House of Lords supports British citizenship for the descendants of displaced Chagossians

Campaigners for British citizenship for the descendants of Chagossians forcibly removed from their islands, in what is now the British Indian Ocean Territory, achieved a major victory this week as the House of Lords supported their cause.


Craig Brewin

3/10/20228 min read

Campaigners for British citizenship for the descendants of Chagossians forcibly removed from their islands, in what is now the British Indian Ocean Territory, achieved a major victory this week as the House of Lords supported their cause. An amendment to the British Nationality and Borders Bill was moved by Baroness Lister that requires the Commons which previously voted down a similar amendment, to look again. At the moment there are no signs that the Government will back down in its opposition to the proposed change.

The Chagos Archipelago was governed as part of Mauritius when Mauritius was a British colony, and the Mauritian governments have been fighting for the return of the islands for many years, winning a case in the International Court of Justice, and the backing of the UN. But many of those descended from the displaced Chagossians do not see themselves as Mauritian and want the same right to British citizenship that they would have had had they been born on the islands of their parents and grandparents.

Although it was moving to see Chagossians revisiting their homeland, the recent Mauritian boat trip to the islands, covered extensively in the media, was met with considerable anger from many other Chagossians. They saw the planting of the Mauritian flag on two of the islands as a distraction from issues relating to the plight of the people removed from their villages in the archipelago, and their descendants. This includes in Mauritius and the Seychelles, as well as in the UK. Neither the UK nor the UN recognises the right of the Chagossian people to self-determination.

To win citizenship, the Chagossians need a change of heart from the UK Government, or an unlikely rebellion on the Government benches. So far only a handful of Conservatives have supported the amendment, including Douglas Hogg in the Lords, and Henry Smith, David Davis and Andrew Rosindell in the Commons. The Scottish National Party has supported the amendment but has also said that it considers the British Indian Ocean Territory is an illegal occupation of Mauritian land.

The existence of the Diego Garcia airbase means that the UK does not intend to give up the archipelago anytime soon. But if the UK says that the islands are British then surely the descendants of the people born there are too. It’s not their fault they were born elsewhere anmd as Baroness Lister said “the Government appear terrified that to concede on this amendment would create a precedent.” But what is the precedent. Does the UK think it might one day depopulate somewhere else?

The following is the explanation of the issue set out by Baroness Lister, and the response from the Government given by Lord Sharpe.

Baroness Lister (Lab)

“My Lords, in moving Amendment 1, I am grateful to my fellow signatories; to BIOT Citizens and Chagossian Voices for their assistance; to the APPG on the Chagos Islands, of which I am a member; and to all those noble Lords from across the House who supported a similar amendment in Committee. The breadth and strength of that support reflected the recognition that this amendment is about rectifying a long-standing injustice in citizenship law, just as earlier, welcome clauses in the Bill do.

The injustice that Amendment 1 addresses concerns the descendants of Chagossians, who were all evicted from their homeland by the British Government to make way for a US airbase back in the 1960s and early 1970s, and who remain exiled. Those descendants are now denied the right to register as citizens, which they would have had were they still resident in their homeland. The reason they are denied that right is because they are no longer so resident, but that is because they have been exiled from that homeland by the British Government.

The amendment would simply end the “appalling injustice”, as Conservative MP Henry Smith put it. To allay government concerns about the open-ended nature of his Commons amendment, which received considerable support, this one applies a five-year time limit for registration. The consequences of the injustice include broken families, divided communities, insecurity for those living here who are undocumented, hardship and the aggravation of the trauma associated with exile.

To give one example, provided to me by Chagossian Voices, S, born in Mauritius, is the son of a Chagossian who is British by descent and is now in exile in Crawley. S has lived in the UK since the age of eight. When he turned 18, his mother used her meagre savings from her job as a cleaner to apply for his British citizenship; this was rejected, but he was then granted a limited visa, which has now expired. She cannot afford to reapply and fears that her son could be deported at any time. “I am terrified of my family being split up”, she says. This cannot be right.

What this means to Chagossians has been made painfully clear to me in emails I received following Committee, and I think, too, to the Minister, who very kindly met some of us, including Rosie Lebeck of BIOT Citizens last week. In Committee, the Minister expressed her sympathy and empathy, and I believe that she genuinely understands what is at stake here, but that has not yet been translated into the actions needed to remedy this injustice. Instead, she pointed to how some second-generation Chagossians would benefit from the earlier clauses in the Bill, which address discrimination in nationality law. When questioned, neither she nor her officials could say how many that would be—I suspect not many.

The Minister has also spoken about how the Government are looking at what more can be done to help Chagossian families seeking to settle here, but we have been given no details of what that might mean and, in any case, that is to ignore once again the importance of citizenship—a theme running through many of our debates in Committee. She also talked about a willingness to consider how the £40 million fund set up to support Chagossians settled in the UK might be used, but that fund was announced more than five years ago and, to date, I understand that only £800,000 has been spent. Certainly, some of the fund could be used to defray any costs associated with this amendment, but it is no substitute for it.

We come to the nub of the matter. In Committee, the Minister reiterated the Government’s concern that the amendment would be contrary to long-standing government policy and warned that it goes further than the rights available to many other descendants of British nationals settled elsewhere around the world—but how many of those other descendants are settled elsewhere because they have been forcibly exiled by the British Government? None, I would suggest. As a junior Minister in the Commons acknowledged, the Chagossians’ case is unique, yet the Government appear terrified that to concede on this amendment would create a precedent, despite there being no other group in this situation. Why can they not follow the advice of the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine? In Committee, the noble Baroness suggested that the Minister needs to make it clear in the response today—it may not be her response; it may be his response—that he or she

“does not intend this Act—a humanitarian Act—to set a precedent”.—[Official Report, 27/1/22; col. 494.]

In conclusion, no one knows for sure how many Chagossians would avail themselves of the right contained in this amendment, but the best estimate, based on a census carried out by BIOT Citizens, is no more than 1,000. That said, this is not a question of numbers but of finally putting right what everyone accepts is an injustice. I hope that we will take the opportunity provided by the Bill to end this injustice. If the Minister does not accept the proposed new clause or offer to come back with an alternative at Third Reading, I shall beg to test the opinion of the House. I beg to move.”

Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)

“My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, for meeting my noble friend Lady Williams last week and for the opportunity to hear further about the issues impacting the Chagossian community. As has been said previously, both in Committee and when my noble friend met the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, last week, and as noted by my noble friend Lady Altmann, the Government empathise and sympathise with the Chagossians about how they were treated in the 1960s and 1970s.

It is, however, important to clarify who this amendment seeks to assist. It is not those Chagossians who were of the generations born on the British Indian Ocean Territory, as they have always been British nationals and have been automatically considered both British Overseas Territories citizens and British citizens since 2002. Similarly, it is not their children, the first generation of Chagossians born outside of British territory, who are also both automatically British Overseas Territories citizens and British citizens. It is also not those in the first generation of Chagossians born outside of British territory, who, as the Chagossian community highlights, have missed out on rights to British nationality due to historical legislative unfairness, and this Bill already seeks to rectify that issue.

This amendment is limited to those in the second and successive generations of Chagossians born outside of British territory who, like all children of British nationals by descent, face a different route to British nationality. For this generation, if they wish to acquire British nationality, it is right that they must establish a close, continuing connection with either the UK or a British overseas territory by lawfully residing and settling there, although I recognise that since the 1970s, it has not been possible to establish such a link to the British Indian Ocean Territory. This must be in line with either the UK’s or an overseas territory’s Immigration Rules. This has also been the case with Hong Kong British Nationals Overseas, who do not have a right of abode in British territory and must complete a period of residence in the UK before acquiring the permanent residence status that is required in order to naturalise as a British citizen.

The points raised by the descendants of Chagossians, who are members of the second generation born outside British territory and who are now seeking to settle in the UK under the Immigration Rules, are often very complex. As the Minister for Safe and Legal Migration has stated in the House of Commons, the Home Office is keen to consider what more we could do to support those families seeking to settle here under the current system.

The Home Office is actively engaging with the Chagossian community to identify practical proposals that would support the second generation born outside British territory in navigating the system. In addition, the Home Office is discussing with the FCDO how the £40 million Chagos support fund, referenced by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, could be used to deliver further support for Chagossians seeking to settle here under the Immigration Rules. Those discussions are current and ongoing, and I had some this morning.

As the Government have consistently stated, allowing entitlements to citizenship to be passed on beyond the first generation born outside the British territory, bypassing requirements to reside and settle here by those who do not have a continuing connection with the UK, would unfortunately undermine a key principle in British nationality law that applies to all other descendants of British nationals born abroad.

I recognise that the noble Baroness’s amendment has sought to limit the right to register as a British national to current generations who must apply within a limited timeframe. However, this does not alleviate the Government’s concern that offering this right is contrary to long-standing government policy and goes much further than the rights available to many other descendants of British nationals settled elsewhere around the world today.

I finish by saying that I have listened very carefully to this debate, and I realise I am something of a lone voice.”

The House of Commons (or rather Priti Patel) will decide.