Three MPs have made a secretive visit to the US military base on Diego Garcia and the Chagos Islands, it has emerged, in what is believed to be the first formal, parliamentary visit to the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).
Earlier this year the UN told the UK to renounce its claim on the islands and allow the original inhabitants, who were expelled to make way for the base, to return.
The Foreign Office organised the unannounced trip for Labour’s Catherine West and the Conservatives Andrew Rosindell and Daniel Kawczynski at short notice in late August days ahead of the current Indian Ocean tour by Pope Francis in which he was seen to offer support to the islanders.
On Tuesday the pontiff urged Britain to comply with a UN resolution and return the islands to Mauritius, saying: “You must obey international institutions.”
The four-day expedition involved the MPs enduring sea sickness and wading ashore through coral reefs. All three MPs are members of the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on Chagos.
A source close to the visit suggested the trip may have been an attempt to bolster support in parliament for continued British sovereignty of the archipelago.
The UK retained possession of the Chagos archipelago after Mauritius gained independence in 1968. Around 1,500 inhabitants were deported in the years up to 1973 so the largest island, Diego Garcia, could be leased to the US for the airbase. They have never been allowed to resettle.
West, MP for Hornsey and Wood Green, has long campaigned for the Chagossians’ right to return to their homeland. “We went to see how a resettlement programme might be possible and what it might be like to live there,” she explained. “The best solution is for the UK government to resettle the Chagossians.
“We travelled with a Foreign Office official and a member of staff who organises heritage tours [for exiled islanders]. The UK officials are doing a very good job in terms of the environment and looking after wildlife.
“We flew in on a British military plane to Bahrain which was six hours; then went out the next morning to Diego Garcia which was another six hours.
“At one stage we had a 13-hour boat trip to the island of Peros Banhos. I was very sea sick … We had to swim ashore because no one can take a boat over the coral. There were a dozen Royal Marines with us.”
West said they had also met a UK customs official who told of bringing a Sri Lankan vessel illegally fishing for tuna and sharks that was brought before magistrates on the island and had the fish confiscated.
She continued: “On the last day we met senior US officials … that would be the [focus] of any resettlement. There’s no reason why the community couldn’t seek work at the base.”
In May the UK was ordered to hand back the Chagos Islands to Mauritius “as rapidly as possible” after the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled that British occupation is illegal.
Although the majority decision by the ICJ was only advisory, it was a humiliating blow to Britain’s prestige. Since then the UN general assembly has set a six-month deadline, expiring on 22 November, for the withdrawal of the British colonial administration.
The prime minister, Boris Johnson, suffered one of his heaviest defeats at the UN as foreign secretary over the legality of British occupation of BIOT.
Jeremy Corbyn, a former chair of the APPG, has condemned the UK government for defying the ICJ ruling. West said she had told the Labour leader of her trip – “I’m sure he would have loved to come along” – adding that she hoped the visit was a sign the Foreign Office was changing its mind about resettlement.
Pope Francis raised hopes of resettlement among exiles on his visit to Mauritius this week by referring to the Chagos Islands rather than using the UK’s preferred term of BIOT.
David Snoxell, co-ordinator of the APPG and former UK high commissioner to Mauritius, said: “For as long as BIOT remains British it is unlikely that Chagossians will be allowed to return, but under Mauritian sovereignty the Islanders can do so. Mauritius has made it clear that it will organise and contribute to the cost of resettlement. That is why resettlement and restoration of the Chagos Archipelago to Mauritius go hand in hand.”
Professor Phillippe Sands QC, who represented Mauritius at the ICJ, said: “The failure of the UK to consult with Mauritius is clearly inconsistent with the ruling and overwhelming support in the UN for the position of Mauritius and the right of Chagossians to return.”
Rossindell, chair of the APPG, could not be contacted for comment.