Refugees Sent to Rwanda from Remote UK Island Speak to BBC

A group of migrants, who were transferred from a remote UK territory to Rwanda over a year ago, have spoken to the BBC about their experiences. The migrants, all Sri Lankan Tamils, describe feeling isolated and unsafe in Rwanda, with one referring to the country as an “open prison.” They claim that their complex medical needs, resulting from past rape and torture, are not being adequately addressed in Rwanda. Under the terms of their stay, agreed upon by the UK and Rwandan governments, they are not permitted to work and receive a weekly allowance of $50 (£39) for food and other essentials.

The migrants report facing harassment and unwanted sexual advances on the streets, which has left them too scared to leave their accommodations. They had been transferred to Rwanda for urgent medical care after suicide attempts on Diego Garcia, a British territory in the Indian Ocean. Currently, they reside in two flats on the outskirts of the capital city, Kigali, with their accommodation expenses covered by the British authorities.

Their legal status in Rwanda differs from that of asylum seekers flown there from the UK. However, a lawyer representing two of the migrants has expressed concerns about Rwanda’s ability to provide a safe haven for vulnerable refugees, given their negative experiences. In response, a senior Rwandan official defended the country’s medical system and stated that the migrants’ concerns about personal safety were not shared by others, emphasizing the presence of a thriving foreign population in Rwanda.

The migrants’ identities have been protected, as they have changed their names. None of them attempted to enter the UK directly; instead, they filed asylum claims on Diego Garcia. They had been part of a larger group that arrived on the island in October 2021, fleeing persecution and attempting to sail to Canada to seek asylum. The four individuals interviewed in Rwanda shared stories of being victims of torture and sexual violence in their home countries, some due to past associations with the Tamil Tiger rebels.

Azhagu, one of the migrants, has been diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and highlights the negative impact of uncertainty and isolation on his mental health. He claims that the medical treatment provided in Rwanda is inadequate and alleges mistreatment by Rwandan medical staff. Mayur, another migrant, has given up on counseling due to a lack of proper medication and meaningful conversations. Lawyer Tom Short, representing the migrants, asserts that an independent expert assessment found their complex medical needs are not being met in Rwanda.

The BBC approached the military hospital where the migrants received treatment, but they were referred to the Rwandan government. Doris Uwicyeza Picard, the top Rwandan official overseeing the transfer of asylum seekers from the UK, defended the country’s medical system and assured that the migrants were being treated to the best of Rwanda’s ability.