A podcast series produced and presented by me, Michaela Benson, as part of the British Academy funded mid-career fellowship Britain its overseas citizens.
The series was produced with the help of Emma Houlton and Andy Proctor at Art of Podcast
Archival research for the series and cover art by George Kalivis
If you like what you’ve heard, follow and rate us on your preferred podcast platform.
You can also find us at whodowethinkweare.org
And get in touch with us on twitter, Facebook and Instagram @AbtCitizenship
[End of Transcript]
What rights to citizenship do those from Britain’s 14 remaining overseas territories have? What about those who through no fault of their own found themselves displaced and exiled from the territories through which they could claim this right?
In Episode 10, we look indepth at the case of the Chagos Islanders and the consequences of their forced displacement from the British Indian Ocean Territories for their access to British citizenship. Michaela Benson explains the emergence of the British Overseas Territories Act 2002 and how this departed from previous transformations to the citizenship provisions for those in Britain’s overseas territories and who this excluded. George Kalivis heads into the archive to revisit how the BOTA 2002 was announced in the UK and the responses to this from the governments of these overseas territories. And we hear from Rosy Leveque and David Jerome Simon of British Indian Ocean Territories Citizens about the forced displacement of their ancestors and how this has led to unequal access to British citizenship, and their hopes for amendments to the Nationality and Borders Bill.
You can access the full transcripts for each episode over on the Rebordering Britain and Britons after Brexit website.
In this episode we cover …
1 The Chagos Islanders
2 The British Overseas Territories Act 2002
3 Nationality and Borders Bill
20 years ago, we had the British Overseas Territories act. And we thought that was a godsend. That was a really good solution. 20 years down the line, we realised that there were quite a few people were left out.
— David Jerome Simon, BIOTC
... we can just only hope and that the House of Lords can do the right thing and grant these Chagossian descendants their British citizenship.
— Rosy Leveque, BIOTC
Find out more about the topics in today’s episode
Follow BIOT Citizens on Twittter
Visit the BIOT Citizens website
Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens and Amnesty International Briefing on the British Nationality Rights of Chagossians
Chagos Islanders in Mauritius and the UK by Laura Jeffrey
Last colonial citizens given full UK rights by Anthony Browne
Call to action
Active listening questions
- What is the key goal of the British Indian Ocean Territory Citizens Campaign?
- List three ways the British Overseas Territories Act of 2002 has restricted access to nationality for many
- Has this changed how you view your own citizenship, how/how not?