UK accused of putting Lankan Tamil refugees at risk in Indian Ocean


MoD personnel escorted refugees away from Diego Garcia in boat with no record of having radio or lifesaving equipment, lawyers say Lawyers have accused the UK of facilitating dangerous onward boat journeys by Tamil refugees who had arrived at the British-claimed territory of Diego Garcia in distress, said a report published by The Guardian.

It said: Fishing boats that fled Sri Lanka were escorted to the Indian Ocean island after getting into difficulty but the same vessels were later permitted to leave without basic safety equipment, putting passengers – including children – at “grave risk”, lawyers have claimed.

One boat, carrying 46 people, ended up on the French territory of Réunion after three weeks at sea, while another, carrying 35 people including an 18-month-old child, had to be escorted back to Diego Garcia due to a failed engine but has since been allowed to leave again, they say in legal letters to the government.

The first boat of Tamil refugees, including alleged torture victims, arrived just over a year ago on Diego Garcia, part of the Chagos Islands, which the UK calls the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) and continues to claim sovereignty over despite a UN court ruling that they are part of Mauritius.

The UK law firm Leigh Day, which is representing 81 of the refugees, says they are desperate to leave because of conditions on the island and they are in limbo but allege the UK may have breached international law, as well as the UK Children Act, if it allowed them to do so without ensuring their boats are seaworthy and safe.In the letters, seen by the Guardian, lawyers say they understand that the boat whose engine failed departed on 9 October with 16 adults and a 10-year-old, after, in the government’s own words, being “escorted into open sea by Ministry of Defence personnel towards Sri Lanka”.

They say the vessel does not have an automatic identification system (AIS) to enable it to be tracked and its current location is unknown. Additionally, there is no record of the boat having been registered as having any radio or other lifesaving equipment, they say.

Tessa Gregory, a Leigh Day partner, said: “If the UK and BIOT authorities facilitated the departure of vessels on to the open sea without tracking systems and adequate life safety equipment, that is an appalling dereliction of duty that risks life and limb of the adults and children aboard.

“We are extremely concerned that the boat which left last Sunday may again founder, and have asked the UK and BIOT authorities to confirm what measures are in place to ensure that the vessel is monitored so that immediate rescue can be carried out if required, but to date have had no response.”

Leigh Day says the boat is believed to have no life raft and insufficient life jackets for all of the passengers on board. It further claims the government suggestion the boat is returning to Sri Lanka – as opposed to heading to Réunion – “lacks credibility” as those onboard have previously been given the option to fly back with £1,500 assistance.

A government spokesperson said:”We have been working tirelessly to find a long-term solution for the migrants on Diego Garcia. At all times their welfare and safety have been our top priority.

“The migrants on BIOT are not detained and are free to leave at any time. Those who have departed so far have done so voluntarily and independently. The BIOT administration facilitated sea trials to ensure that vessels were seaworthy.”

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