US blocks court hearing for migrants on UK-owned Chagos Islands

Mauritius, an ally of China, has urged UK to hand over the strategically-important Chagos Islands (pictured)
Mauritius, an ally of China, has urged UK to hand over the strategically-important Chagos Islands (pictured) - Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The US has blocked a court hearing on the detention of migrants in an overseas British territory, the BBC reported.

The supreme court of the Chagos Islands, known in the UK as the British Indian Ocean Territory, was due to hold a hearing this week on the detention of a group of migrants on the island of Diego Garcia.

Diego Marcia is leased to the US and serves as one of America’s most important, and secretive, overseas military bases. As a result, access is heavily restricted.

The US government abruptly withdrew consent for lawyers representing the migrants and journalists covering the hearing to access the island, citing security concerns.

According to court documents seen by the BBC, the US refused to provide those due to attend the hearing with transport, accommodation or food until its “security and operational concerns are adequately addressed”.

The US said it would be “willing to reconsider” the requests if the visit could be “conducted in a manner” that resolved its concerns, according to a statement from Biot’s deputy commissioner, Nishi Dholakia.

The court later issued an order cancelling the hearing just hours before the judge, lawyers for the UK Government and the group of migrants, and BBC journalists were due to fly to the island.

A virtual court hearing took place on Tuesday, with lawyers tuning in from London and the migrants in Diego Garcia, to determine how to proceed.

Discussions between the US and the UK are said to be continuing over the legally complex case which relates to around 60 Sri Lankan Tamils, including at least 16 children, who arrived on the island in 2021 and claimed asylum.

The group have been housed in tents in an enclosed camp guarded by the private security company G4S.

UN representatives have previously said the situation amounts to arbitrary detention.

The Foreign Office has previously said it is “working tirelessly to process the migrants’ claims” and to find a suitable third country for those whose claims are upheld”.

Dispute with Mauritius

The British Indian Ocean Territory, which has been British-owned since 1814, has been the subject of a decades-long dispute with Mauritius.

China-facing Mauritius, which won independence from the UK in 1968, maintains that the islands are its own and the UN’s top court has declared Britain’s ownership of the territory to be “unlawful” and called for it to be returned.

Britain’s stance on the territory has been coloured by the fact that it has leased use of Diego Garcia, the only inhabited island of the Chagos archipelago to the US.

Most personnel and resources on the island are under the Pentagon’s control, including most restaurants, shops, accommodation and transport facilities.

The US military, which has used the island as an important strategic base, including for bombing missions in the Middle East, claims the right to refuse access to areas operated or controlled by the Pentagon.

The BBC said that the specific security concerns being raised are not clear, but  reported they were understood to relate to a “site visit” due to be conducted as part of the legal hearing.