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Asylum seekers sent by UK to Rwanda report sexual abuse and harassment

Sent for medical reasons, the three Tamils say they avoid going for treatment because the UK has failed to protect them, even in hospital.

A protestor holds a placard that reads: Rwanda Policy Must be Stopped. He is standing outside the Supreme Court in London where the UK Government's Rwanda asylum policy was judged to be unlawful. Tejas Sandhu/SOPA Images/Sipa USA
A protester holds a placard outside the Supreme Court in London on 15 November 2023, when the British government's broader Rwanda asylum policy was judged to be unlawful.

Three Tamil asylum seekers sent for medical treatment by Britain from a remote Indian Ocean territory to Rwanda say the UK has failed to protect them from sexual abuse and harassment, and are demanding immediate transfer to a safer country such as the UK.

Hamshika Krishnamoorthi, 23, said she was sexually assaulted by a nurse at the Rwanda Military Hospital in Kigali, the capital of the East African nation, on 18 October, while receiving treatment following a suicide attempt.

“I am not safe in Rwanda,” Krishnamoorthi, who alleges she was raped by another asylum seeker during her previous detention on the British-held island of Diego Garcia, told The New Humanitarian in November. “I fear being raped again.”

A hospital representative did not respond to requests for comment on the alleged assault and on the quality of care available to the asylum seekers. Several phone calls and emails to the hospital also went unanswered.

Krishnamoorthi said there were two attempted break-ins this month at her apartment in Kigali, the Rwandan capital. She shared video clips with The New Humanitarian showing Rwandan police arresting the would-be trespassers. 

Meanwhile, the two other Tamil asylum seekers sent from Diego Garcia said they had faced verbal and sexual harassment by strangers in Kigali. 

Reports of abuse and harassment coincide with a tense legal and legislative battle by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to push through a controversial plan to deport hundreds of asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda for processing and eventual resettlement.

The UK Supreme Court ruled in November that the plan was unlawful because asylum seekers sent to Rwanda would be “at real risk of ill-treatment”, including potential human rights abuses and the possibility of being sent back to their country of origin.

Although the Tamil asylum seekers in Rwanda are not part of the resettlement plan, their experiences raise further questions around the UK’s ability to guarantee their security there if the plan were to proceed.

The asylum seekers are part of a larger group of ethnic Tamils who arrived by boat starting in late 2021 on Diego Garcia, part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) that hosts a joint US-UK military base.

The three asylum seekers were transferred from Diego Garcia to Rwanda in March 2023 for treatment following suicide attempts on the island. Later that month, the BIOT Administration approved their international protection claims but said they would not be admitted to the UK

Ten months later, the group are still waiting for the UK to arrange their resettlement in a “safe third country”.

“Our clients feel they have been continually failed by the FCDO, and have not been treated with dignity or care,” said Tom Short, a solicitor at the London-based firm Leigh Day, which represents some of the asylum seekers, referring to the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

He added that the firm’s clients are considering legal action against the FCDO over its “failure to resolve their case in a timely manner”.

Asked by The New Humanitarian about the sexual assault allegation and the other allegations of harassment by strangers, an FCDO spokesperson told The New Humanitarian: “The safety and wellbeing of migrants under the care of the BIOT Administration is paramount. Any allegations of mistreatment are taken seriously and fully investigated.”

Around 60 asylum seekers remain on Diego Garcia and are seeking international protection from persecution by Sri Lankan and Indian authorities over alleged links to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – a separatist group that fought for independence during a 26-year-civil war against the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan government.

‘Accompany your daughter’

In addition to the alleged assault at the hospital, Krishnamoorthi said she has also been sexually assaulted by strangers in public at least five times. 

Her father, who accompanied her to Rwanda in a trip paid for by the UK government, described the abuse to James Thornton, a BIOT Administration official, during a phone call in November. The New Humanitarian reviewed a recording of the call.

“Wherever we go, we are having problems,” the father said, adding that strangers have approached her, tapped her, hit her, and pushed her.

Thornton responded that Krishnamoorthi should avoid going out in public unaccompanied. 

“Your role in Kigali has always been to accompany your daughter and provide her with as much support as she needs, given her vulnerable status,” the official said.

The father replied: “I can’t fight with them. I can’t argue with them. It’s very difficult for me.” 

He added that the alleged assault at the hospital took place after the nurse, the alleged perpetrator, asked him to leave the room while performing an electrocardiogram on his daughter.

“The government that is supposed to give us security is not providing security for us.”

“There is no point in us complaining about it because no one is taking any action regarding these matters,” the father told Thornton. “The government that is supposed to give us security is not providing security for us.”

Lilly Carlisle, a spokesperson for UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, in Rwanda told The New Humanitarian: “The UK retains responsibility for these individuals during their stay, and for assessing their international protection claims.”

Carlisle said the agency has made counselling available to the group, adding: “We continue to call on the UK to ensure fair and efficient determination of the pending claims, and to secure solutions for those found to be in need of international protection, in line with international law.”

Krishnamoorthi said she avoids going back to the hospital, despite persistent abdominal pain, problems with her eyesight, and suicidal thoughts.

“I had no security and no proper care at the Rwanda Military Hospital,” Krishnamoorthi told The New Humanitarian.

Short, the Leigh Day solicitor, said: “Our clients are not receiving the medical care they require in Rwanda, and it appears that suitable care and treatment is not available there.”

‘Better to die than to live such a life’

Two other Tamil asylum seekers under the UK’s care in Kigali – both men in their 20s who grew up in refugee camps in India – said they also avoid going out in public following multiple instances of harassment.

They spoke to The New Humanitarian on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions by the Rwandan authorities.

According to a written summary shared with The New Humanitarian, the two men were walking from their accommodation to the Rwanda Military Hospital in August when a man stalked them, winked at them, made a kissing gesture, and “put his hand on his private part” in front of them, while passersby laughed.

Two days later, they said, they were similarly harassed by a group of seven or eight strangers.

They said they did not know why they were targeted for abuse but speculated that it was because they are easily identifiable as foreigners.

“This [also] happened in [India], and that’s the reason we left the country, and it’s happening here again, which is very embarrassing,” the asylum seekers said in the written report.

They said they avoided mentioning the harassment to the doctors treating their mental health problems out of fear of offending them.

In a separate handwritten report addressed to the Rwanda Military Hospital in June, one of the asylum seekers alleged that while he was telling a nurse about his mental health problems, a military officer, referring to his hallucinations, accused him of bringing a ghost into the country. He said the officer raised his hand at him and said he would have struck him if he had not been in uniform.

Both men continue to struggle with mental health issues, including suicidal thoughts.

“Better to die than to live such a life,” one of them told The New Humanitarian.

In the November phone call with Krishnamoorthi and her father, Thornton, the BIOT Administration official, said it had “proved more difficult than we had hoped to find a country that was prepared to take” the asylum seekers, adding that it could “still take quite some significant time” to arrange their resettlement.

“The FCDO has failed to provide any substantive update or timeline as to when and where they will be relocated,” Short, the solicitor, added.

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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