Britain to send Sri Lankan asylum seekers to Rwanda for medical treatment

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(The New Humanitarian) Three Sri Lankan asylum seekers, stranded on Diego Garcia, a remote island in the British Indian Ocean Territory, or BIOT, are expected to be flown to Rwanda for treatment, the UK Foreign Office has said. The new humanitarian.

More than 200 Sri Lankan asylum seekers, mostly ethnic Tamils ​​claiming to have been persecuted by the Sri Lankan government, arrived in Diego Garcia in five successive boats, starting in October 2021. Dozens have since returned to Sri Lanka on flights organized by BIOT authorities, while others returned to their boats and sailed further across the Indian Ocean to Reunion Island, the French department of overseas.

Confirming news of the medical move, in an email response to The new humanitarianthe UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said the “migrants” would be returned to BIOT once their treatment was completed. dealing with the deal struck by then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson with the Rwandan government in April. amid challenges by UK courts, as well as the refusal of several airlines to carry out the moves.

More than 100 asylum seekers remain on Diego Garcia, waiting for BIOT authorities to determine whether they can be repatriated to Sri Lanka, without violating the international legal principle of non-refoulement, which excludes their being sent to countries dangerous.

“One thing that worries me is that this could be the precursor to the Rwandan plan,” said Janahan Sivanathan, a paralegal at the Joint Council for Immigrant Welfare, which provides pro bono legal services to some asylum seekers. asylum during interviews. determine their international protection needs.

“They have this migration deal that they’ve spent millions and millions on, but they can’t send anyone from the UK,” Sivanathan said, adding that the same challenges don’t exist in BIOT because the territory is exempt from UK international human rights. treated and has its own military aircraft.

“So [the government] can actually use it as a precursor, as an example, to show, “we did this”. Nothing is stopping them at all,” he said.

Like Sri Lanka, Rwanda has a history of detaining, torturing and murdering political dissidents. BIOT authorities have informed asylum seekers that no one will be allowed to seek asylum in the UK; those deemed unable to return safely to Sri Lanka will be sent to unspecified “third countries”.

“Many [asylum seekers] let’s say that ‘third country’ is Rwanda,” said Meera*, a Sri Lankan mother of three whose husband was among the first asylum seekers to arrive in Diego Garcia in October 2021.

“[My husband] does not want a dangerous country like Rwanda and wants to go to a good safe country. Is there anything that can be done to stop this fate before making such a decision? ” she said The new humanitarian via WhatsApp.

“Hearing the name Rwanda, I don’t even know – is it a country? Is it even livable? said Kannan*, an asylum seeker in his twenties who spoke to The new humanitarian via video call from Diego Garcia.

Sivanathan said his organization had not received any information about the medical trip to Rwanda from BIOT authorities, and one of their clients was not informed until November 14 that the flight was scheduled for the next day. . He also said that at least 21 asylum seekers have had their applications for international protection rejected, meaning BIOT authorities have determined they can legally be deported to Sri Lanka. Ten volunteered to return rather than challenge the decision through judicial review.

“Overall, I can say they haven’t had the opportunity to present their cases in full,” Sivanathan said. “Their representations have been limited due to lack of available funds, and all services expected by BIOT are pro bono, with very limited means of communication.”

Kannan, who described being tortured by Sri Lankan government forces before leaving the country last year, said: “I would never go back to Sri Lanka. I’d rather take a trip on the sea.

The medical transfer decision comes amid increased pressure on the UK government over arrivals of migrants and asylum seekers. On November 14, Interior Minister Suella Braverman signed an agreement with the French government to increase the number of patrol boats in the English Channel. Earlier this month, the day after an immigration center near the southeast coast of England was bombed by a far-right attacker, Braverman described the boat arrivals of asylum seekers as an “invasion”. She also said it was her “dream” and “obsession” to see asylum seekers deported to Rwanda.

*Names of asylum seekers and their relatives have been changed for fear of reprisals.

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