Facebook icon
Twitter icon
e-mail icon

Eelam Tamils face no progress in Diego Garcia and sexual assault in Rwanda

The plight of Eelam Tamils who are languishing in makeshift camps in Diego Garcia has remained the same, even after the United Nations refugee agency said the remote British territory in the Indian Ocean is "not a suitable location" for migrants to be held long-term, and as reports of sexual assault after being sent to Rwanda for medical treatment emerge.

Troubling details have emerged from a report on The New Humanitarian last month which states that Tamil asylum seekers sent 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.

Two other male asylum seekers also spoke of multiple instances of harassment. 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".

 “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”.

The reports come as UNHCR representatives visited Diego Garcia towards the end of 2023 in a trip facilitated by UK authorities. It was the first time, the refugee agency was given access to the island since the migrants' arrival more than two years ago, according to a recent report by the BBC.

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."

The BBC detailing the conditions on the island said it has been described as “hellish”, and the territory’s unusual legal status has put them in further limbo. According to the report, there have been multiple suicide attempts and instances of self-harm. There have also been hunger strikes, which lawyers say have involved children. It was reported that the first group of Tamils landed on Diego Garcia in October 2021 after their boat ran into trouble while trying to sail to Canada, according to migrants and officials.

"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.

The harrowing experience of these asylum seekers began in October 2021, when a boat carrying the Eelam Tamils, who had fled from refugee camps in Madurai and Thiruchirapally in India, had to be rescued at sea and brought to Diego Garcia. The refugees were since held in prison-like conditions Diego Garcia, which is a collection of islands is run from London by a Commissioner appointed by the King. The BIOT appears to escape the reach of international law, such as the Refugee Convention and operates within a legal grey area.

Many of the refugees have shared their experiences of being tortured or harassed by both Sri Lankan and Indian security forces. 

Upon arrival, the refugees were informed that they would not be able to seek asylum in Diego Garcia as only military personnel lived on the island. The Indian Ocean archipelago has been at the centre of a decades-long dispute over Britain's decision to separate it from Mauritius in 1965 and set up a major joint military base with the US on -Diego Garcia, the largest of the islands. In the early 1970s, between 1,500 and 2,000 islanders were forcibly deported so the island, Diego Garcia, could be leased to the US.

Since then the UK government has introduced the controversial Illegal Migration Bill which will bar asylum seekers from claiming protection in the UK if they arrive through "irregular means".

We need your support

Sri Lanka is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist. Tamil journalists are particularly at threat, with at least 41 media workers known to have been killed by the Sri Lankan state or its paramilitaries during and after the armed conflict.

Despite the risks, our team on the ground remain committed to providing detailed and accurate reporting of developments in the Tamil homeland, across the island and around the world, as well as providing expert analysis and insight from the Tamil point of view

We need your support in keeping our journalism going. Support our work today.

For more ways to donate visit https://donate.tamilguardian.com.