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Sri Lankan families detained in British Indian Ocean Territory in despair over hopes of international protection

Members of a group of 89 Sri Lankan adults and children who have been detained for over seven months on a military base more than 1,500 miles from the mainland in the middle of the Indian Ocean have gone on hunger strike in a desperate plea for help over their isolation.

Posted on 20 May 2022

The group say they are in despair, having been kept on the island of Diego Garcia, 3,000 miles south of India, since their boat fell into distress after the group left India apparently heading for Canada in October 2021.

Their vessel was intercepted by the British military and escorted to the only inhabited British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) island, a joint UK/US air and naval base.

Since their arrival, the Sri Lankans have had very limited contact with the outside world. For the first six weeks they were held without being able to communicate with anyone at all.

They are being kept in a tented compound away from the island facilities and have had restricted contact with family in Sri Lanka, who in turn have no means of contacting them. It is understood most of the group have made clear to the authorities that they are seeking international protection but no steps appear to have been taken to allow individuals to claim asylum.

Their continued isolation is raising serious concerns about their vulnerability, welfare and mental health as conditions become increasingly intolerable. The medical facilities on the island are extremely limited with some members of the group already having been flown to Dubai for treatment. Particular concerns are being raised for the 20 children who are part of the group and are yet to receive any formal education.

Law firm Leigh Day has written to the Foreign Secretary and the Commissioner for the British Indian Ocean Territory three times on behalf of 81 members of the group and their associated families.

In early March it pointed out that holding the group “in legal limbo on a military base with extremely limited communication to the outside world is plainly unacceptable”. It said returning the group to Sri Lanka may put them at risk of serious harm and be incompatible with the UK’s obligations under domestic and international law

In a second letter Leigh Day said the group’s situation was worse than if they were prisoners and a refusal to allow the group to communicate regularly with the outside world was unlawful. The group have been refused regular video calls with family and legal team and also email and internet access.

A third urgent letter was sent this week, after it became known that in desperation, some members of the group had gone on hunger strike. It said the mental state of many of the group was utterly despairing and they were at imminent risk of serious harm.

The letter stated:

“Our clients feel increasingly desperate at the conditions they are enduring on Diego Garcia and the lack of any apparent progress towards finding a solution for them. They have been given no information about how, when or where they will be afforded the opportunity to claim international protection, how long they are to be kept on the island, where they might be sent, and/or when (if ever) their conditions might improve.”

The legal team requested a full update on the Foreign Office and BIOT Commissioner’s plans for the group, including steps being taken to find a solution which enables them to meaningfully seek international protection.

Leigh Day partner Tessa Gregory said:

“Our clients have been on Diego Garcia, a British Overseas Territory for over seven months. Whilst we recognise that this is a difficult situation it cannot be right for the UK Government to leave this vulnerable group, which includes victims of torture and 20 children, stranded with limited access to communication, no education and without an opportunity to seek international protection.

"Understandably the group are getting increasingly desperate and we have serious concerns for their mental and physical wellbeing. Immediate action is needed to ensure that a durable solution is found without any further delay.”

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Tessa Gregory
Corporate accountability Planning Wildlife

Tessa Gregory

Tessa is an experienced litigator who specialises in international and domestic human rights law cases

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