File photo: Eelam Tamil refugees who fled Sri Lanka for India last month.
As many as 42 Eelam Tamil asylum-seekers have launched a hunger strike after eight months of being detained on a military base 3,000 miles south of India, as a plea to the UK government to allow them to seek asylum in another country.
The 42 refugees are part of a group of 89 Eelam Tamils, including 20 children who set out from southern India in a fishing boat in late September 2021 in the hopes of claiming asylum in Canada. Most of the group fled to India years earlier to escape death and violence during the culmination of the Tamil Genocide in Mullivaikkal of 2009. At least one of the asylum seekers took part in the Pottuvil to Polikandy (P2P) protest rally last year
But 11 days into fleeing from India, the refugees’ boat was intercepted by UK forces who escorted it to a joint UK/US air and naval base. The Chagos Islands, where the UK/US military base is, have been ruled by a UN court to have been unlawfully detached from Mauritius by the UK when it granted Mauritius independence in 1968. The UK has since refused to cede sovereignty over the islands, claiming such territory as the British Indian Ocean Territory, and locals remain displaced.
Since their arrival, the Eelam Tamil refugees have had extremely limited contact with the outside world. For the first six weeks, they were being detained without being able to communicate with anyone at all. They have been held there since October 3 last year with no indication of how long they will remain there, or where they will be sent next.
They are being kept in a tented compound away from the island facilities and have made clear to the authorities that they are seeking international protection but no steps have been taken to allow the Tamil refugees to claim asylum.
Most of the group is demanding guarantees from the UK government that they will not be repatriated to Sri Lanka, where they are vulnerable to state persecution and torture, nor to India, where at least 60 of them are registered as refugees and would be forced to squalid camps, where many attempted to commit suicide over the conditions of the camps.
“They are living in a confined compound on the island, where their lives and their children’s futures are in limbo,” Meera, whose husband is in the camps, told Al Jazeera. “They want an answer as to when they will be taken elsewhere.”
Leigh Day, the firm representing the Eelam Tamil refugees, said “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.”
“The mental state of many of our clients can best be described as utterly despairing,” the law firm said in a letter due to the UK government on May 19. “They have asked us what the UK government will do in the event of their deaths on the island, and some have requested that if they die their organs should be donated to the British people."
“It is clear that our clients are at imminent risk of serious harm," Leigh Day added. "Immediate action is needed to ensure that a durable solution is found without any further delay.”