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Tamils allege prison-like conditions on Diego Garcia ahead of unlawful detention hearing

‘They are treating us like prisoners.’

A view from inside the asylum seekers’ camp on Diego Garcia. Supplied/TNH
A view from inside the asylum seekers’ camp on Diego Garcia.

British authorities on the remote island of Diego Garcia have repeatedly disregarded a court order allowing 60 Sri Lankans to leave the fenced camp where they’ve spent nearly three years, several of the asylum seekers and their lawyers told The New Humanitarian.

The allegations emerge as a British judge, as well as lawyers representing the asylum seekers and the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) administration, which governs Diego Garcia, prepare to hold a hearing on the island to determine whether the group are being unlawfully detained. The visit is expected to begin next week.

“They are treating us like prisoners,” two asylum seekers said in a written statement shared on condition of anonymity with The New Humanitarian in late June. They described being routinely punished for leaving the football pitch-sized camp, even after the island’s court granted them bail in April to leave the camp and access certain other parts of the island.

“Sometimes we go to the beach for relaxation. If [G4S] knows, then they give us punishments, like [making us] stand in the sun, and the sun burns our skin,” the asylum seekers said, referring to guards from the private security firm that monitors them. 

They said they remain effectively confined because they have no access to drinking water or toilets outside the camp, and those who do leave are followed by G4S guards who “tell us to walk within the line, and even if our leg strays a little from it, they whistle [and] tell us to go inside the line”.

“We take any allegations made against our staff seriously and strongly reject these claims,” a G4S spokesperson told The New Humanitarian in response to questions about the asylum seekers’ claims. “Our safety officers are present on Diego Garcia to ensure people are safe. G4S treats the migrants on the island with dignity and respect at all times,” they added.

Many of the detainees, who came on boats in 2021 and 2022 from Sri Lanka and India, say they are escaping torture and persecution by either Sri Lankan security forces on the basis of their Tamil ethnicity or Indian security forces on the basis of being Sri Lankan refugees.

They are waiting to have their asylum claims processed on Diego Garcia, but BIOT authorities have said none will be allowed to enter the UK. Several who have been granted asylum are waiting for the UK government to negotiate their transfer to another country willing to accept them.

Lawyers hope next week’s hearing will shift the needle on their long years of limbo.

A ruling in favour of the asylum seekers may allow them to claim compensation for years of detention and more freedom of movement on the island, said Tom Short, a solicitor at the London-based firm Leigh Day, which represents some of the asylum seekers. Greater freedom of movement on a militarised island where they are not wanted may also create political pressure to bring the group to the UK.

“This case is about if they should have had a greater level of freedom, or if the [BIOT] commissioner is right – that it is absolutely necessary to keep them penned in like farmyard animals and not allow them any greater freedom whatsoever,” Short told The New Humanitarian. 

Short also recounted multiple occasions when BIOT authorities flouted the bail order altogether.

“There were about five days when the BIOT administration refused to let people out, in flagrant breach and defiance of an order of the court,” Short said. “They said it was because the US had security concerns.”

“What is the risk to the mighty US military of a seven-year-old girl walking up and down a single road?” 

Diego Garcia hosts a large US-UK military facility. 

In an emergency hearing, “the court gave the [asylum seekers] even greater bail because there was no evidence that the US security concerns were real”, Short said.

The asylum seekers have again been barred from leaving the camp since 30 June, according to Short. “They’ve been told there’s a US ship in the area, or a warship, and because of this, they can’t go out on bail at the moment,” he said.

Short questioned why the asylum seekers are treated as more of a security risk than visiting environmental scientists and cheerleaders who come to entertain US troops on the island. 

“They’re allowed to go to the military restaurants, the bars, the Brit Club, to the nightclubs and foam parties and so on, and there’s no issue of them causing a threat to the military base,” he said. “What is the risk to the mighty US military of a seven-year-old girl walking up and down a single road?” 

The BIOT administration did not respond to questions about the information provided by the asylum seekers and their lawyers. 

The UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) has long maintained that the asylum seekers are not detained as they are free to leave the island. Dozens have previously agreed to be sent back to Sri Lanka or India, while others have left by boat for the French island of Réunion. 

An FCDO spokesperson told The New Humanitarian that the “welfare and safety of migrants on BIOT remains a top priority”, but did not respond to questions about the recent allegations.

Suicide attempts 

The asylum seekers who spoke to The New Humanitarian last month said there have been more than 50 suicide attempts among the group, up from around a dozen attempts that had been reported to The New Humanitarian in 2023.

“We didn’t get proper medical facilities, some people tried to commit suicide because they could not bear the body pain,” said the two asylum seekers in their written statement, sent while they were receiving emergency medical treatment in Rwanda.

A third asylum seeker who is still receiving medical treatment in Rwanda said he was kicked by a G4S guard after falling unconscious during a hunger strike to demand treatment for his medical issue, which he had endured for months.

They also described one suicide attempt by a nine-year-old child who swallowed an object, which has not been reported previously.

“We continue to do all we can to ensure the migrants have suitable accommodation, access to amenities, education and recreational facilities, in addition to dedicated 24-hours-a-day medical support from a team of doctors, paramedics, registered nurses and mental health practitioners,” the FCDO spokesperson told The New Humanitarian, without addressing questions about the suicide attempts.

A third asylum seeker who is still receiving medical treatment in Rwanda said he was kicked by a G4S guard after falling unconscious during a hunger strike to demand treatment for his medical issue, which he had endured for months. A witness reportedly told him about the incident after he woke up.

“He expressed fear of the guards,” said Michael Goldin of London-based Wilsons Solicitors, which represents the asylum seeker. “He talks of it as if they’re in prison on the island.”

Rwanda allegations

A small group of asylum seekers have been allowed to stay in Rwanda after their emergency treatment but remain in the care of the BIOT administration.

The view from a Sri Lankan asylum seeker’s accommodation in Kigali, Rwanda.
Supplied/TNH
The view from a Sri Lankan asylum seeker’s accommodation in Kigali, Rwanda.

One said she has been sexually harassed multiple times, including by the receptionist at the accommodation provided by the UK government in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. She provided photos to The New Humanitarian showing alleged unwanted touching.

She requested anonymity to avoid reprisals by BIOT and Rwandan officials.

She also said her father was attacked last month by two strangers while out shopping.

“My father went to the market to buy vegetables, and two people tried to kill him. One man hit my father with a stone, and another tried to hit him with a glass bottle,” she told The New Humanitarian.

She said they reported these incidents to Crown Agents, the British NGO that serves as an intermediary between the BIOT administration and the asylum seekers in Rwanda.

“Crown Agents take all safeguarding matters raised by anyone associated with our programming with the utmost concern and will investigate accordingly,” spokesperson Anna Schuesterl told The New Humanitarian, without addressing questions about specific incidents.

When they reported the assault in the market to local police, an officer listened to their complaint but did not document it, the asylum seeker said.

Doris Uwicyeza Picard, coordinator of Rwanda’s Economic Development Partnership Coordination Unit, said that although she was aware of these allegations, “having investigated all of these claims, we have found no evidence to substantiate these alleged crimes”.

“We will continue to offer these migrants the same protections as all other Rwandans, in what is one of the safest countries in the world,” she said, adding that Rwanda hosts over 130,000 refugees and works with the UN to “evacuate vulnerable migrants stuck in Libya to safety in Rwanda” through the Emergency Transit Mechanism.

The UK government has said that the arrangement allowing asylum seekers to receive medical treatment in Rwanda is unrelated to the ruling Conservatives Party’s plan to permanently transfer asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda.

The Labour Party, who are expected to win today’s general election, have vowed to scrap the plan.

The Sri Lankans’ experience in Rwanda may soon influence the feasibility of transferring asylum seekers there from the UK. At least one of the asylum seekers in Kigali has been invited to share information with the Home Office, which will then be considered in a legal challenge to the Rwanda resettlement plan in the UK.

“I hope more people will benefit from my case,” the asylum seeker said.

If you are in crisis, click here to find a helpline near you (via the International Association for Suicide Prevention).

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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