Select Committee on Foreign Affairs First Special Report


Memorandum submitted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) (31 July 2000)

  1.  The Committee is aware that the issue of the return of the Ilois to BIOT is currently before the Courts. This Memorandum will, therefore, outline the present Government's position on access to the islands of BIOT, as the law stands, and in the light of the circumstances on the islands created by decision taken by previous Governments. The position may require to be reviewed in the light of whatever judgement is given by the High Court. The Committee may also wish to see the answer which the Minister of State (Mr Battle) gave to a Parliamentary Question by Iain Coleman MP, on 18 July: a copy is attached to this Memorandum[35].

  2.  The access of the Ilois to the territory of BIOT is determined by the machinery of the Immigration Ordinance 1971. It is the validity of this Ordinance that is the central issue in the current litigation before the High Court. Judgement has been reserved and is not expected to be given before early October.

  3.  The Government's position on the issue of the return of the Ilois to the islands has two elements: in respect of short-term visits, and about long-term, permanent, settlement.

  4.  Under the 1971 Ordinance all persons who wish to enter the territory must first obtain a permit from the BIOT immigration authorities. In general, permits are granted to persons the purpose of whose visits is in some way connected with the administration of the territory or the operation of the US defence facility on Diego Garcia. Permits for visits for other purposes may be (and have been) granted for people to carry out scientific work, or for medical, compassionate or other similar grounds. As an example of this policy, permission was given in 1995 for a group of Ilois to enter the territory to see the condition of the former habitations and to visit the graves of their parents and relatives. For reasons of their own the Ilois concerned did not make use of this permission.

  5.  Requests for long-term or permanent settlement raise more difficult issues. These relate to the Treaty obligations to the US entered into first in 1966. Secondly they arise from the absence of any human settlement activity on the islands for 30 years and the withdrawal of the commercial copra plantation, which was the sole source of employment.

  6.  Under the relevant treaties the territory is to be made available for the defence purposes of the UK and USA for "an indefinitely long period", initially for 50 years from the first treaty. If and when the territory were no longer required for defence purposes as envisaged in the UK/US treaties, the UK is committed to cede sovereignty over the islands to the Government of Mauritius, who therefore may also take a view on the permanent settlement of the islands, the cost of supporting which would pass to them.

  7.  The Government is taking independent expert advice on the feasibility of any eventual resettlement of the Ilois in the outer islands of the territory (that is islands other than Diego Garcia itself, where such resettlement would be impractical and inconsistent with the existing defence facilities). A study was commissioned and the report (attached[36]) on its first phase has been received and has been laid before Parliament. The Committee will see that, among the factors which need to be taken into account are, first, that the outer islands, which have been uninhabited for 30 years, lack all basic facilities and infrastructure; and, second, the territory's status as an area which, because of its remoteness, inaccessibility and present uninhabited state, constitutes a virtually pristine environment. The impact of any settlement on this environment needs careful consideration. As the Committee will see the consultants have identified more work that is necessary before a full assessment could be made of the feasibility, environmental impact and cost of any possible resettlement.

  8.  Our position on the future of the territory will be determined by our strategic and other interests and our treaty commitments to the USA.

35   Not printed. Back

36   Not printed. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 9 January 2001