The term "British Overseas Territory" was introduced by the British Overseas Territories Act 2002, replacing the term British Dependent Territory, introduced by the British Nationality Act 1981. Prior to 1 January 1983, the territories were officially referred to as British Crown Colonies. With the exceptions of the British Antarctic Territory and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands and the British Indian Ocean Territory, the Territories retain permanent civilian populations. Permanent residency for the 7,000 or so civilians living in the Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia is limited to citizens of the Republic of Cyprus.
Collectively, the Territories encompass a population of about 250,000 people and a land area of about 1,727,570 square kilometres. The vast majority of this land area, 1,700,000 square kilometres, constitutes the almost uninhabited British Antarctic Territory, while the largest territory by population, Bermuda, accounts for almost a quarter of the total BOT population. At the other end of the scale, three territories have no civilian population; the Antarctic territory, the British Indian Ocean Territory and South Georgia. Pitcairn Islands, settled by the survivors of the Mutiny on the Bounty, is the smallest settled territory with 49 inhabitants, while the smallest by land area is Gibraltar on the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula. The United Kingdom participates in the Antarctic Treaty System and, as part of a mutual agreement, the British Antarctic Territory is recognised by four of the other sovereign nations making claims to Antarctic territory.
Although the Crown dependencies of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man are also under the sovereignty of the British monarch, they are in a different constitutional relationship with the United Kingdom. The British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies are themselves distinct from the Commonwealth realms, a group of 15 independent countries each having Elizabeth II as their reigning monarch, and from the Commonwealth of Nations, a voluntary association of 52 countries mostly with historic links to the British Empire.
As of August 2014 the Minister responsible for the Territories excluding the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar and the Sovereign Base Areas is Tariq Ahmad, Minister of State for the Commonwealth and the UN. The other three territories are the responsibility of Sir Alan Duncan MP, Minister of State for Europe and the Americas.
Early colonies, in the sense of English subjects residing in lands hitherto outside the control of the English government, were generally known as "Plantations".
The first, unofficial, colony was Newfoundland, where English fishermen routinely set up seasonal camps in the 16th century. It is now a province of Canada known as Newfoundland and Labrador. It retains strong cultural ties with Britain.
English colonisation of North America began officially in 1607 with the settlement of Jamestown, the first successful permanent colony in Virginia (a term that was then applied generally to North America). Its offshoot, Bermuda, was settled inadvertently after the wrecking of the Virginia company's flagship there in 1609, with the Virginia Company's charter extended to officially include the archipelago in 1612. St. George's town, founded in Bermuda in that year, remains the oldest continuously inhabited British settlement in the New World (with some historians stating that – its formation predating the 1619 conversion of "James Fort" into "Jamestown" – St. George's was actually the first successful town the English established in the New World). Bermuda and Bermudians have played important, sometimes pivotal, but generally underestimated or unacknowledged roles in the shaping of the English and British trans-Atlantic Empires. These include maritime commerce, settlement of the continent and of the West Indies, and the projection of naval power via the colony's privateers, among other areas.
The growth of the British Empire in the 19th century, to its territorial peak in the 1920s, saw Britain acquire nearly one quarter of the world's land mass, including territories with large indigenous populations in Asia and Africa. From the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, the larger settler colonies – in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – first became self-governing colonies and then achieved independence in all matters except foreign policy, defence and trade. Separate self-governing colonies federated to become Canada (in 1867), Australia (in 1901), South Africa (in 1910), and Rhodesia (in 1965). These and other large self-governing colonies had become known as Dominions by the 1920s. The Dominions achieved almost full independence with the Statute of Westminster (1931).
Through a process of decolonisation following the Second World War, most of the British colonies in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean gained independence. Some colonies became Commonwealth realms, retaining the British monarch as their own head of state. Most former colonies and protectorates became member states of the Commonwealth of Nations, a non-political, voluntary association of equal members, comprising a population of around 2.2 billion people.
After the independence of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in Africa in 1980 and British Honduras (now Belize) in Central America in 1981, the last major colony that remained was Hong Kong, with a population of over 5 million. With 1997 approaching, the United Kingdom and China negotiated the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which led to the whole of Hong Kong becoming a "special administrative region" of China in 1997, subject to various conditions intended to guarantee the preservation of Hong Kong's capitalist economy and its way of life under British rule for at least 50 years after the handover. George Town in the Cayman Islands has consequently become the largest city in the Overseas Territories.
In 2002, the British Parliament passed the British Overseas Territories Act 2002. This reclassified the UK's dependent territories as overseas territories and, with the exception of those people solely connected with the Sovereign Base Areas of Cyprus, restored full British citizenship to their inhabitants.
The head of state in the overseas territories is the British monarch, Elizabeth II. The Queen's role in the territories is in her role as Queen of the United Kingdom, and not in right of each territory. The Queen appoints a representative in each territory to exercise her executive power. In territories with a permanent population, a Governor is appointed by the Queen on the advice of the British Government, usually a retired senior military officer, or a senior civil servant. In territories without a permanent population, a Commissioner is usually appointed to represent the Queen. Exceptionally, in the overseas territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, an Administrator is appointed to be the Governor's representative in each of the two distant parts of the territory, namely Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha.
The role of the Governor is to act as the de facto head of state, and they are usually responsible for appointing the head of government, and senior political positions in the territory. The Governor is also responsible for liaising with the UK Government, and carrying out any ceremonial duties. A Commissioner has the same powers as a Governor, but also acts as the head of government.
All the overseas territories have their own system of government, and localised laws. The structure of the government appears to be closely correlated to the size and political development of the territory.
Each overseas territory has its own legal system independent of the United Kingdom. The legal system is generally based on English common law, with some distinctions for local circumstances. Each territory has its own attorney general, and court system. For the smaller territories, the UK may appoint a UK-based lawyer or judge to work on legal cases. This is particularly important for cases involving serious crimes and where it is impossible to find a jury who will not know the defendant in a small population island.
Many of them, such as Isle of Man, Cayman Islands and Bermuda are used as tax havens and as flags of convenience for ships as part of the Red Ensign group.
The Pitcairn sexual assault trial of 2004 is an example of how the UK may choose to provide the legal framework for particular cases where the territory cannot do so alone.
A joint ministerial council of UK ministers, and the leaders of the Overseas Territories has been held annually since 2012 to provide representation between UK Government departments and Overseas Territory Governments.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has the responsibility of looking after the interests of all overseas territories except the Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia, which comes under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defence. Within the FCO, the general responsibility for the territories is handled by the Overseas Territories Directorate.
In 2012, the FCO published The Overseas Territories: security, success and sustainability which set out Britain's policy for the Overseas Territories, covering six main areas:
Britain and the overseas territories do not have diplomatic representations, although the governments of the overseas territories with indigenous populations all retain a representative office in London. The United Kingdom Overseas Territories Association (UKOTA) also represents the interests of the territories in London. The governments in both London and territories occasionally meet to mitigate or resolve disagreements over the process of governance in the territories and levels of autonomy.
Britain provides financial assistance to the overseas territories via the Department for International Development. Currently only Montserrat and Saint Helena receive budgetary aid (i.e. financial contribution to recurrent funding). Several specialist funds are made available by the UK, including:
The territories have no official representation in the UK Parliament, but have informal representation through the All-Party Parliamentary Group, and can petition the UK Government through the Directgov e-Petitions website. Only Gibraltar has representation in the European Parliament and it shares its Member with the region of South West England.
Two national parties, UKIP and the Liberal Democrats, have endorsed calls for direct representation of overseas territories in the UK Parliament, as well as backbench members of the Conservative Party and Labour Party.
Foreign affairs of the overseas territories are handled by the FCO in London. Some territories maintain diplomatic officers in nearby countries for trade and immigration purposes. Several of the territories in the Americas maintain membership within the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States, the Caribbean Community, the Caribbean Development Bank, Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, and the Association of Caribbean States. The territories are members of the Commonwealth of Nations through the United Kingdom. The inhabited territories compete in their own right at the Commonwealth Games, and three of the territories (Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands) sent teams to the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Gibraltar is the only overseas territory that is part of the European Union (EU), although it is not part of the European Customs Union, the European Tax Policy, the European Statistics Zone or the Common Agriculture Policy. Gibraltar is not a member of the European Union in its own right. The Sovereign Base Areas in Cyprus are not part of the European Union, but they are the only British overseas territory to use the euro as official currency. None of the other Overseas Territories are members of the EU, the main body of EU law does not apply and, although certain slices of EU law are applied to those territories as part of the EU's Association of Overseas Countries and Territories (OCT Association), they are not commonly enforceable in local courts. The OCT Association also provides overseas territories with structural funding for regeneration projects.
Since the return of full British citizenship to most 'belongers' of overseas territories (mainly since the British Overseas Territories Act 2002), the citizens of those territories hold concurrent European Union citizenship, giving them rights of free movement across all EU member states.
Several nations dispute the UK's sovereignty in the following overseas territories:
None of the overseas territories has its own nationality status, and all citizens are classed as British Overseas Territories citizens (BOTC). They do, however, have legislative independence over immigration, and holding the status of a BOTC does not automatically give a person a right of abode in any of the territories, as it depends on the territory's immigration laws. A territory may issue Belonger status to allow a person classed as a BOTC to reside in the territory that they have close links with. Non-BOTC citizens may acquire Belonger status to reside in a particular territory (and may subsequently become naturalised BOTC if they wish).
Historically, most inhabitants of the British Empire held the status of British subject, which was usually lost upon independence. From 1949, British subjects in the United Kingdom and the remaining colonies became citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies. However changes in British immigration and nationality law between 1962 and 1983 saw the creation of a separate British Dependent Territories citizenship (BDTC) with effect from January 1983. Citizens in most territories were stripped of full British citizenship. This was mainly to prevent a mass exodus of the citizens of Hong Kong to the UK before the agreed handover to China in 1997. Exception was made for the Falkland Islands, which had been invaded in 1982 by Argentina. Full British citizenship was soon returned to the people of Gibraltar having regard to the friction with Spain.
However, the British Overseas Territories Act 2002 replaced British Dependent Territory citizenship with British Overseas Territories citizenship (BOTC), and restored full British citizenship to all BOTCs except those from Akrotiri and Dhekelia. This restored to BOTCs the right to reside in the UK.
British citizens, however, do not have an automatic right to reside in any of the Overseas Territories. Some territories prohibit immigration, and any visitors are required to seek the permission of the territory's government to live in the territory.
Defence of the Overseas Territories is the responsibility of the UK. Many of the overseas territories are used as military bases by the UK and its allies.
Most of the languages other than English spoken in the territories contain a large degree of English, either as a root language, or in codeswitching, e.g. Llanito. They include:
Forms of English:
The many British overseas territories use a varied assortment of currencies, including the euro, pound, US dollar, NZ dollar, or their own currencies, which may be pegged to one of these.
1 Part of the British Overseas Territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha.
Each overseas territory has been granted its own flag and coat of arms by the British monarch. Traditionally, the flags follow the Blue Ensign design, with the Union Flag in the canton, and the territory's coat of arms in the fly. Exceptions to this are Bermuda which uses a Red Ensign; British Antarctic Territory which uses a White Ensign; British Indian Ocean Territory which uses a Blue Ensign with wavy lines to symbolise the sea; and Gibraltar which uses a banner of its coat of arms (the flag of the city of Gibraltar).
Akrotiri and Dhekelia and Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha are the only British overseas territories without their own flag. The Union Flag is used in these territories.
Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands are the only British Overseas Territories with recognised National Olympic Committees (NOCs); the British Olympic Association is recognised as the appropriate NOC for athletes from the other territories, and thus athletes who hold a British passport are eligible to represent Great Britain at the Olympic Games.
Shara Proctor from Anguilla, Delano Williams from the Turks and Caicos Islands, Jenaya Wade-Fray from Bermuda and Georgina Cassar from Gibraltar strived to represent Team GB at the London 2012 Olympics. Proctor, Wade-Fray and Cassar qualified for Team GB, with Williams missing the cut, however wishing to represent the UK in 2016.
The Gibraltar national football team was accepted into UEFA in 2013 in time for the 2016 European Championships. It has also applied to be part of FIFA and hopes to be accepted in time for eligibility for the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying.
The British Overseas Territories have more biodiversity than the entire UK mainland. There are at least 180 endemic plant species in the overseas territories as opposed to only 12 on the UK mainland. Responsibility for protection of biodiversity and meeting obligations under international environmental conventions is shared between the UK Government and the local governments of the territories.
Two areas, Henderson Island in the Pitcairn Islands as well as the Gough and Inaccessible Islands of Tristan Da Cunha are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and two other territories, the Turks and Caicos Islands, and Saint Helena are on the United Kingdom's tentative list for future UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Gibraltar's Gorham's Cave Complex is also found on the UK's tentative UNESCO World Heritage Site list.
The three regions of biodiversity hotspots situated in the British Overseas Territories are the Caribbean Islands, the Mediterranean Basin and the Oceania ecozone in the Pacific.
The UK created the largest continuous marine protected areas in the world, the Chagos Marine Protected Area, and announced in 2015 funding to establish a new, larger, reserve around the Pitcairn Islands.
In January 2016, the UK government announced the intention to create a marine protected area around Ascension Island. The protected area would be 234,291 square kilometers, half of which would be closed to fishing.