Ilois of Diego Garcia

Alternative names: Diego Garcians
Location: formerly in Diego Garcia island, Chagos Archipelago; now in Mauritius
Population: 2,000
% of population: 0.2% of Mauritian population
Religion: mainly Roman Catholic
Language: Creole

The Ilois are a small minority of only 2,000 people, formerly the residents of the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, who are now resident in Mauritius. The Chagos Islands were inhabited from 1776 as a fishing company and leper colony under French rule. After 1815 they (along with Mauritius) came under British colonial rule and received new immigrants from Africa and India, and a successful copra industry. These varied peoples developed a distinct culture and Creole dialect.

In December 1966, in the period preceding Mauritian independence, Britain demarcated the Chagos Islands and other isolated islands from Mauritius as the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). In the same month it leased the BIOT to the USA for defence purposes for 50 years with the option of a further 20 years. From 1972 three further agreements were signed between the two, allowing for military construction and expansion on Diego Garcia island which by now had become the main US base in the Indian Ocean. These agreements in effect meant that the Ilois people had to leave. However this was done in a way which was secretive and underhand.

The Ilois had long had the custom of visiting Mauritius for visits and shopping. From 1965 until the mid-1970s the UK government did not allow those in Mauritius to return home. The Ilois were forced to squat in the slums of Port Louis, where, without money, some starved and all suffered great hardship. The copra plantations were run down and food imports were cut. From 1965 to 1971 about half the population was pressured into leaving. The remainder, about 800 people, were assembled and removed at short notice in September 1971, at first to smaller islands not required by the military and then in 1973 to Mauritius where they were left without help or compensation. The removal was carried out in secrecy until the facts became known at a US Congressional hearing in 1975 and after US and UK media coverage.

There has been a long fight for compensation by the Ilois and their supporters in Mauritius and the UK. Compensation was given to the last shipload of Ilois, who staged a demonstration on the removal ship, and a small amount of compensation was available from 1973, but the islanders did not receive it until 1978. In 1976 the UK government had paid £600,000 to the Mauritian government for the resettlement of the Ilois, but this was inadequate and there were delays by the Mauritian authorities. In 1979 the UK government offered the Ilois a further £1.25 million but stipulated that they must sign a document renouncing their right to return to the BIOT; after consultation, most Ilois rejected the offer. There were Ilois demonstrations in 1980 and 1981 and the UK government then agreed that talks between the two governments and the Ilois should take place in June 1981.

The 1981 London talks centred around the need for improved compensation. The Ilois asked for £8 million in order to give each family land, a house and some capital. The UK government offered only the original £1.25 million and an extra amount of £300,000 for technical assistance. No agreement could be reached but the Ilois, who were now desperate, decided to ask for compensation somewhere between the two sums. A final agreement was made, “a full and final settlement”, in March 1982. The terms were that the Ilois were to be given £4 million in addition to the money already paid, that the Mauritian government would give land to the value of £1 million and that the money was in compensation for “all acts . . . done by or pursuant to the BIOT order of 1965 . . .”. However, Mauritius saw nothing in the wording of the agreement to preclude a return of BIOT to Mauritius.

Compensation did not solve all the problems of the Ilois. There were delays in payment and although it was originally hoped to establish a job creation plan the economic situation of the Ilois was so desperate that they demanded an individual shareout. After improving their housing, many Ilois had nothing left and suffered from high unemployment in Mauritius. They attempted to gain compensation also from the US but this, to date, has been a failure. Yet the Ilois are today better organized and gaining in confidence. Although they are presently settled in Mauritius almost all express a wish to return, even if on a temporary basis to attend family graves, if not to Diego Garcia, which is now a military base with over 2,000 residents, to the other islands of the Chagos.

(See Nauruans and Banabans in Oceania)