The UN’s highest court has said that the UK should give up control of the Chagos Islands, potentially allowing thousands of Chagossians in Crawley to return home.
The Chagos islanders were forced to leave in the 1960s, so that the UK could lease the islands to the US military.
Many were sent to live in Mauritius, which had relinquished control of the islands while it was negotiating for its independence.
Others were sent to the UK. Crawley, with around 3,000 Chagos islanders, is thought to be home to the largest Chagossian community in the world.
On Monday, the International Court of Justice ruled that Mauritius was unfairly coerced into giving up the islands.
Judge Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf, president of the International Court of Justice gave the ruling, saying that the UK’s ownership of the islands was ‘unlawful’ and that the UK should ‘bring an end to its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible’.
The decision to separate the islands from Mauritius, he said, was not a ‘free and genuine expression of the people concerned’.
The court’s decision is not legally binding, and returning the islands to Mauritian ownership might not guarantee that the islanders could return home.
However, Pravind Kumar Jugnauth, prime minister of Mauritius, sounded an encouraging note when he said the Chagossians had been ‘unconscionably removed from their homeland’.
“Our territorial integrity will now be made complete, and when that occurs, the Chagossians and their descendants will finally be able to return home,” he said.
Crawley MP Henry Smith, who has campaigned for the islanders to be allowed to return home, said: “Chagos islanders should have self-determination alone and not be dictated to by London, Washington, Port Louis or The Hague.
“Decisions on future sovereignty of the British Indian Ocean Territory should be theirs alone.
“Away from the remote politics of international courts, what should be most important is the wellbeing of the Chagossian community both here in Crawley and around the world, that is why I continue to campaign for a right of return and citizenship rights.”
A statement from the UK Foreign Office said: “This is an advisory opinion, not a judgment.
“Of course, we will look at the detail of it carefully.
“The defence facilities on the British Indian Ocean Territory help to protect people here in Britain and around the world from terrorist threats, organised crime and piracy.”