Over 125 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees have been stranded on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia since October 2021, which is some 1,786 km from Colombo, seeking asylum in Europe as crisis-hit Sri Lanka tries to seek international assistance to revive its economy and reduce its debt burden.
They claimed to be torture victims and young children in the group now stationed in Diego Garcia; a British Indian Ocean Territory island and the largest of the Chagos Archipelago’s 60 small islands. The UK has leased the island to the US, which operates a military base there. The island has no residents except for the US military.
The men, women, and children have been detained for nearly a year. They have been arriving in the island from September 2021 until now. According to rights activists and Tamil Solidarity organisation, these asylum seekers have very limited contact with the outside world and held incommunicado for extended periods of time at the military base after their distressed boats were intercepted and escorted to the island by British military. They are being held in a tented compound away from the island’s facilities and informed authorities say they need immediate international protection.
Diego Garcia was a British colony of Mauritius until 1965, when the Chagos Islands were separated and made part of the newly formed British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). Several Australian and British activists are currently assisting the stranded asylum seekers to find a country to settle them
Activists ring alarm bells
The Asia Pacific Network of Refugees (APNOR) and the International Tamil Refugee Advocacy Network (I-Tran), among others, traced these asylum seekers and stated that there are serious concerns about the asylum seekers’ mental and physical well-being, and that many of the individuals will require specialist medical evaluations before a decision is made on whether they will be returned to Sri Lanka.
On 20 May 2022, Al Jazeera reported about dozens of Tamil asylum seekers who had launched a hunger strike after being stranded on the Indian Ocean Island for eight months, demanding that the UK Government allow them to claim asylum in a safe third country.
“My husband called me today to tell me that seven people, including sick people, are on hunger strike,” Meera*, the wife of one asylum seeker, told Al Jazeera on 18 May. “They want to know when they will be transferred elsewhere.”
A human rights activist speaking from Australia told Ceylon Today that many are fleeing from Sri Lanka and about five boats full of economic refugees have reached Tamil Nadu. The Tamil Nadu Government have not detained them nor granted asylum but have let them join other refugee camps with funds provided by the State.
There is also a set of boat people who left the shores of Sri Lanka to go to Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
Some of them have been deported after travelling on charter flights to Australia. But as many as 125 persons have also sailed to Diego Garcia in an attempt to reach Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Those who arrived in Diego Garcia went off the radar for over three months, but news had been circulating that there are some families on the island with no inhabitants.
According to I-Tran, the first boat arrived at Diego Garcia in September with 89 persons on board. There were some from the South Indian refugee camps as well and others from Mannar, Jaffna and Trincomalee.
The rights activists contacted Sri Lankan human rights activists but none had any information regarding the refugees. They were finally traced with help of the Asia Pacific Regional Refugee Network.
Immediately several lawyers filed a case in the UK to accept the refugees as they are on British territory. While the case was on going, another boat carrying 30 persons from Trincomalee had arrived on Diego Garcia. When the news was out that the UK is going to accept the boat people others followed to the island, it was alleged.
There were around four persons who fell ill, volunteered to return to Sri Lanka and sent on a charter flight with Sterling Pounds in hand, noted one of the activists who wanted to remain anonymous.
Thereafter, another boat with 62 persons had arrived at Diego Garcia again from the Eastern part of Sri Lanka.
The refugees, while quoting the current crisis, also spoke about the mental trauma due to the war with regard to their lost kith and kin. They spoke of the torture and suppression by successive Sri Lankan governments.
The matter has also been referred to the United Nations Refugee Council where the UK is a signatory and the case is pending on the first batch of the boat people.
The US military base cannot hold outsiders and they have to be evacuated, it was noted.
The Tamil Solidarity organisation is raising funds to support the stranded refugees while the BIOT administration conducts interviews to determine whether or not the refugees will be returned to Sri Lanka.
The Leigh Day law firm, which has taken up the asylum seekers’ case, is striving to coordinate legal representation for the individuals on the island to ensure that everyone who requests it receives specialist asylum and refugee advice from lawyers throughout the BIOT interview and decision-making process. A number of firms, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, and law centres have already generously offered to provide expert representation.
Leigh Day has written to the Foreign Secretary and the BIOT commissioner, stating that returning the group to Sri Lanka would put them in danger and violate the UK’s domestic and international legal obligations. Despite the obvious need for individuals to receive specialist advice during the BIOT administration’s interview and decision-making process, the BIOT administration provides no legal aid for legal representation or medico-legal assessments, according to a Tamil Solidarity group on the Crowd Justice website.
The funds that Tamil Solidarity is raising will be put towards supporting these desperate individuals throughout the BIOT administration’s process that will determine their future. We aim to cover the costs of obtaining expert medico-assessments of individuals where needed and to make a contribution to the costs of specialist immigration lawyers who to date have very kindly been acting pro bono to support individuals through the interview process.
According to Al Jazeera, the first batch of 89 Sri Lankan Tamils, including 20 children, set out from Southern India in a fishing boat in late September 2021 in the hopes of seeking asylum in Canada. The majority of the group fled to India years before to avoid political persecution, torture, and enforced disappearances during the Sri Lankan Government’s bloody 26-year civil war against Tamil separatists, which ended in 2009.
They had travelled for about 11 days by sea, covering approximately 2,000km (1,243 miles). The asylum seekers’ boat then began to sink and was intercepted by British forces, who escorted the group to Diego Garcia, a British Indian Ocean Territory.
SL Navy has no info
Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) says they have no information on asylum seekers from Sri Lanka stranded in Diego Garcia. When Ceylon Today inquired, SLN spokesperson Captain Indika de Silva said they have no information about Sri Lankans stranded on the island but he said the Foreign Ministry perhaps would know in case the information has been shared with them.
The spokesperson said there have been many instances where Sri Lankans have made it to Australia seeking asylum and this could be one of the cases that had gone to Diego Garcia. He said, in the recent past 44 Sri Lankans were shipped back by the Australia Border Force using their patrolling vessel and handed over to Sri Lankan authorities officially.
By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan