While the focus is on UK Government policy to deport migrants to Rwanda, Simon Israel reports on the plight of asylum seeks marooned on the British Indian Overseas Territory of Diego Garcia
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As I sat drinking coffee at London’s St Pancras International train station my mobile rang. It was a call from 6000 miles away on one of the world’s most remote islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Amanda(not her real name) was calling from a makeshift camp on Diego Garcia. She and more than 60 other Sri Lankan Tamil men, women and children have been living there for the past 18 months. “Mr Simon,” she said “you must help me. We are so desperate here.”
The refugee camp in Diego Garcia. Photo from a resident.
Her call had followed a meeting about their future with the representative of the UK Government appointed Commissioner for the British Indian Overseas Territory (BIOT), Paul Candler. She and her fellow Tamil migrants have been living in what they describe as ‘degrading conditions’ since being rescued from their boat when its engine failed and started sinking in shark-infested waters just off the largest of the Chagossian islands in October 2021.
They have been encamped there ever since. Their fishing vessel, the Marayan, which had taken them 2000 kilometres in 10 days across the ocean, is anchored in a nearby bay, unfit for another voyage.
Mr Candler rarely travels to the island. He manages its affairs from the FCDO in London. This week his representative was instructed to confront the unwanted visitors amid growing concerns about numerous suicide attempts among the group, a hunger strike, and a High Court hearing in London.
Lawyers for five of the most vulnerable, who have been medevac’d to a Rwandan military hospital in Kigali, wanted an injunction to prevent them from being returned to Diego Garcia. They didn’t succeed, although two of their clients have now been promised international protection in a ‘safe’ country, yet to be disclosed.
But on the island itself, the migrants were told the Commissioner was very concerned about the attempts at serious self-harm and their refusal to eat or drink.
His message, as laid out in a leaked email, was “ There is no guarantee that we will be able to arrange a medevac in time if your condition suddenly deteriorated. There is a real risk someone might die or suffer life-changing injuries.” He added, “Whatever other people might be telling you, this is not a way to reach the UK.”
Rwandan military hospital: photo from resident
The migrants languish in their camp and in their army tents while their applications for asylum are processed in London. Around half have been turned down and are seeking to appeal. The others are still awaiting decisions. But there is no future for them on Diego Garcia. There hasn’t been a civilian population on BIOT for 60 years, since the native Chagossians were removed from their homelands to make way for a US and UK naval base, treatment the UK was later to acknowledge was ‘shameful and wrong.’ Only military and support staff are permitted to live there.
The migrants are not allowed access to any mobile phone network. Their asylum interviews were conducted remotely from London through officially appointed translators via secure links to the island. BIOT has installed landlines so they can talk to their families and lawyers at the cost of $60,000 (£48,600) a month.
The BIOT commissioner made clear in the leaked email “UK Government policy is that they will not be taken to the UK” and added “They are all free to return to Sri Lanka and the UK would support them with flights and ‘reintegration payments.’
He added “We expect this process to take up to a year. If that legal challenge to my decision is unsuccessful you will be removed to Sri Lanka. That is your choice.”
The situation echoes a similar event when a boatload of migrants was holed on the rocks below the British military base in Cyprus back in 1998. They too were rescued by the Royal Navy – helicopters on that occasion. The men, women and children were subsequently detained, then accommodated on the base and promised resettlement in the UK. It took a 20-year legal battle before that finally happened.
By all accounts the current Government is determined that will not be repeated either in the British courts or the BIOT supreme court which also sits in London on rare occasions.
There are urgent moves on Diego Garcia to see if the migrants’ fishing boat can be made seaworthy again. The Commissioner said it would be lifted out of the water to examine if it can be repaired, as lawyers in London fight for a right not to be sent back to a country where the future is no less bleak.
In a statement, the FCDO said “The welfare and safety of migrants on the British Indian Ocean Territory is our top priority. We are …working tirelessly to find a long-term solution to their current situation.”
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