Dozens of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees who have been detained for more than seven months in a military base on an overseas territory claimed by Britain have gone on hunger strike in despair at their plight.
The 42 hunger strikers are part of a group of 89 Sri Lankans, including 20 children, whose boat was intercepted and escorted to Diego Garcia in the middle of the Indian Ocean by the British military after running into distress while apparently headed to Canada from India in October.
Diego Garcia is part of the Chagos Islands, which a UN court has ruled were unlawfully detached from Mauritius by the UK when it granted Mauritius independence in 1968. The UK, which calls the archipelago British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) has refused to cede sovereignty over the islands.
The UK law firm Leigh Day, which is representing 81 of the Sri Lankans, says since their arrival on Diego Garcia, which is home to a US military base, the group have had very limited contact with the outside world and for the first six weeks were held without being able to communicate with anyone.
They are being kept in a tented compound away from the island facilities and are understood to have made clear to the authorities that they are seeking international protection but no steps appear to have been taken to allow individuals to claim asylum.
Leigh Day has written three letters to the foreign secretary and BIOT commissioner saying that returning the group to Sri Lanka could put them at risk of serious harm and be incompatible with the UK’s obligations under domestic and international law. It further says that refusing to allow them to communicate regularly with the outside world, including family members and their legal team, is unlawful.
The latest letter, sent this week, says: “Our clients feel increasingly desperate at the conditions they are enduring on Diego Garcia and the lack of any apparent progress towards finding a solution for them. They have been given no information about how, when or where they will be afforded the opportunity to claim international protection, how long they are to be kept on the island, where they might be sent, and/or when (if ever) their conditions might improve.
“We remind you that the group includes victims of torture and 20 children, many of whom are under the age of 10. The mental state of many of our clients can best be described as utterly despairing.”
The letter says that such is the state of mind of its clients that they have asked what what the UK government will do in the event of their deaths on the island, with some requesting that should they die their organs should be donated to the British people.
Sri Lanka’s civil war ended with the defeat of the militant Tamil separatist group, widely known as the Tamil Tigers, in 2009. But human rights organisations and the UN have reported an escalation of the harassment, surveillance and arbitrary detentions of – and land seizures from – Tamils over the past two years.
The Leigh Day partner Tessa Gregory 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.
“Understandably the group are getting increasingly desperate and we have serious concerns for their mental and physical wellbeing. Immediate action is needed to ensure that a durable solution is found without any further delay.”
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has been contacted for comment.