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Eelam Tamil refugees on Diego Garcia unsafe, UN calls for immediate relocation


A damning report released by the UN refugee agency has called for an “immediate relocation” of the 61 asylum seekers who have been stranded on the remote island for more than two years and have experienced violence, abuse and arbitrary detention.

The inspection report from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, marked “confidential” and disclosed only to the Guardian and the BBC by the supreme court of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), is the first to be carried out since a group of asylum seekers, mainly Tamils who fled Sri Lanka, arrived on the island in October 2021. 

They were rescued and taken to Diego Garcia after a boat they were travelling in, hoping to reach Canada to claim asylum, got into difficulty.

“It found that the group, mainly asylum seekers with a small number granted refugee status, fall under the effective control of the UK government, have been subjected to conditions of arbitrary detention and should be urgently relocated.”

According to the report, the UN inspectors listened to allegations of sexual harassment and abuse against women and children by other asylum seekers. They have also identified high levels of mental distress and significant risk of suicide and attempted suicide.

“They found the detention of 16 children among the 61 “particularly troubling” and said at least some of those found to need international protection should be transferred to the UK.”

Tamil Guardian recently reported an update which was published on The New Humanitarian where troubling details emerged about the detention of the asylum seekers.  The report found that Tamil asylum seekers from Diego Garcia to Rwanda for medical treatment said they had faced sexual harassment. 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.

Ten months later people like Hamshika and others are still waiting for the UK to arrange their resettlement in a “safe third country”, the New Humniatraian reported. “I am not safe in Rwanda,” she said. 

The UN agency said it was "following up" with officials about what it had found. "Diego Garcia is an island hosting a military base with virtually no civilian population, and is not a suitable location for long-term residence for this group," a spokesperson said in a brief statement to the BBC. "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 require international protection, in line with international law."

"We are living a lifeless life. I feel like I am living like a dead man," one man was reported to have told the BBC last year. Lawyers representing asylum seekers on Diego Garcia say about 60 people remain on the island. Several people have been relocated to Rwanda for treatment following suicide attempts.

Some of the refugees had fled Sri Lanka following their participation in the Pottuvil to Polikandy (P2P) protest rally  in 2021.

Radha, a woman whose husband is on Diego Garcia, said he too was subjected to Sri Lankan state intimidation. ““The army always comes and harasses us,” she said. “One time, they took him in for questioning for three hours and then released him.”

 “We’ve suffered a lot. These men who are stranded have suffered so much hardship,” Radha added. “With the men gone, we have no income. I hope they will be brought to a good, safe country and be able to support their families.”

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