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Govt left Tamil refugees in boats in the Indian Ocean without ‘safety procedures’; allege British lawyers

A group of attorneys have charged the UK government of forcing Sri Lankan-Tamil refugees to leave the British-controlled Diego Garcia region in the Indian Ocean. Leigh Day, a UK legal firm that represents 81 refugees, said that by letting them to leave the island in the Indian Ocean without first making sure that their boats, which also included children, were seaworthy and secure, the government violated both international law and the UK Children Act.

20 children were among the 89 Sri Lankans who arrived on Diego Garcia after their boat was stopped by British forces in October as they purportedly travelled from India to Canada. The Chagos Islands, which make up Diego Garcia, were allegedly illegally severed from Mauritius by the UK when it handed Mauritius independence in 1968, according to a UN court. The Chagos Islands are part of the Chagos Archipelago. The island is known as British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) by the UK, which still asserts its authority over it.

They claimed in the legal letters to the government that they were compelled to leave the island because of the terrible living conditions. A boat carrying 35 passengers, including an 18-month-old kid, was escorted back to Diego Garcia owing to an engine failure, while another boat carrying 46 people made it to the French province of Réunion after three weeks at sea. But they claimed in the letter that it was later let to leave once more on Sunday without being checked for proper life safety equipment.

Tessa Gregory, a partner at Leigh Day, was quoted as saying: ‘If the UK and BIOT authorities enabled 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 the life and limb of the adults and children aboard.  We have contacted the UK and BIOT authorities to confirm what safeguards are in place to guarantee that the vessel is monitored so that an emergency rescue can be carried out if necessary, but so far have received no response. We are highly afraid that the boat that sailed last Sunday may again founder’.

In response to the claim, a government official told Guardian, ‘We have been working relentlessly to find a long-term solution for the migrants in Diego Garcia. Their well-being and safety have always been our primary priorities’. The migrants on BIOT are not imprisoned and are free to depart at any moment. So far, everyone who has left has done so willingly and on their own. To make sure that ships were seaworthy, the BIOT administration organised sea trials.


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