‘FORCE this British government to carry out the rightful decision to return us back to our beautiful islands and put an end to these years of misery that our families have had to bear.’
So said Hengride Permal, chair of the Chagos Islands Community Association, when she opened a 100-strong meeting of Chagos Islanders and TUC delegates at the TUC Congress in Brighton yesterday.
Permal told the meeting: ‘In 1966, the then Wilson government moved the whole Chagossian population from our islands so that Diego Garcia could be given to the United States to use as an army base.’
She added: ‘They moved us into the unliveable slums of Mauritius.
‘At first they killed our animals, as a threat that this would happen to us.
‘They herded us onto boats and dumped us in the Seychelles and in the dock area of Mauritius.
‘Families were terrified and heartbroken.
‘Many never recovered and died from what the doctors called “sadness’’, even children.’
She added: ‘When in 2002 the British government offered us full British passports, many families moved here for a better life.
‘But we can only get poorly paid employment, we have a language problem and particularly the older ones have bad health problems.
‘It is 40 years now and the older generations are beginning to die, never to be able to return back and see their island homes where generations lived.
‘Our right to return has been upheld by the High Court three times.
‘Each time the British government has appealed against it and has lost its appeal, but still they refuse to allow us to return because the US base is more important to them.
‘Now the government has made its last final appeal to the House of Lords to stop us returning and we will hear the result in October.
‘We believe they will lose this appeal and are just spending huge sums of money to delay our return.
‘As soon as we hear, we intend to call a big lobby of Downing Street to demand we have the right to return immediately and for all Chagossians.’
She added: ‘We’ve had enough of governments deciding for us.
‘We also want the US base in Diego Garcia removed, the US government pays no rent. They get it for free. . . .
‘We would like to ask the TUC to pass a short emergency resolution supporting our right to return and demanding the withdrawal of the US from Diego Garcia.’
Concluding, she said: ‘We know that British workers stand very firm on their principles and are internationalists.
‘We ask you to help us right this terrible wrong that has been done to us.’
Prison Officers Association General Secretary Brian Caton said: ‘I was ignorant until three weeks ago about your struggle.
‘I believed we live in a civilised country until I saw the John Pilger documentary.
‘I was appalled. This government fails to listen to the country and fails to recognise people’s needs.
‘We will give you every support.’
He added: ‘For over 40 years, to be in your position, is more than a struggle.’
He continued: ‘The Tolpuddle Martyrs were shipped off to an island.
‘The trade union movement said we want them to come home.
‘Let’s send a message today to the government: we will get you home.’
Keith Sonnet, deputy-general secretary of UNISON, said he had been following the Chagos situation for years.
He said: ‘It is one of the most shameful episodes in British imperialist history.
‘It happened under a Labour government, the Wilson government.’
He added: ‘I had hoped with the Labour government coming in in 1997, there would have been justice, that it would have accepted the decisions of the courts.
‘It’s disgraceful that they went to the House of Lords.
‘I hope they will without question say the islanders have the right to return.’
He concluded that after 42 years, they should dismantle the base and pay compensation to the islanders.
Sue Bond, vice-president of the PCS, said: ‘The UK collusion with US interests is shameful.
‘It has continued under this government.’
She added: The ‘PCS supports your demands to close the base and return to the islands.
‘What inspires me more than anything else is your refusal to be cast as victims and to fight on until you win.
‘That will be a victory, not just for you, and the justice you deserve, but a victory for the millions of us across the world who oppose the whole system of domination by US imperialism and our government’s shameful support.’
GMB Regional Secretary Richard Ascough said: ‘In recent imperialist history this was one of the most shameful episodes. What was done was absolutely terrible.
‘We need to bring this up at the Labour Party conference and to lobby Downing Street to ensure their rightful return.
‘The GMB is delighted to be associated with your struggle. It is shameful what has been done to you in our name.
‘The GMB will continue to support your right to return home.’