HC Deb 22 June 1951 vol 489 cc92-4W
Mr. J. Johnson

asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies the present position regarding the airstrip on the Cocos Islands; and how far he intends to develop this airstrip for the purposes of civil aviation.

Mr. J. Griffiths:

The Australian Government recently expressed to the United Kingdom Government their wish to develop for civil aviation purposes the airstrip which was constructed on the Cocos or Keeling Islands for the R.A.F. during the last war. This small group of islands lies in the Indian Ocean about 1,300 miles from Western Australia.

In view of the strategic advantages which would accrue to the British Commonwealth as a whole from the development of this airstrip—a project which will involve substantial expenditure by the Australian Government the United Kingdom Government, after consultation with the Government of Singapore, with whom responsibility for the administration of the islands at present rests, have accepted an Australian proposal that the islands should be transferred to Australia. In view of their very small area—the airstrip itself covers a large part of West Island, which is the largest of the group —it is, on purely practical grounds, desirable that whatever Government controls the airstrip should also administer the islands. The necessary Instruments of transfer will be prepared in due course.

The islands, most of whose 1,200 inhabitants are Malays, were leased by the Crown in 1886 to George Clunies-Ross and his successors in perpetuity, and the transfer now proposed will not, of course, impair the title of the leaseholder.

During recent years a considerable number of the inhabitants have indicated their wish to leave the islands, which are over-populated. Since 1948 emigration to North Borneo has been proceeding under arrangements made between the Governments of Singapore and North Borneo. It is intended that all who wish to emigrate (probably a majority of the inhabitants) should be given the opportunity of doing so before the transfer of the islands is effected. The Australian Government have agreed to enact legislation giving Australian citizenship, or the option of acquiring it, to those who elect to remain on the islands after the transfer.