Tamil Refugees on Diego Garcia Begin Hunger Strike

Tamil Refugees on Diego Garcia Begin Hunger Strike

Earlier in 2022, British soldiers plucked Sri Lankan refugees off a sinking ship. These refugees are now stranded on a remote Indian Ocean island, and they are desperate to leave.

42 of the 89 refugees on that ill-fated watercraft are in the midst of a hunger strike, protesting conditions which, they claim, are not any better than the conditions in the internment camps they were trying to avoid. So far, authorities have separated them according to international rules, but authorities have apparently done little to further their asylum applications. 

A British law firm has written several letters on behalf of the refugees. “Understandably the group is getting increasingly desperate and we have serious concerns for their mental and physical well-being. Immediate action is needed to ensure that a durable solution is found without any further delay,” one letter said.

Who are the Tamils?

Back in the day, the Tamilar, who lived mostly in south India and Sri Lanka, were seafaring tradesmen whose influence reached all the way around the world. Tamil ambassadors were in the palace of Caesar Augustus, and Tamil tradesmen significantly influenced Southeast Asia culture. Some of that influence remains. Tamil is the official language of both Sri Lanka and Singapore.

Today’s Tamils live much the same way as their ancient ancestors lived. They practice the same religion, sing the same kinds of songs, and eat the same kinds of foods. In our world, when you act differently, people treat you differently. Sometimes, that treatment is good. Usually, it is bad.

For the Tamils, the different treatment dates back to the British colonization of India. Back then, Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon. 

During British colonial rule, many Tamils held higher government positions than people from other ethnic groups. As was often the case, when the autocratic British left, ethnic tensions escalated. In Ceylon/Sri Lanka, the majority Sinhalese resented the minority Tamils’ outsized political and economic power. 

A long term campaign against the Tamils followed. Some highlights (or lowlights, depending on your perspective) include:

  • In 1948, the Sinhalese deported about 700,000 Indian Tamil tea plantation workers to India,
  • The 1956 Sinhala Only Act, which made Sinhala the only official language of Sri Lanka, forced many Tamils to resign as civil servants/public servants, since they were not fluent in Sinhala,
  • In 1977, following yet another brutal crackdown against Tamils protesting these acts, dissidents formed guerrilla groups like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers). 

The burning of Jaffna library in 1981 and Black July in 1983 finally led to over 25 years of war between the Sri Lankan army and the Tamil Tigers, in which both sides committed numerous atrocities. The fighting killed about 100,000 people, and more importantly for purposes of this blog, created over 800,000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, many going to the UK and India. 

Sporadic fighting continues to kill people and create refugees to this day. Anti-Tamil discrimination is also worse than ever, and there is only so much that a person can take. The continued fighting contributes to instability in the region.

Diego Garcia and Chagossians

The Tamils are desperate to leave Diego Garcia, and the naitive Chagossians are desperate to return. The story of Chagossian exile is another long one that’s based on short-sighted British actions which failed to take ethnic realities into account.

For most of the British Empire period, Diego Garcia, a/k/a the Chagossian Archipelago, was part of the Maldives, another British territory in the Indian Ocean. In the late Cold War period, as the Maldives were moving toward independence, the British split Diego Garcia into the British Indian Ocean Territory, with an eye toward turning the island over to the Americans for use as a military base. 

To lay the groundwork, the British deported most native Chagossians. Recently, an international court ruled that the British illegally separated the BIOT from the Maldives and that the Chagossians have the right to return to Dieago Garcia. However, the British have so far ignored that ruling.

All this political controversy significantly affects the military base at Diego Garcia, and it really affects the people who live and work there.

Diego Garcia and Contractors

Usually, private military contractors are beyond such concerns. They just focus on getting the job done. At Diego Garcia, these jobs usually involve “back office” activities, like construction work and longshoremen activities.

Today’s ships and planes are a lot bigger and faster than yesterday’s ships and planes. Therefore, harbor facilities, runways, and other such infrastructure needs constant renovation and expansion. The DoD usually contracts out these activities whenever possible. Commanders would rather put servicemembers in the field. They do not want them to serve on extended construction detail.

On a related note, barracks and common areas need constant updates as well. The Internet helps people on Diego Garcia feel more connected. But the island is still incredibly isolated. It was once an emergency landing pad for the space shuttle. Modern facilities help servicemembers feel more comfortable.

Speaking of common areas, the food that servicemembers and contractors eat always comes from somewhere else. The same goes for all other consumables. Therefore, contractors spend a lot of time loading and unloading ships. This activity requires a special skill that most people do not have.

Injury Compensation Available

These activities are not just necessary. They are also dangerous. When falls and other trauma injuries strike, most families lose their primary or only source of income. Therefore, the Defense Base Act replaces lost wages, as follows:

  • Temporary Total Disability: Most deployment-related injuries are completely disabling. These victims cannot work as they recover. So, the Defense Base Act usually pays two-thirds of the victim’s average weekly wage for the duration of the disability.
  • Temporary Partial Disability: Frequently, as victims recover, they are able to go back to work on a limited basis. However, they must accept a lower-paying stateside position that offers light duty and is close to the facility where they receive medical treatment. To bridge the financial gap, the DBA usually pays two-thirds of the difference between the old and new incomes.
  • Permanent Partial Disability: Frequently, recovering victims reach their MMI (Maximum Medical Improvement) before they fully heal. For example, a shoulder injury could mean permanent loss of motion in the joint. The DBA compensates these victims for their future lost wages. The amount of compensation usually depends on the nature of the disability and a few other factors.
  • Permanent Total Disability: Despite the best efforts of doctors and physical therapists, some victims are unable to work following their injuries. So, the DBA also compensates these victims for their future lost wages.

These benefits are also available to occupational disease victims. This category includes things like repetitive stress disorders and toxic exposure issues.

For more information about DBA medical benefits, contact Barnett, Lerner, Karsen, Frankel & Castro, P.A.