It had long been the custom of the Chagossians to visit Mauritius to see relatives, to buy consumer goods or to obtain medical supplies and treatment that were unavailable on the Chagos islands. Some islanders, after visiting Mauritius, were suddenly told by British officials they were not allowed back. Many of the islanders, exiled overnight, later testified to having been tricked into leaving Diego Garcia by being offered a free trip.
Some Chagossians claim they were deceived into believing what awaited them. Olivier Bancoult said that the islanders "had been told they would have a house, a portion of land, animals and a sum of money, but when they arrived (in Mauritius)
As the Chagossians were moved out, the Americans moved in. The first US servicemen arrived on Diego Garcia in March 1971. Six months later, the last Chagossian left Diego Garcia. One of the victims recalled:
“We were assembled in front of the manager's house and informed that we could no longer stay on the island because the Americans were coming for good. We didn't want to go. We were born here. So were our fathers and forefathers who were buried in that land”.
Rita Bancoult, Stealing a Nation – ITV October 2004.
A boat, the Nordvaer, transported the islanders on 5 day trip to Mauritius.
Once on the island many of the Chagossians walked bewildered off the ship and tramped through the slums of the capital, Port Louis, to try to find a relative or friend who would take them in.
“On the ship no matter how many children you had you were only given one mattress. All of us Chagossians, women, children, it was ourselves who were the animals on the Nordvaer”. Lizette Tallatte, Stealing a Nation ” – ITV October 2004.
Most of the islanders ended up living in the slums of Port Louis where conditions were terrible; there was no sanitation, little food and no medical care.
Some committed suicide. A survey in 1980 by the Comite Illois Organisation Fraternelle, a Chagossian support organisation in Mauritius, listed 9 cases of suicide and that 26 families had died together in poverty. "The causes mostly", it noted, "are unhappiness, non-adoption of Ilois within the social framework of Mauritius, extreme poverty, particularly lack of food, house, jobs".
In 1973 Britain offered £650,000 in compensation, which arrived too late to offset the hardship of the islanders. Each adult was given 7,590 rupees (about £650) and children between 356-410 rupees, depending on their age. In 1976, the government said that the compensation "represented a full and final discharge of HMG's obligations". The Foreign Office stated in a secret file that "we must be satisfied that we could not discharge our obligation . . . more cheaply". The Chagossians' defence lawyers argue that "the UK government knew at the time that the sum given (in compensation) would in no way be adequate for resettlement".
Since their forced expulsion the islanders have campaigned for proper compensation and for the right to return.
There have compensation requests down the years. In 1979, Britain offered a further £1.25 million in compensation, insisting that this was available only if the Chagossians agreed to a "no return" clause. These terms were rejected.
With pressure from the Mauritian government, further talks were held in London in March 1982, after which the British government agreed to pay £4 million in compensation. This sum was distributed to 1,344 identified islanders who each received little over £2,000.
Richard Gifford, the current lawyer for the Chagossians, notes “Some of them managed to get rudimentary housing or a small plot of land but many simply paid off their debts and carried on living in squalor as before. As a condition of receiving the money, they were obliged to sign highly detailed legalistic forms written in English renouncing all rights against the UK government including the claim to return to their islands. These forms were not explained or translated and when the money was disbursed, the Chagossians were required merely to put their thumb print to a piece of paper which they thought was a mere form of receipt. The islanders vigorously deny that by doing so, they knew they were giving up their rights to return to Chagos or to seek further compensation.
A 1981 report established that 77 per cent of Chagossian adults wish to return to their homelands. It was to be nearly twenty years of further campaigning before the Chagossians secured a major success on this front.
Today, most Chagossians remain on the margins of Mauritian society, socially excluded and extremely poor. Living conditions for many families remain cramped and inadequate to cope with the extremes of heat and rain that characterise the country's climate. The unemployment rate for the Chagossians is 60 per cent compared with the national average of 4 per cent, while 45 per cent are illiterate compared to 15 per cent for Mauritius as a whole. Excluded from work, education and the possibility of a decent livelihood, many younger members of the community have turned to drug abuse and alcoholism. Prostitution is rife; suicide is common.