Diego Garcia ought to be a paradise. Instead the aquamarine-fringed atoll in the Indian Ocean has come to stand for colonial-era high-handedness, human-rights abuses and militarisation. This year its former residents and those of the 60-plus other tiny territories that make up the Chagos Islands – all of whom were forcibly deported in the six years leading up to 1973 – are hoping they might at last be allowed to return home.
In 1965, with the collapse of the British empire almost complete, the UK annexed the Chagos Islands from Mauritius. The next year they were flipped to the US on a 50-year lease in exchange for $14m (€12m) in nuclear-weapons discounts. The lease is now up for renewal and both parties are eager to continue an arrangement that has allowed the US to transform Diego Garcia into a vital military base – an alleged cia black site and transit point in its post-September 11 “extraordinary rendition” programme.
Chagossians have taken their case for return to the UK’s Supreme Court. Today the only residents of the Chagos Islands are US military personnel and contractors; former inhabitants and their descendants are now impoverished, stateless communities living in Mauritius and the UK. “I am confident in the battle we are fighting and my feeling is we will return,” says Marie Sabrina Jean, a 43-year-old second-generation Chagossian, born in Mauritius and living in the UK, where she chairs the Chagos Refugees Group.
The UK has faced down a series of legal challenges, including rulings from the High Court in 2000 and a special UN tribunal in 2015. It has also played dirty, declaring the islands a Marine Protected Area (mpa) in 2010 and arguing that people should not live there. But if the Supreme Court rules in the Chagossians favour, there may be nothing the UK government can do.
Saudi Arabia has taken a hit in the new era of low oil prices and although the country spends heavily it is eyeing initiatives that will bring in extra revenue. The estimated $4bn (€3.5bn) bridge across the Red Sea to Egypt is a case in point: if it goes ahead Riyadh expects more pilgrimage traffic and hopes to bolster Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s plans to strengthen the Sinai Peninsula.
But it isn’t just pilgrims that the kingdom wants to attract: it also plans to allow wealthy foreigners to buy residence permits, which is set to generate an expected $10bn (€8.8bn) per year by 2020. The question is, do enough rich people want to live in Saudi?
St Helena, a tiny British territory in the south Atlantic, has a brand new airport, with weekly flights connecting the island with Johannesburg from mid-May. Previously the only scheduled connection to St Helena, which is home to fewer than 5,000 people, was via one of the world’s last three in-service Royal Mail ships, a journey that took five days from Cape Town (see issue 46).
Adam Kossowski, St Helena Island commercial adviser, describes the airport as a “game-changer” that will boost tourism and spur the island’s moribund economy. “This opens up St Helena to more visitors by reducing travelling time and improves access to medical services and specialists from overseas.”
Former Royal Navy lawyer Alan Cole is the Nairobi-based head of Global Maritime Crime at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
What does maritime crime involve?
We started off tackling Somali piracy before moving into other forms of maritime crime. Vessels involved in trafficking charcoal or people or those moving firearms, IED components or drugs are in the same business: criminals with guns and boats. The Indian Ocean trade routes are particularly strong and the smuggling of migrants from Africa north, the movement of heroin from Iran and Pakistan to the west, and piracy and illegal fishing all mean that there’s a lot of transnational maritime crime.
Why is it hard to police?
Not many states in this part of the world have a deep-water law enforcement capability. African countries don’t traditionally have very strong navies and the legal regime beyond the 12-nautical-mile territorial limit is a bit shaky.
What is of greatest concern at the moment?
The return of illegal fishing off the coast of Somalia, which was one of the drivers of Somali piracy. If it’s not regulated properly and quickly it could lead us back to the same situation. Somali piracy is at a low ebb but the pirate gangs are still there.
What is behind the volume of heroin that is being trafficked via east Africa?
Moving heroin into Europe and North America through Syria and central Asia is much more difficult – due to war and better law enforcement – so traffickers are looking to this route: into east Africa by sea and out to Europe by air.