Sitting in the Indian Ocean, the remote British overseas territory of Diego Garcia doesn’t get many unofficial visitors.
The island’s indigenous people, the Chagossians, were deported from the island between 1968 and 1973 to make way for a UK-US military base.
To this day the islanders continue to campaign to be allowed to return home, but one group of people can’t wait to leave Diego Garcia.
In October 2021, a fishing boat containing 89 Tamils from Sri Lanka fleeing persecution in their homeland found itself in distress nearby.
The boat, the Marayan, was escorted to dry land by the Royal Navy and those aboard were put in temporary accommodation.
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The Tamils, who had set sail from India 18 days before in a bid to make it to Canada, presented the commander of the British forces saying they were “expressing a wish to be sent to a safe country”.
The BBC reports that some claim links to the Tamil Tigers, a Sri Lankan group defeated in 2009 following an almost 26-year civil war on the island. Others alleged they were victims of sexual assault and torture.
This is believed to be the first time anyone has claimed asylum on the territory.
At least 60 Tamils remain on the island, with others either returning to Sri Lanka or setting sail for the French territory of Reunion in the hope of gaining asylum there.
According to the BBC, tents set up for military personnel during the Covid pandemic are being used as accommodation for the Tamils.
The makeshift migrant camp is surrounded by fences, has some medical facilities and a canteen and is guarded by staff from the G4S company – who must accompany those inside if they leave the area.
One Tamil described them as being “parrots in a cage”.
Another woman said that at first, she had been pleased to reach the islands. But that it had “turned out to be a hell”.
Speaking to the BBC, she alleged she had been sexually assaulted by a man from the boat who had been living in the same tent as her.
Another man, who said he had self-harmed twice, told the BBC: “We are mentally and physically exhausted… We are living a lifeless life. I feel like I am living like a dead man.”
Lawyers representing the Tamils say they are aware of around 12 incidents of people attempting to take their own lives and two sexual assaults – with three people currently receiving medical treatment in Rwanda after self-harm.
The situation on the island is made more complicated by the fact that while the UK is signed up to international laws about the treatment of refugees there is some dispute about whether this applies to the British Indian Ocean Territory as it is “constitutionally distinct and separate from the UK”.
Emilie McDonnell, UK advocacy and communications coordinator at Human Rights Watch, believes the UK government “should consider any and all options to ensure the welfare of these asylum seekers who are on British-controlled territory and therefore should be protected by the British government”.
Lawyers claim the UK has said it will not take in any of the Diego Garcia asylum seekers whose claims are approved.
In a statement to the BBC earlier this week, a Government spokesperson said the UK was “working tirelessly with the BIOT administration to find a long-term solution to [the migrants’] current situation”.