US and UK accused of 'squeezing life out of' Ascension Island

Britain denies uprooting families living on tiny mid-Atlantic island to make way for American military base

The British government is accused of presiding over the emptying of the remote colonial outpost of Ascension Island in the mid-Atlantic, uprooting families that have lived there for almost a century. Local people claim the UK is engaged in a slow-motion repeat of its widely condemned expulsion of the inhabitants of the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia.

Ascension Island is a tiny leftover of empire, a volcanic island 700 miles from anywhere. It is dominated by a US military airbase, which more than 100 aircraft passed through on security duties during Barack Obama’s recent trip to Africa. There are satellite and submarine tracking stations, a BBC transmitter, and a listening post run by GCHQ’s Composite Signals Organisation.

Its resident population – most of them originally from St Helena, another British South Atlantic island – has fallen by a quarter in a decade to less than 800, as the companies that now run most military and civilian services replace settled family communities with contract workers. Local people say the island now has more antennas than people.

Caroline Yon, a former island councillor whose day job is running a European Space Agency tracking station, said: “The US and UK are squeezing the life out of the place. They want to make Ascension like Diego Garcia.” Britain expelled the population of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean 40 years ago to make way for a US airbase.

A shopkeeper, Cedric Henry, said: “It’s like being on an oil rig now. We have no rights. We are just a workforce, even though many people have never lived anywhere else. Some families have been here for four generations.”

The issue is expected to come to a head in elections later this year for the island council – a purely advisory body that is the island’s only semblance of democracy after 198 years of British rule.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. A decade ago, in the heyday of Labour foreign secretary Robin Cook’s “ethical foreign policy”, Britain promised a new deal for the residents. It drew up plans for democratic institutions, a legal right of abode and to own property. “We want to ensure that Ascension continues to be a viable community,” said the island’s then administrator, Andrew Kettlewell.

The new island council planned to develop eco-tourism. The only downside was the introduction of taxes.

Then in 2006, Cook’s successor, Jack Straw, committed what the island’s administrator, Colin Wells, admits was a “spectacular U-turn”. The promises were all abandoned, though not the taxes.

With no right of abode, anyone who retires or reaches 18 without a job, or whose contract ends, has to leave. Businesses set up during the “Ascension spring” have lost their value because they cannot be sold and have no secure land tenure.

Over afternoon tea in the garden of his official residence, guarded by ceremonial cannons, Wells denied local claims that Whitehall was forced into the about-face on right of abode …read more