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Human rights lawyers write to David Lammy, UK Foreign Secretary

Human rights lawyers write to David Lammy, UK Foreign Secretary


Lawyers for asylum seekers stranded in British Indian Ocean Territory ask for David Lammy's urgent intervention to avoid row with US Government

Human rights lawyers have written to new Foreign Secretary David Lammy, requesting urgent consideration for a group of Tamil asylum seekers stranded on Diego Garcia, the largest island of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), and intervention in a diplomatic row with the US.

The BIOT Supreme Court was scheduled to hear a judicial review claim on Diego Garcia this week regarding the alleged unlawful detention of the group on the island, used by the US as a military base. However, the hearing was abandoned hours before it began due to US government officials refusing to provide transport, accommodation, or food for Acting Judge Margaret Obi and the lawyers involved.

Leigh Day, Duncan Lewis, and Wilson, representing the asylum seekers, have jointly written to Mr. Lammy, who is currently in Washington for the NATO Summit. They urge him to prevent a potential diplomatic conflict between the UK and US over the refusal to accommodate a British judge on British territory. The UK Government must ensure the US Government allows the British Court to conduct its site visit.

The letter highlights the plight of the asylum seekers, including 16 children, who have been detained in inhumane conditions for over 1,000 days since their rescue by Royal Naval ships on 3 October 2021. The lawyers argue that the BIOT Commissioner is obstructive and breaching his duty to be open and honest with the asylum seekers' legal team.

Previous Foreign Secretary Liz Truss had considered relocating the asylum seekers to the UK, but instead, the previous government authorized spending £39 million annually to keep the group detained in the BIOT. The lawyers understand the concern about creating a migrant route in the Indian Ocean but note that former Foreign Secretary David Cameron negotiated solutions with Mauritius.

The group's lawyers argue that relocating the asylum seekers to the UK is the only viable long-term solution, as they cannot be returned to Sri Lanka due to their outstanding claims for international protection.

After the hearing was called off, Ms. Justice Obi held a virtual case management conference on 9 July 2024. She directed the British Commissioner to inform her by 15 July whether the US Government would allow the Court to visit Diego Garcia during the week of 22 July to conduct a site visit to the asylum seekers' camp.

Ms. Justice Obi had agreed to hold the judicial review hearing on Diego Garcia for a fact-finding site visit to determine the asylum seekers' detention conditions. This hearing would have been the first time the asylum seekers met their legal representatives in person.

The asylum seekers' presence has strained international relations between the UK and US. Although the migrants have been granted bail by the British Court, the US Government claims their presence poses a security threat to the military base, a claim doubted given other civilians' access to the island.

Statements from Representatives:

Tom Short, Leigh Day solicitor:
"The US's refusal to accommodate the British Court on Crown land is an extraordinary affront to the rule of law. We urge Foreign Secretary Lammy to restore order and rule of law in the BIOT."

Simon Robinson, Duncan Lewis solicitor:
"The US Government's actions prevent our clients from enforcing their right to liberty. We hope Foreign Secretary Lammy will resolve this issue swiftly, reducing the burden on UK taxpayers and ending the detention of men, women, and children in deplorable conditions."

Adam Spray, Wilson Solicitors:
"The denial of access to justice for those detained on Diego Garcia is unconscionable. We hope the Court can visit the island soon to resolve this matter and uphold the rule of law."

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