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Tamil refugees on Diego Garcia win fight against forcible return to Sri Lanka


A group of Tamil asylum seekers stranded on a tiny British territory in the Indian Ocean have won their fight against being forcibly returned to Sri Lanka after a Government climbdown.

The group are on Diego Garcia, part of the Chagos Islands, which the UK calls the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) and over which it continues to claim sovereignty despite a UN court ruling that they are part of Mauritius.

The asylum seekers have been there since 3 October 2021 after fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka in a fishing boat that got into difficulties. They were rescued and taken to Diego Garcia.

When the refugees claimed asylum, the BIOT commissioner issued decisions that they could be lawfully returned to Sri Lanka. Ten of the group challenged this decision in the British Indian Ocean Territory supreme court, arguing the decision-making process was flawed, and were granted a judicial review that was due to be heard over four days this week.

However, the hearing was called off after the lawyers representing the commissioner reviewed the evidence and decided to withdraw all the decisions.

The commissioner has now agreed to assess each of the 10 people’s protection claims afresh and that the new assessments will be conducted by reviewers who have had no previous involvement in their case.

The commissioner has also withdrawn the removal orders for all other asylum seekers on Diego Garcia who will have their claims reassessed under the new process.

Gina Skandari, from Duncan Lewis solicitors, representing two of the claimants, said: “We welcome the commissioner’s decision, in response to our judicial review, to overhaul the system in Diego Garcia for determining asylum claims, and to withdraw the unlawful decisions produced by it.”

Tom Short of Leigh Day, solicitors for eight of the claimants, said: “Our clients are relieved that the BIOT commissioner has finally agreed to withdraw the unlawful decisions to forcibly return them to Sri Lanka where they face risk of torture and persecution.

“Claims for international protection deserve the most careful scrutiny and the BIOT commissioner’s decision-making process fell far short of that standard. It remains our view that the group should be brought to a safe third country, like the UK, to have their claims for international protection fairly and lawfully processed.”

A UK Foreign Office spokesperson said:“It remains in everyone’s interest that the migrants’ claims are resolved as quickly as possible. The BIOT commissioner is considering each case in line with BIOT and international law to ensure no migrant is at risk of persecution on return to their country of origin.

“To ensure all evidence is taken into account when taking a final decision on migrants’ cases, the commissioner has introduced an additional step in the process to ensure new evidence can be considered.” (Courtesy The Guardian)

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