US blocks UK from hearing migrant claim on British territory

Indian Ocean island - US blocks British court from hearing migrant claim on British territory
Diego Garcia is the largest island of the British Indian Ocean Territory - iStockphoto

A British judge has been barred by the US from hearing a migrant claim on the British island of Diego Garcia in a move that threatens to spark a diplomatic row.

State documents, marked sensitive, show that the US Government said it would refuse the judge food, accommodation and transport if she and other lawyers tried to reach the territory which houses a top secret American navy base.

The judge, Margaret Obi, who is acting for the British Indian Ocean Territory Supreme Court, had been due to fly to Diego Garcia last week to decide whether a group of 60 Sir Lankan Tamil asylum seekers were being unlawfully detained on the coral atoll.

Dozens of migrants arrived on the island in October 2021, saying they had been fleeing persecution and trying to sail to Canada to claim asylum when their boat ran into trouble near Diego Garcia and were rescued by the Royal Navy.

Diego Garcia - US blocks British court from British territory
Diego Garcia is is part of the Chagos archipelago and site of a major United States military base in the middle of the Indian Ocean - Reuters

The US military facility on the British territory of Diego Garcia has been described as an important strategic base. Earlier this year, two B-52 bombers were sent there for training exercises. US planes have been previously sent from the base to bomb Afghanistan and Iraq.

The US, which controls the airstrip, last week said it was “withdrawing its consent” for lawyers representing the migrants and “members of the press” – the BBC – to access the island, according to official communications now made public in a court hearing.

It said it would not allow participants of the hearing including the judge to board US military flights to Diego Garcia and would not provide “housing, transportation, and food for the visit”.

The US added that it would be “willing to reconsider” if the visit was “conducted in a manner” that addressed its “security and operational concerns”.

Jet planes on Diego Garcia
Diego Garcia is the site of a joint military facility of the UK and the US - Getty Images

David Lammy, the new Foreign Secretary, is being urged to intervene. A lawyer representing the asylum seekers told legal expert Joshua Rozenberg: “That the British Indian Ocean Territory [Biot] Supreme Court has been prevented from sitting in its own territory on crown land is an extraordinary affront to the rule of law.

“We trust that the Foreign Secretary will now do everything in his power to ensure the hearing goes ahead as soon as possible.”

‘Risks security and effective operation of the base’

Tom Short, a lawyer from the UK firm Leigh Day representing some of the migrants, said the cancellation of this week’s hearing had been “a devastating blow to our vulnerable clients”, and called for it to be rearranged as soon as possible.

The conditions on the island are deplorable and we are extremely concerned about the impact of this delay on the rapidly deteriorating mental health and wellbeing of our vulnerable and traumatised clients.

In a communication on 3 July, entitled “United States Notification to the United Kingdom of denial of the 6-12 July 2024 visit by of [sic] the Biot Supreme Court to Diego Garcia”, US authorities said the site visit presented “risks to the security and effective operation” of the base.

The US had previously said it was willing to allow access to areas including the migrant camp, beaches around it and a chapel where children receive schooling.

But the country had said it would not provide access to areas “open to civilian contractors and other non-military personnel”, such as a movie theatre, a barber and a bowling centre, the airport terminal and “all US-controlled areas occupied by the Biot administration, the Royal Overseas Police, and the Royal Navy”.

A Foreign Office spokesman said: “We are working with the BIOT Administration and US authorities to enable a court hearing to go ahead in a manner that respects the unique context on Diego Garcia.

“The welfare and safety of the migrants remains a top priority.”