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Liz Truss proposed a group of Sri Lankan Tamil families stranded on Diego Garcia in the middle of the Indian Ocean should be resettled in the UK to have their asylum claims considered.
Court documents show that when Foreign Secretary, Truss warned that the Government risked failing in its duty of care for the group which included at least 20 children.
Sixty-one people, including 15 children, remain on the British-owned island, two years after being rescued by the Royal Navy when their leaking fishing vessel threatened to capsize.
Foreign Office memos revealed that, last March, Truss feared there could be “mass suicide”, after several of the families had gone on hunger strike in protest at being detained for months on the military base with no prospect of lodging asylum claims.
The role of the former Foreign Secretary emerged in court papers in the latest ruling by the Supreme Court of British Indian Ocean Territory which sits in London.
She is quoted in the documents as saying that the group had “made a credible threat of mass suicide, having been advised by the Commander of the British Forces on BIOT (British Indian Ocean Territory) of the proposed next steps in considering their status” but that there were “severe limitations to the mitigation measures which can be implemented on BIOT given the lack of facilities”.
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Truss concluded that “processing the group in the UK represents the only option” and warned “of a failure of duty of care to the migrants themselves”.
But her decision was never followed through. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office refused to answer when asked why no action was taken or when the policy changed.
Since she was replaced as Foreign Secretary, the Government has been making efforts to return the people to Sri Lanka, but last week the Government conceded it could not forcibly remove any of the Tamil refugees still encamped on the British island territory.
Last week, it agreed to withdraw all asylum decisions after acknowledging the process was flawed and to appoint independent immigration experts to reconsider the applications.
A FCDO spokesperson said: “The welfare and safety of migrants on the British Indian Ocean Territory is paramount and we are working tirelessly with the BIOT Administration to find a long-term solution to their current situation.
“The BIOT Administration is considering migrants’ protection claims under BIOT law and in line with our international legal obligations to ensure no migrant is at risk of persecution on return to their country of origin, and continues to provide them with extensive medical and welfare support.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is believed to be preparing to visit the camp where the refugees are held next month to inspect the conditions amid serious concerns about their mental health.
A UNHCR spokesperson said it “remain concerned and hopeful to access the situation” and that a “visit to review the conditions is still under discussion”.