Pope Francis demands Britain hand back Chagos Islands

Adrian Blomfield
Chagossians attend a mass hosted by Pope Francis  - REX

Pope Francis has accused Britain of placing greed over humanity by refusing to hand over a disputed island archipelago in the Indian Ocean to Mauritius.

In an unusually muscular foreign policy intervention, the pope suggested that Britain’s failure to heed a United Nations vote calling on it relinquish sovereignty over the British Indian Ocean Territory was uncivilised.

“Not all things that are right for humanity are right for our pocket, but international institutions must be obeyed,” the pope told journalists as he left Mauritius at the end of a three-nation tour of Africa. 

“If there is an internal dispute or conflict among countries, you go there to resolve it like brothers, like civil people.”

The United Nations General Assembly passed a motion in May calling on Britain to return the remote but strategically important territory, also known as the Chagos Islands, to Mauritius, which had administered them as a dependency in the colonial era.

Pope Francis commented on the dispute over the Chagos Islands' sovereignty Credit: DAI KUROKAWA/EPA-EFE/REX

For the past 50 years the main Chagossian island of Diego Garcia has been the site of a US military base. The population of the islands, numbering about 1,500 people at the time, was evicted by Britain in the Sixties and Seventies to pave the way for the construction of the base.

Unlike resolutions by the UN Security Council, General Assembly votes are non-binding. However, pressure has been mounting on Britain since a UN court ruled in February that its acquisition of the archipelago was “wrongful”.

A group of British MPs visited the islands, which lie 1,400 miles of the Mauritian coast, last month on an unprecedented Parliamentary fact-finding mission.

Britain purchased the islands from Mauritius in 1965 when it was still a self-governing territory within the Commonwealth. 

In the 1970s, Britain signed a deal with the islanders offering them £4m in exchange for surrendering their right to live on the archipelago. 

The government of Mauritius, then fully independent, also accepted financial aid to resettle the islanders on its territory — but the housing it offered them was so poor most moved to Crawley in West Sussex, where they still live today.

Britain’s Supreme Court has rejected petitions by the islanders to be allowed to return to the archipelago, a position backed the European Court of Human Rights, largely because they had accepted the compensation package.

There are more than 3,500 people who identify as Chagossians today, fewer than a fifth of whom have ever set foot on the territory. If allowed to return, they say they would make a living by fishing, harvesting coconuts and tourism.