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Where are the Chagos Islands and why has Pope Francis weighed in on the controversy?

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US crews bringing equipment onshore in the Chagos Islands in 1971
US crews bringing equipment onshore in the Chagos Islands in 1971
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Pope Francis has called on the UK to return the Chagos Islands to Mauritius, including one rented to the US for use as an airbase, after a UN resolution ruling the occupation unlawful.

During a mass in Mauritius on Monday, the pontiff referred to the archipelago as the Chagos Islands, the name used by Mauritius, instead of British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).

Speaking to reporters on the way home from his three-nation African tour, Pope Francis said: “When we recognise international organisations, such as the International Court of Justice in The Hague or the United Nations, and give them the capacity to judge internationally, when they speak, if we are (part of) humanity, we must obey.

"It is true that not all things that are right for humanity are also right for our pockets (financial interests) but international institutions must be obeyed.”

Where are the Chagos Islands?

The Chagos Islands are an archipelago of 64 islands in the Indian Ocean around 500km south of Mauritius.

They were once part of the colony of Mauritius under British rule until 1965. Three years before Mauritius became independent in 1968, the UK separated out the Chagos Islands into a separate colony and refused to grant them independence as well.

A Diego Garcian man in the Chagos Islands in 1971US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Between the late 1960s and early 1970s everyone who lived on the Chagos Islands, which had a population of between 1,500 and 2,000 people, were forcibly deported to Mauritius and the Seychelles.

The UK then leased the largest island, Diageo Garcia, to the US as a permanent military base. Chagos Islanders have never been allowed to return but were given the right to British passports in 2002.

Where are the Chagos Islanders now?

The majority of the Chagos Islanders and their descendants live in the UK, the Seychelles and Mauritius.

But Chagos Islanders have never given up their bid to go home. In February the UN-controlled International Court of Justice, which mediates boundary disputes, rejected the UK’s claim to sovereignty over the islands and said they should be transferred to Mauritius “as rapidly as possible”.

Read more: Pope says Britain should obey U.N., return islands, including U.S. base

Delivering the judgement, Judge Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf, said the separation of the archipelago from Mauritius in 1965 had not been a “free and genuine expression of the people concerned”.

In May, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly demanded that Britain give up control over the Chagos Islands within six months.

The judgement and the resolution have no legal force but it was a severe blow to the credibility of the UK’s claim to the islands.