Asylum seekers stuck on Diego Garcia start hunger strike | Refugees News

Dozens of Tamil asylum-seekers have launched a starvation strike after eight months stranded on a secretive army base within the Indian Ocean, demanding that the federal government of the UK enable them to say asylum in a protected third nation.

“My husband contacted me as we speak and knowledgeable me that seven individuals, together with sick individuals, are actually engaged in a starvation strike,” Meera*, the spouse of 1 asylum seeker, advised Al Jazeera on Might 18. “They need a solution as to when they are going to be taken elsewhere.”

By the subsequent morning, the variety of asylum seekers on starvation strike had risen to 42, in keeping with their attorneys.

Meera’s husband is one in every of 89 Sri Lankan Tamils, together with 20 youngsters, who set out from southern India in a fishing boat in late September 2021 within the hopes of claiming asylum in Canada. A lot of the group had fled to India years earlier to flee political persecution and the specter of torture and enforced disappearance through the Sri Lankan authorities’s bloody 26-year civil struggle in opposition to Tamil separatists, which led to 2009.

However 11 days and greater than 2,000km(1,243 miles) into their journey, the asylum seekers’ boat started to founder and was intercepted by UK forces, who escorted the group to Diego Garcia, a part of the British Indian Ocean Territory. The island is house to a joint US-UK air and naval base, and the asylum seekers have been held there since October 3 final yr with no indication of how lengthy they may stay there, or the place they are going to be despatched subsequent.

A lot of the group are in search of ensures from the UK authorities that they won’t be repatriated to Sri Lanka, which has suffered an financial and political collapse in latest weeks, nor to India, the place not less than 60 of them are registered as refugees and can be pressured to return to squalid camps.

“They’re dwelling in a confined compound on the island, the place their lives and their youngsters’s futures are in limbo,” Meera mentioned.

Chagos islanders protest outside the World Court in The Hague as judges consider whether Britain maintains sovereignty illegally
The UK eliminated the individuals who lived within the Chagos Islands to determine the army base. The displaced Chagossians have taken authorized motion arguing the UK illegally maintains sovereignty over the islands [file: Mike Corder/AP Photo]

The London-based legislation agency Leigh Day, which represents 81 of the 89 asylum seekers, is now demanding that the UK authorities clarify when and the way it plans to allow the group to say worldwide safety in accordance with their rights beneath the Refugee Conference and customary worldwide legislation.

“The psychological state of lots of our purchasers can finest be described as totally despairing,” the legislation agency mentioned in a letter as a result of UK authorities on Might 19.

“They’ve requested us what the UK authorities will do within the occasion of their deaths on the island, and a few have requested that in the event that they die their organs ought to be donated to the British individuals.

“It’s clear that our purchasers are at imminent danger of great hurt.”


For the primary six weeks after they have been towed to Diego Garcia of their broken boat, the asylum seekers had no contact with the surface world. It was solely in mid-November 2021 that Meera and different kinfolk in Sri Lanka and India acquired transient telephone calls from unknown numbers and discovered that their family members have been nonetheless alive.

For a lot of the ensuing six months, every asylum seeker had entry to a landline for half-hour each 9 or 10 days, permitting them to make outgoing calls however not obtain incoming ones.

Asylum seeker Jegan* advised Al Jazeera in a press release conveyed by means of the group’s attorneys that he fearful his dad and mom again house would “sacrifice themselves or hurt themselves” through the weeks he was stored incommunicado.

One other asylum seeker on the island later required medical consideration after refusing to eat for 4 days as a result of he was not in a position to see his new child little one through video name.

Legal professionals at Leigh Day are getting ready to file for judicial evaluation in opposition to the UK authorities if the group doesn’t obtain “common, personal and unmonitored entry” to video calls, e-mail and web entry. In a pre-action protocol letter despatched to the UK authorities in late April, the legislation agency warned that proscribing the group’s entry to communications is “in breach of well-established widespread legislation rights of entry to authorized representatives for individuals disadvantaged of their liberty.

“Our purchasers are in a worse place than in the event that they have been prisoners,” the letter mentioned, as a result of all through most of their time on the island, they have been denied “entry to communications which might allow them to problem the premise of their imprisonment”.

On Might 13, a UK authorities spokesperson advised Al Jazeera that the group had been given limitless entry to phone communications.

Nevertheless, contacting the group from outdoors Diego Garcia stays tough and might take weeks to rearrange, even if a church about 200 metres from the asylum seekers’ encampment is provided with WiFi. The group has not been allowed to go to the church with out an escort, and as soon as escorted, have solely been ready to make use of UK officers’ private gadgets.

“There isn’t a web or WiFi [where we are staying], so we will’t use our personal telephones,” Jegan mentioned. “Some individuals simply sit on their very own fascinated with their households.”

Tempers rising

Members of the group say boredom and a lack of understanding about their futures is inflicting their psychological well being to deteriorate.

“Think about having all these individuals cooped up with nothing to do – they simply take into consideration what will occur, and tempers are rising,” Janaki*, an asylum seeker, advised Al Jazeera.

In response to Leigh Day’s pre-action protocol letter, “no additional steps have been taken to offer correct schooling” for the 20 youngsters on the island past offering them with DVDs and fundamental English classes.

“I really feel distraught when the youngsters say: ‘How lengthy will we keep right here? When can we go away?’ It’s tense for them, and it breaks my coronary heart. We really feel like we will die within the ocean right here. The children appear to be dropping their minds,” Janaki mentioned.

Furthermore, among the asylum seekers’ medical wants have exceeded the assets out there on the island, which has had no everlasting inhabitants because the UK forcibly deported the native Chagossians within the Nineteen Sixties and 70s to fulfil an settlement to construct a army base for america.

Earlier this yr, a number of asylum seekers have been flown from Diego Garcia to Bahrain for numerous medical therapies earlier than being introduced again to the island.

“I ponder how a lot it price the UK authorities to fly refugees from Diego Garcia to Bahrain for personal medical therapy,” mentioned Chris Eades, secretary-general of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Community. “What occurs if any of the group falls instantly sick? It might be way more humane for the UK authorities to maneuver the group to the UK, the place they will promptly entry the NHS.”

A US Air Force members loads a bomb onto an aircraft on the tarmac of the Diego Garcia base
Diego Garcia is among the United States’s most vital army bases [File: US Air Force/AFP]

Eades added that bringing the refugees to the UK would additionally enable the 20 youngsters within the group to go to highschool.

“Being held for a lot of months on a army base with little contact with the surface world, insufficient healthcare, and with no sign of ending is totally unacceptable and a violation of the Refugee Conference,” he mentioned.

Extra arrivals

Additional straining assets on the island was the apparently coincidental arrival on April 10 of an extra 30 asylum seekers who have been rescued from a second vessel and introduced by UK forces to the tented encampment on Diego Garcia to hitch the unique 89.

“After the brand new group landed, the meals has been very dangerous,” mentioned Jegan. “The meals dimension has been minimize down, and the unique group of us are considering that if extra individuals come, [the UK authorities] will begin sending everybody again to [Sri Lanka or India], as a result of extra individuals are coming. We expect that due to the brand new arrivals, the authorities have stopped all their work to ship [us] to a different place.”

A UK authorities spokesperson disputed this, saying: “We’re supporting 119 individuals who have been escorted to the British Indian Ocean Territory in broken fishing vessels up to now yr.

“We’re working urgently with the group and our worldwide companions on choices and subsequent steps, with their welfare being our high precedence,” the spokesperson advised Al Jazeera.

The United Nations Excessive Commissioner for Refugees, for its half, has been urging the UK authorities, which controls Diego Garcia as an Abroad Territory, to contemplate the claims of those 119 asylum seekers “in accordance with its obligations beneath Worldwide Legislation”.

“We stand prepared to offer technical help to search out applicable options, understanding {that a} quantity throughout the group could have worldwide safety wants,” a spokesperson for the company mentioned. “The unfavorable influence of extended uncertainty and limbo on refugees’ and asylum seekers’ psychological well being is well-documented world wide.”

“I’m fearful that 9 months will flip into 9 years,” mentioned Janaki, echoing the expertise of an earlier group of asylum seekers who ended up trapped on a UK army base in Cyprus for 20 years earlier than being allowed to say asylum within the UK in 2018.

“I ponder if a very good future will ever occur. I’ve been a refugee for over 30 years of my life. Will we ever get out of right here?”

*Names of asylum-seekers and their kinfolk have been modified for concern of reprisals.