UK accused of endangering Tamil refugees in Indian Ocean | Chagos Islands
Lawyers have accused the UK of facilitating the dangerous boat journeys of Tamil refugees arriving in distress in the British-claimed territory of Diego Garcia.
Fishing boats that fled Sri Lanka were escorted to the Indian Ocean island after encountering difficulties, but the same vessels were later allowed to depart without basic safety equipment, putting passengers – y including children – in “grave danger”, the lawyers claimed.
A boat, carrying 46 people, found itself on the French territory of Reunion after three weeks at sea, while another, carrying 35 people including an 18-month-old child, had to be taken back to Diego Garcia due to engine failure but has since been cleared to drive again, they say in legal letters to the government.
The first boat of Tamil refugees, including suspected torture victims, arrived just over a year ago in Diego Garcia, part of the Chagos Islands the UK calls British Ocean Territory Indian (BIOT) and continues to claim its sovereignty despite a UN tribunal. ruling that they are part of Mauritius.
British law firm Leigh Day, which represents 81 of the refugees, says they are desperate to leave because of conditions on the island and are in limbo, but alleges the UK has can -be in breach of international law, as well as the UK Children’s Act, if it allowed them to do so without ensuring their boats were seaworthy and safe.
In the letters, seen by the Guardian, the lawyers say they understand the boat whose engine failed left on October 9 with 16 adults and a 10-year-old child, after, in the government’s own words, being ” escorted on the high seas by the Ministry of Defense Personnel to Sri Lanka”.
They say the vessel does not have an automatic identification system (AIS) to enable it to be tracked and its current position is unknown. Additionally, there is no record of the boat having been recorded as having a radio or other lifesaving equipment, they say.
Tessa Gregory, partner of Leigh Day, said: “If the UK authorities and BIOT have made it easier for ships to leave the high seas without proper tracking systems and safety equipment, it is an appalling dereliction of duty which puts the life and physical integrity of the adults and children on board.
“We are extremely concerned that the boat which departed last Sunday could sink again and have asked the UK authorities and BIOT to confirm what measures are in place to ensure the vessel is monitored so that an immediate rescue can be carried out if necessary, but to date have not had a response.
According to Leigh Day, the boat would have no life raft and insufficient life jackets for all passengers on board. He further claims that the government’s suggestion that the boat return to Sri Lanka – instead of heading to Reunion – “lacks credibility” as those on board have already had the option of returning with $1 aid. £500.
A government spokesperson said: “We have worked tirelessly to find a long-term solution for the migrants in Diego Garcia. At all times, their well-being and safety has been our top priority.
“BIOT migrants are not detained and are free to leave at any time. Those who have left so far have done so voluntarily and independently. The administration of BIOT facilitated sea trials to ensure that the ships were seaworthy.