My Lords, I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Ludford and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and the noble Lord, Lord Woolley of Woodford, for their support for the amendment. The amendment would extend the right to register as citizens to the descendants of Chagossians exiled from their homeland, subject to a time limit. I am grateful to Rosy Leveque of BIOT Citizens for her help with it, and to Chagossian Voices for its briefing.
To understand the case for this amendment, a bit of history is necessary. Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, the inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago—a British Overseas Territory which became part of the British Indian Ocean Territory—were evicted by the then British Government to make way for a US airbase on Diego Garcia, the largest of the islands. They have never been allowed to return. Not only did they lose their homeland, but their grandchildren and other descendants have no right to British Overseas Territory citizenship and, therefore, to British citizenship. Only those born on the islands and the first generation born in exile have such a right. I should perhaps make it clear that the right to citizenship should not be confused with the quite separate right of return, which is not affected by this amendment, important as it is.
The Chagossians were deported to Mauritius and the Seychelles and now around 4,000 live in the UK, but because of the unjust citizenship rules many are undocumented and children have been and continue to be deported. Families have been broken up and communities are divided, as some members have access to citizenship rights while others do not. This has caused hardship for many and has aggravated the trauma associated with exile. The lack of citizenship rights has created insecurity and made it harder to integrate into local communities.
“the Chagossians present a unique case.”—[
He said he would “reflect further”. It all looked rather hopeful but when the Conservative MP, Henry Smith, raised the issue on Report, what looked like a half-open door was slammed shut by the Immigration Minister, Kevin Foster, which was very disappointing. Mr Smith emphasised the anomalies created, the injustices caused and that we are talking about no more than a few hundred to the low thousands of people who would benefit. So far, BIOT Citizens has identified 500 descendants. What is at stake is a small concession but one that would make a huge difference to the lives of those affected. It would also have symbolic importance for a people who have lost their homeland through no fault of their own.
Mr Smith’s amendment was rejected in a single paragraph. There appear to be two strings to the Government’s case. The first is that the amendment
“would undermine a long-standing principle of British nationality law … under which nationality or entitlement to nationality is not passed on to the second and subsequent generations born and settled outside the UK and its territories, creating quite a major precedent.”—[
I am sure noble Lords can spot what a specious argument this is in this context. The only reason the Chagossians in question do not meet this condition is because they are descended from people who were evicted against their will from a British Oversees Territory. Forced and continued exile prevents them from meeting these long-standing conditions. It is not clear that the Government really understand this, but as the Junior Minister acknowledged in Committee, it is “a unique case” so no precedent would be set, unless the Government have plans to evict others from their British Overseas Territory homelands. I hope and trust that, if the noble Baroness—I think it is the noble Baroness—the Minister has been briefed to use this argument, she will scrap it now.
The second government concern is more credible. They do not want to create an open-ended right in the way that the Commons amendment did, and I think that is reasonable. This amendment therefore creates a five-year time limit for applications, following the Windrush precedent in the British Nationality Act 1981. Those aged under 18 at the time of enactment will have up until the age of 23. I am offering the Minister an opportunity to add something positive, that would be widely welcomed, to a Bill that—with very few exceptions to be found in this part of it—has been widely condemned. If this particular way of capping entitlement is not to the Government’s liking I am, of course, open to discussions about alternative means, such as a generational cap. I very much hope that the Minister will accept the amendment or a revised version of it for Report. Is she willing to meet virtually with me and other signatories to the amendment and those advising me to discuss how we might proceed? I plan to return to the issue on Report to try to put right what Henry Smith MP correctly described as an “appalling injustice”. I beg to move.