Dozens of migrants have been stranded for months on a tiny British territory in the Indian Ocean after being rescued from their struggling fishing boat.
They are desperate to leave for a safe place, describing conditions as hellish, but the unusual legal status of the island has left them feeling frightened and helpless.
Early one morning in October 2021, a fishing boat was spotted struggling near the island of Diego Garcia.
The vessel immediately attracted the attention of the island’s authorities – the territory hosts a secretive UK-US military base, hundreds of miles away from any other population, and unauthorised visitors are forbidden.
It soon became clear that the 89 people on board – Sri Lankan Tamils who said they were fleeing persecution – weren’t actually intending to land on the island.
They had planned to seek asylum in Canada, a claim backed up by maps, diary entries and GPS data on board, before rough weather and engine problems pulled them off course.
As the boat ran into trouble, one man on board said they started looking for the nearest place of safety. “We saw a bit of light and started sailing towards Diego Garcia,” he told the BBC.
A Royal Navy ship escorted the boat to land, and the group were put into temporary accommodation.
That was 20 months ago. And communication between officials on the island and London gives clues as to why the migrants – some of whom have since attempted suicide due to their dire situation – are still there.
Communications in the immediate aftermath of their arrival were obtained through a Freedom of Information request to the Foreign Office by a lawyer representing some of the migrants, and shared with the BBC. They show officials wrestling with what to do about the “unprecedented development”.
Early messages spoke of plans to “investigate repair options to the engine”, but said “we can’t rule out” that the group will try to launch asylum claims from Diego Garcia.
By the next day, that scenario had become a reality.
The Tamils had presented a letter to the commander of the British forces on the island saying they were fleeing persecution, having set sail from Tamil Nadu in India 18 days earlier, and “expressing a wish to be sent to a safe country”.
Many have since claimed to have links with the former Tamil Tiger rebels in Sri Lanka, who were defeated in the civil war that ended in 2009, and say they have faced persecution as a result. Some allege they were victims of torture or sexual assault.
An official “information note”, approved in London by the director of overseas territories, Paul Candler, said the “unexpected arrival” of the group had marked the first time asylum had been sought on British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) – the islands’ official name.
It added that, if approached by the media, the official “defensive line” would be that the UK government was “aware of the incident” and was “working urgently to resolve the situation”.
The group “currently have no means of communication with the outside world… [but] with time passing there is a high likelihood news will spread,” it added.
In the coming months, as messages were going back and forth to London, more boats arrived on Diego Garcia. At one point numbers in the camp swelled to at least 150, lawyers estimate, as others arrived on the island from Sri Lanka.
Meanwhile, the reality of their current situation was beginning to dawn on the asylum seekers.
“I was initially happy, thinking: ‘I survived, I am getting food, and I am away from torture,'” Lakshani, one of the migrants, told the BBC last month.
But she said the tropical island refuge soon “turned out to be a hell”.
She says she was sexually assaulted in October last year by a man who travelled in the same boat and was housed in the same tent as her.
“I started to scream, but no-one came to help,” she said.
When she felt able to make an official complaint, she says she was told it was difficult to gather evidence as she had washed her clothes.
She says she had to continue staying in the same tent as her alleged attacker for almost a week until authorities finally responded to her demand to have him moved.
The UK government and BIOT administration did not respond to requests for comment about this allegation.
Lakshani and others told the BBC they or people they knew had attempted suicide or had self-harmed in their distress at the suffocating conditions, including by swallowing sharp objects.
Lawyers say they are aware of at least 12 suicide attempts and allegations of at least two sexual assaults within the camp.
“We are mentally and physically exhausted… We are living a lifeless life. I feel like I am living like a dead man,” said Vithusan, another migrant. He told the BBC he had self-harmed twice.
Another man, Aadhavan, said that after having his initial claim for protection rejected, he “lost all hope” and decided to take his own life.
“I didn’t want to live here like a caged animal forever,” he said.
He told another migrant in the camp of his suicide attempt and she alerted the camp authorities, who arranged medical treatment.
Another woman, Shanthi, said her husband had also attempted suicide.
Lakshani said her own attempt to take her life had been provoked by an officer at the camp telling her she would be sent back to Sri Lanka, where she alleges she was raped and tortured by soldiers in 2021.
The UK government and G4S – the private security company brought in to guard the migrant camp – did not respond to requests for comment on this specific claim.
G4S said its officers treated migrants on the island with “dignity and respect at all times”, while a UK government spokesperson said the “welfare and safety” of migrants on BIOT was “paramount” and that “all allegations of mistreatment are taken seriously and fully investigated”.
The spokesperson added that the BIOT administration was providing “extensive medical support”.
There have also been hunger strikes on the island, which lawyers say have involved children.
In response to one earlier this year, lawyers say the BIOT commissioner confiscated migrants’ phones, stopped access to the communal telephone and withdrew medical treatment “unless the individuals were willing to sign a form disclaiming certain liabilities of the BIOT administration”.
The BIOT administration has dismissed this allegation in court documents, saying that in response to one hunger strike, sharp objects were removed from the camp and other measures taken to prevent self-harm.
All can agree that the Diego Garcia military base was not a place intended to house asylum seekers.
Britain took control of the Chagos Islands, of which Diego Garcia is part, from its then colony, Mauritius, in 1965 and went on to evict its population of more than 1,000 people to make way for the base.
Mauritius, which won independence from the UK in 1968, maintains the islands are its own and the United Nations’ highest court has ruled that the UK’s administration of the territory is “unlawful” and must end.
The UK resisted international pressure to begin talks about the islands – until late last year, when it agreed to open negotiations.
In recent decades, US planes have been sent from the base to bomb Afghanistan and Iraq – and it has also reportedly been used as a so-called CIA “black site” – a facility used to house and interrogate terror suspects.
Court documents filed in London say tents previously set up as Covid isolation facilities for military personnel are being used as a makeshift migrant camp. Fences surround the camp, and inside there are basic medical facilities and a canteen. G4S guards must accompany the migrants if they leave the area.
“We are the parrots, we are in a cage,” said Shanthi, of the lack of freedom.
Lawyers representing the migrants say basic education became available about a year ago, but that classes have at times had to be held outside because of a rat infestation.
Some migrants have since returned home, having either given up their claim or had it rejected. Others set sail for the Indian Ocean island of Reunion, a French territory, hoping to claim asylum there, the lawyers say.
Currently, at least 60 Tamils remain on the island. They are awaiting decisions about their fate or challenging earlier rulings in convoluted legal processes playing out thousands of miles away in the UK.
While the UK is signed up to international laws about the treatment of refugees, court papers say this doesn’t apply to BIOT, an area described as being “constitutionally distinct and separate from the UK”.
A separate process, based on the idea that no-one should be returned to a country where they face torture or inhumane treatment, has been established to determine if they should be sent back to Sri Lanka or to a “safe third country”.
Lawyer Tessa Gregory says the London firm she works for, Leigh Day, has launched a judicial review on behalf of a number of asylum seekers on Diego Garcia, challenging the “lawfulness” of this process – which she describes as “fundamentally unfair”.
She says decisions to return some migrants to Sri Lanka were made based on rushed initial interviews, while later, fuller interviews were marred by translation errors. Others have been left “in limbo” as the UK government has not yet identified a suitable safe third country, she said.
Meanwhile, the UK government said the BIOT administration was “considering migrants’ protection claims under BIOT law and in line with international legal obligations”.
The UK office of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) told the BBC it was concerned by reports of the “deteriorating health situation” on Diego Garcia and had requested access from UK authorities, but this had not yet been granted.
Emilie McDonnell, UK advocacy and communications co-ordinator at Human Rights Watch, said the British government “should consider any and all options to ensure the welfare of these asylum seekers who are on British-controlled territory and therefore should be protected by the British government”.
The UK has said it will not take in any of the Diego Garcia asylum seekers whose claims are approved, according to lawyers.
Three of the Tamils who arrived on Diego Garcia are currently in Rwanda receiving medical treatment after being evacuated from the island following self-harm and suicide attempts. Their transfer is not part of the deal struck by the British and Rwandan governments to send some asylum seekers from the UK to the east African country.
In a letter sent to one of them in May, and seen by the BBC, the BIOT administration said it would find and pay for private accommodation while they received treatment in Rwanda – including therapy.
“If you are not content with the proposal… we can arrange for your return to Diego Garcia. There is no other option available at this time,” it said.
Four of the asylum seekers have had their claims to be sent to a “safe third country” approved. A letter sent two months ago to one of them, seen by the BBC, said “every effort will be made to do this expeditiously”.
In a separate statement to the BBC this week, the UK government said it was “working tirelessly with the BIOT administration to find a long-term solution to [the migrants’] current situation.”
But the situation for everyone could continue to drag on with no clear timeframe for finding a safe third country, and long legal processes for those disputing rejections.
After 20 months of waiting, one asylum seeker said everyone seemed to have “lost their hope”.
Source : BBC