Less than £12,000 of a £40m fund set up to compensate Chagos islanders who were forcibly evicted from their homeland by the British government has reached those living in the UK.
Four years after it was announced, the Foreign Office fund has distributed less than 1% of its budget in direct support to islanders forced from their homes in the Indian Ocean.
The English council tasked with assessing how to allocate the money has abandoned the work, according to documents seen by the Observer, and returned funds to the Foreign Office.
Thousands of Chagossians were forcibly removed from their home on the Indian Ocean archipelago by the British government in the 1960s. The government has since admitted their treatment was wrong and a matter of “deep regret” but continues to allow the largest island, Diego Garcia, to be used as a strategic US military airbase.
On Thursday, the United Nations maritime court ruled that Britain had no sovereignty over the Chagos Islands, a judgment that will damage Britain’s international reputation if it refuses to comply.
It criticised London for its failure to hand the territory back to Mauritius and follows the international court of justice announcement last year that the UK’s ongoing administration of the islands was “unlawful”.
The limited Foreign Office funding used so far has been spent on interpretation services for Chagossians, many of whom depend on French creole translation, and modest support for community groups.
Money was also spent on scoping visits to the islands by government officials, with several hundred thousand pounds used for “heritage trips”, granting Chagossians short stays on the islands, often to tend to relatives’ graves. Chagossian charity groups have, however, described this use of the support fund as “disingenuous”.
The Conservative MP Henry Smith, whose constituency of Crawley in West Sussex is home to most of Britain’s 3,000-plus Chagossian population, said: “The £40m support fund was announced almost five years ago and it has been tortuous to extract money from it ever since.
“While there’s some uncertainty among the Chagos community about engaging with the UK government over these funds, it’s outrageous that next to none of this funding has actually been utilised. The fact that this sort of funding hasn’t been deployed is another failure of Foreign Office promises over half a century to the Chagossian community.”
Louis Amadis, whose mother was born in Diego Garcia, moved to the UK in 2004, and until the pandemic hit was working at the check-in desks in Gatwick airport. When the first round of furlough came to a close, he was made redundant and he had to give up his flat.
Talking about the unspent support fund, Amadis said: “It’s really painful to be honest, knowing that we’re supposed to have this support, but we don’t have any of it, haven’t seen any of it.”
Chagossian charities have been handing out crisis grants of £50 to families who are struggling to buy food or pay for funeral costs but have expressed frustration that the multi-million pound support fund is not being utilised.
The vice-chair of the UK Chagos Support Association, Stefan Donnelly, said: “It seems ridiculous that we’re giving out such meagre amounts, raised from small individual donations, when such a large fund committed to helping Chagossians is going unused.”
In 2017, the Foreign Office signed a memorandum of understanding with Crawley borough council over work to assess where these funds would be best allocated. But the
council abandoned the needs assessment the following year and returned almost £40,000, citing strains the research was putting on the council’s relationship with the community.
A Foreign Office spokesman said: “In 2016, the UK announced an ambitious and significant package of support for the Chagossians.
“We remain committed to working with the Chagossian community including through funding for visits to the Chagos Islands and language training.”