Two Sri Lankan asylum seekers who were transferred to Rwanda earlier this month after attempting suicide on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia were approved by UK authorities on Thursday to receive asylum in a third country.
Documents notifying the man and woman of the decision, which The New Humanitarian has reviewed, say they will not be returned to Sri Lanka, where they fear persecution by the government. A third country for resettlement has not yet been identified, however.
The two asylum seekers, Hamshika Krishnamoorthi, 22, and Ajith Sajithkumar, 22, were among the first 89 Tamil asylum seekers to arrive on Diego Garcia in October 2021. Their boat broke down near the island, and they were rescued by British forces.
The numbers of Sri Lankan asylum seekers swelled to nearly 200 in 2022, but many either accepted payments from the UK to return to Sri Lanka or voluntarily left by boat to seek asylum on the French island of Réunion.
Of the remaining 68 asylum seekers, many say they were tortured and sexually abused by Sri Lankan security forces for alleged links to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – a separatist group that fought for independence during a 26-year-civil war against the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan government.
While more than 50 people have had their asylum claims assessed by UK officials on the island, most have been rejected. Their rejection letters include the line: “A removal order will be issued for your return to Sri Lanka.”
“I am very happy, but at the same time, worried about how much longer it will be,” Krishnamoorthi told The New Humanitarian via WhatsApp from the Rwanda Military Hospital in the Rwandan capital, Kigali.
Geeth Kulasegaram, a senior legal adviser at London-based Jein Solicitors who represents the two asylum seekers, said he is seeking a stay order from a judge in the UK to prevent his clients from being brought back to Diego Garcia.
He said the opinions of medical experts in Rwanda were instrumental in securing asylum for his clients.
“We had already submitted strong medical evidence for both [clients], warning the BIOT [authorities] that they are suffering from serious mental health issues and [are] at high risk of suicide,” he told The New Humanitarian via WhatsApp. “Initially, the BIOT did not appear to have considered them properly or [with] enough weight. However…the doctors in Rwanda also confirmed the same, which must have left the BIOT with no choice.”
“I’m hopeful that this will have a positive impact on other cases in Diego Garcia,” he added.
The UK government came under criticism by rights groups and the UN this month over the passage of the “Illegal Migration Bill”, which aims to curtail the rights of asylum seekers in order to deter them from crossing the English Channel in small boats. While the UK recorded a 20-year high of 45,000 asylum applications last year, critics of the new law have pointed out that this figure falls well below the average among European Union states.
Diego Garcia, part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), has had no permanent civilian population since the UK evicted the native Chagossian people in the 1960s and 1970s to make way for a joint British-American military base.
For the last 18 months, the group of asylum seekers have been confined to a fenced camp on the island, where many have said food and medical services are inadequate, and communications are routinely cut off.
Dozens of asylum seekers on the island have staged multiple hunger strikes demanding assurances that they will not be sent back to Sri Lanka.
Last September, BIOT commissioner Paul Candler told the asylum seekers that none would be admitted to the UK, and the territory’s law had been changed to allow those deemed unsafe to send back to Sri Lanka to instead be taken to “a safe third country”.
Krishnamoorthi and Sajithkumar attempted suicide on 1 March by swallowing sharp metal objects after a visiting UK government official allegedly told them they would be sent back to Sri Lanka. Three more asylum seekers attempted suicide in similar ways on 13 March. All five were transferred to a military hospital in Rwanda for medical and psychiatric treatment.
The following week, five more attempted suicide, according to Krishnamoorthi.
The UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office did respond to questions about whether the remaining asylum seekers on Diego Garcia would be able to have their asylum applications reviewed by third-party experts.
Kulasegaram said he plans to ask the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, to arrange the transfer of his clients to a third country. He does not know how long the process will take.
If you are in crisis, click here to find a helpline near you (via the International Association for Suicide Prevention).
Edited by Paisley Dodds.