A report of discontent among Saints on Ascension has drawn a retort in the Guardian newspaper from the island’s administrator, Colin Wells.
Writer Fred Pearce quoted four long-time island residents voicing concerns about the effects of Ascension’s declining population – with a suggestion that it was the result of deliberate policy.
He also described the sense of betrayal felt by many long-term workers when the British government made a “necessary U-turn” by going back on a promise to give them the right to live on the island, even without a work contract.
The article was quoted by St Helena Online, here.
Mr Wells’s letter says: “Ascension has always operated as a workplace. All of those coming to the island do so on short-term contracts, which they sign in full knowledge that their presence on the island is conditional on their employment and there is no right of permanent abode.
“There are solid reasons for this. Ascension has extremely limited infrastructure. It would be vastly expensive to convert the island from a place of work to one of permanent residence.
“It would, for instance, require provision to be made for elderly care, pensions, and an expanded public service and legal system. This would place enormous burden on the taxpayer and would still not guarantee a viable permanent community given the remoteness, small size, and largely barren nature of Ascension.
“There is no intention of squeezing life out of Ascension, but it is true that the number of people working there may fluctuate. It is precisely to retain this flexibility that the government does not have any expectation that it will artificially sustain a permanent community on Ascension.”
Mr Wells also dismissed the opening angle of the article, which made comparisons with the scandal of Diego Garcia, another UK overseas territory from which local people were forcibly removed to clear the islands for a US air base. .
He said: “The claim that Britain is uprooting families [on Ascension] to make way for a US military base is bewildering: there has been a US airfield on the island for over 70 years.”
COMMENT: St Helena Online carried a report about Fred Pearce’s article, re-angled to reflect the impact of depopulation on Saints and island life. In truth, most of what was said will have been very familiar to people with any knowledge of Ascension: the grievances have been building up over a few years. However, the impact is being felt more keenly as time passes, and the concerns deserved to be reported.
The issue drew a number of comments on the Ascension Island page on Facebook, here.