Diego Garcia: The tropical island ‘hell’ for dozens of stranded migrants

Migrants fleeing Sri Lanka pictured on the deck of the Marayan, a 50 ft fishing boat
Image caption,An image provided by one of the migrants shows people on the deck of their fishing boat

By Alice Cuddy & Swaminathan Natarajan

BBC News

Dozens of migrants have been stranded for months on a tiny British territory in the Indian Ocean after being rescued from their struggling fishing boat.

They are desperate to leave for a safe place, describing conditions as hellish, but the unusual legal status of the island has left them feeling frightened and helpless.

All names of the migrants have been changed

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Early one morning in October 2021, a fishing boat was spotted struggling near the island of Diego Garcia.

The vessel immediately attracted the attention of the island’s authorities – the territory hosts a secretive UK-US military base, hundreds of miles away from any other population, and unauthorised visitors are forbidden.

It soon became clear that the 89 people on board – Sri Lankan Tamils who said they were fleeing persecution – weren’t actually intending to land on the island.

They had planned to seek asylum in Canada, a claim backed up by maps, diary entries and GPS data on board, before rough weather and engine problems pulled them off course.

As the boat ran into trouble, one man on board said they started looking for the nearest place of safety. “We saw a bit of light and started sailing towards Diego Garcia,” he told the BBC.

A Royal Navy ship escorted the boat to land, and the group were put into temporary accommodation.

That was 20 months ago. And communication between officials on the island and London gives clues as to why the migrants – some of whom have since attempted suicide due to their dire situation – are still there.

Communications in the immediate aftermath of their arrival were obtained through a Freedom of Information request to the Foreign Office by a lawyer representing some of the migrants, and shared with the BBC. They show officials wrestling with what to do about the “unprecedented development”.

Early messages spoke of plans to “investigate repair options to the engine”, but said “we can’t rule out” that the group will try to launch asylum claims from Diego Garcia.

By the next day, that scenario had become a reality.

The Tamils had presented a letter to the commander of the British forces on the island saying they were fleeing persecution, having set sail from Tamil Nadu in India 18 days earlier, and “expressing a wish to be sent to a safe country”.

Many have since claimed to have links with the former Tamil Tiger rebels in Sri Lanka, who were defeated in the civil war that ended in 2009, and say they have faced persecution as a result. Some allege they were victims of torture or sexual assault.

An official “information note”, approved in London by the director of overseas territories, Paul Candler, said the “unexpected arrival” of the group had marked the first time asylum had been sought on British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) – the islands’ official name.

It added that, if approached by the media, the official “defensive line” would be that the UK government was “aware of the incident” and was “working urgently to resolve the situation”.

The group “currently have no means of communication with the outside world… [but] with time passing there is a high likelihood news will spread,” it added.

In the coming months, as messages were going back and forth to London, more boats arrived on Diego Garcia. At one point numbers in the camp swelled to at least 150, lawyers estimate, as others arrived on the island from Sri Lanka.

A photo supplied by one of the migrants showing people on the deck of a fishing boat with their faces blurred to protect their identities
Image caption,Packed on their boat, the Marayan, the Tamils intended to voyage to Canada and claim asylum there

Meanwhile, the reality of their current situation was beginning to dawn on the asylum seekers.

“I was initially happy, thinking: ‘I survived, I am getting food, and I am away from torture,'” Lakshani, one of the migrants, told the BBC last month.

But she said the tropical island refuge soon “turned out to be a hell”.

She says she was sexually assaulted in October last year by a man who travelled in the same boat and was housed in the same tent as her.

“I started to scream, but no-one came to help,” she said.

When she felt able to make an official complaint, she says she was told it was difficult to gather evidence as she had washed her clothes.

She says she had to continue staying in the same tent as her alleged attacker for almost a week until authorities finally responded to her demand to have him moved.

Satellite image of Diego Garcia, with a label showing the location of the UK/US military base to the north-west

The UK government and BIOT administration did not respond to requests for comment about this allegation.

Lakshani and others told the BBC they or people they knew had attempted suicide or had self-harmed in their distress at the suffocating conditions, including by swallowing sharp objects.

Lawyers say they are aware of at least 12 suicide attempts and allegations of at least two sexual assaults within the camp.

“We are mentally and physically exhausted… We are living a lifeless life. I feel like I am living like a dead man,” said Vithusan, another migrant. He told the BBC he had self-harmed twice.

Another man, Aadhavan, said that after having his initial claim for protection rejected, he “lost all hope” and decided to take his own life.

“I didn’t want to live here like a caged animal forever,” he said.

He told another migrant in the camp of his suicide attempt and she alerted the camp authorities, who arranged medical treatment.

Another woman, Shanthi, said her husband had also attempted suicide.

Lakshani said her own attempt to take her life had been provoked by an officer at the camp telling her she would be sent back to Sri Lanka, where she alleges she was raped and tortured by soldiers in 2021.

The UK government and G4S – the private security company brought in to guard the migrant camp – did not respond to requests for comment on this specific claim.

G4S said its officers treated migrants on the island with “dignity and respect at all times”, while a UK government spokesperson said the “welfare and safety” of migrants on BIOT was “paramount” and that “all allegations of mistreatment are taken seriously and fully investigated”.

The spokesperson added that the BIOT https://bagaimanacaraya.com administration was providing “extensive medical support”.

There have also been hunger strikes on the island, which lawyers say have involved children.

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