HC Deb 25 June 1964 vol 697 cc786-96

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Finlay.]

11.14 p.m.

Mr. Dick Taverne (Lincoln) rose

Mr. Speaker

May I inquire whether the Minister concerned has notice of the subject which the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. Taverne) desires to raise?

Mr. Taverne

He has, Mr. Speaker.

Tonight, I wish to raise the problem of South African refugees in the High Commission Territories. My main purpose is not to attack the Government, but to draw attention to this problem. Not a great deal needs to be said about the background. By now all of us are aware of the nature of the South African laws, and about the problem which is created by a police State, which, in turn, creates political refugees.

Not only the people who are refugees from the 90-day law are in fear of the police; there are also many people who are in the position of Mr. Nelson Mandela, and which he expressed so eloquently. Many people find that all means of ordinary political expression are closed to them, and the only means of expressing themselves at all are illegal means. In those circumstances, things which we cannot condone elsewhere must be looked at in a different light when committed in South Africa. Much the same position obtains there as obtained with the Maquis during the last war.

It is against that background that the problem has arisen, and I would like, first, to say something briefly about the three territories. In Basutoland, the problem is difficult because of its geographical position. At the moment, there are a considerable number of refugees in Basutoland. Unemployment is one of the most intractable problems and a number of families have been persecuted by the Ruler of Transkei. There are about 40 families who are in Basutoland and who have no apparent means of livelihood. They are not of a very high standard of literacy, and it is not so much a question of there not being jobs as of there being jobs which they are capable of holding.

In this situation, where they do not have jobs and where they cannot move on, a solution must be found within the territory, a territory for which we are still responsible. The question is whether we are doing enough to assist them. The brunt of the effort is at present being borne by voluntary organisations, for example, a scheme has been undertaken for some sort of market gardening in order to provide employment for many of the refugees in Basutoland. But is sufficient help coming from the welfare departments of the Government? That is important, because in this market gardening scheme, for instance, no agricultural expert has been made available to assist; and it is a scheme which certainly needs such assistance.

Next, I would like to speak about Swaziland. Here, the geographical problem is perhaps the same. Either the refugees must go back to South Africa, or to Mozambique, and that is a certain road back to South Africa because of the co-operation between the Portuguese and South African authorities. They cannot be flown out, because the control over all air traffic means the persons who are unacceptable to South Africa cannot travel over South African territory. However, in Mozambique the jobs situation is better than in Swaziland, but the authorities seem to be the least helpful of any in the High Commission Territories. The refugees get work there only on the basis of a three-monthly permit, and I should like to quote from a letter which has been sent to the Secretary of State for the Colonies by the Swaziland Refugee Committee.

I will refer to this again later, but the passage I would like to read now states: To us refugees it appears that the local administration are employing all means to prevent us from being productively employed in this territory. The three monthly permits offered to us refugees, with the political conditions printed on the document, has the immediate effect of identifying the prospective employee as a political refugee. It also fails to satisfy the prospective employer that he may expect the applicant to remain in the Territory for a reasonable period. Thus, most of us, who are reasonably highly skilled in various trades and professions, find it impossible to obtain gainful employment. We can only conclude, therefore, that the local policy is implemented in such a way as to discourage, in every possible way, the future influx of refugees from the Republic".

The question that I must ask is: why are there these three-monthly permits? If it is supposed to represent an act of grace by allowing them to remain, then it is certainly an act performed with as little grace as possible. It certainly has every indication of showing that the refugees are not wanted. Why is the period fixed at three months? They cannot move. They cannot go back and they cannot go to Mozambique, so how can they possibly stay to plan on a permanent basis when they are subject to this arbitrary three months' limitation?

In Bechuanaland, the authorities would appear to be more co-operative. There are two main problems there to which I wish to refer briefly. First, there is the problem of the Hereros. This, again, is a particularly difficult problem because it appears that they were brought out by an individual under the incentive that they were to be offered scholarships in Ethiopia or Liberia, which were not there. Northern Rhodesia cannot absorb them. They cannot go back, because they are liable to two years' imprisonment. Yet they are confined in Bechuanaland, within a 12-mile radius. They cannot find work, and if they cannot move they will starve. We must help them. It seems an impossible position to confine them to a 12-mile radius.

Secondly, there is the problem of the three Swapo leaders, who could be a great help in enabling their people to freedom and to sort out refugees in South Africa from their own people but who are not allowed in and are prohibited immigrants. Why is this?

My main point refers to all territories and my hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway) wishes to refer to it briefly. It is prohibited for these refugees to conspire to do acts which are illegal in South Africa and which are illegal also under the law of the territory in which they now are. Therefore, they cannot plot sabotage inside South Africa. This restriction in itself seems to be, in the very vulnerable circumstances of these territories, a reasonable precaution. But does any further precaution have to be taken? Why does it also have to be extracted from them that they shall not take part in any political activities, that they cannot express themselves, that they cannot write or speak? Many of these are people who left South Africa. This is a breach of the whole principle of political asylum.

Lastly, I wish to say that the problem of these territories is likely to get worse. Already, in Bechuanaland, at a time when there is great activity among the peoples because of acts of sabotage inside Africa, about 50 a month have been coming in, not so much while the trial was on, but since.

How are we to cope and is not, in the long run, the bold course the only course, and should we not accept responsibility for flying out people who are in the territories contained in the South African Republic? I know that this is contrary to the strict legal position, but as the South Africans have flouted every human right and disregarded every resolution of the United Nations, is this not a bold step that we should take?

11.23 p.m.

Mr. A. Fenner Brockway (Eton and Slough)

The Minister has a very large file of correspondence from me on the question of refugees in the Protectorates. I have often been dissatisfied with his answers. Therefore, I will begin tonight by saying that I have had two letters today which give me great pleasure.

One concerns the case of Mr. Mahenjame Simelane, who is a citizen of Swaziland and who, by the intervention of our consul, as a result of the initiative of the Commonwealth Office, has been released and escorted over the border into Swaziland again. The second case is that of four members of the People's Party of Bechuanaland who, in South Africa itself, have been brought under the 90-day detention law. The Colonial Office has agreed to make inquiries about them and particularly as to their rights as citizens of the Bechuanaland Protectorate.

I recognise at once that the Protectorates are in an exposed position and that they may suffer because of their proximity to the Republic of South Africa. Nevertheless, most hon. Members will agree that the practice of apartheid is the most vicious denial of the identity of all races with the human family, and that one should not seek to appease it for those reasons. Certainly, the appeasement has gone too far. I wish to emphasise a point made by my hon. Friend, that I do not think that the Colonial Office can justify the restriction which is placed upon all the political liberties of refugees in the Protectorate. I can understand it declaring that any organisation of sabotage or of rebellion from the Protectorate should be made illegal. But to say that when they reach the Protectorate they should not be permitted to express their political views and their opposition to the system of apartheid seems to me to be intolerable over any area over which we have some control.

I emphasise that while this applies to political refugees from apartheid, it does not apply to supporters of the system of apartheid who enter the Protectorate. The argument is that they are not refugees. They are not, but they have liberty to express their views in support of apartheid and do so quite freely within the Protectorate, while the refugees are denied that right.

Because of the shortness of time I will not refer to the case of the Hereros. But I want to draw attention to cases of which I have had particulars to date of refugees from Mozambique, in Swaziland, who have been forcibly taken back into Mozambique by the activities of the Portuguese secret police within the territory of Portugal. This is not unprecedented, because we have had previous cases in which the police of the Republic of South Africa have acted in a similar way.

My last point is in relation to Mr. Kitching. He has been resident in Swaziland. I say, and all who have knowledge of him would say the same, that he acted with a courage and a devotion to befriend both refugees and impoverished workers within that territory. At present, he is feeding 400 building workers who are on strike within Swaziland. His life is made impossible in Swaziland by an unholy coalition of the partnership of certain privileged tribal chiefs in that territory and certain, others who are identified with British companies which are there. I have no time to develop his story, but it seems to me that it would be a betrayal of all that is best in British traditions if he were hounded out of Swaziland.

We are not just appealing for refugees of one colour or of one race. We are appealing for ordinary liberty, and that liberty may apply to a white person as well as to a coloured person within the Protectorate.

11.30 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations and for the Colonies (Mr. Nigel Fisher)

This is an important subject and I am glad that the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. Taverne) took it over when his hon. Friend the Member for Wednesbury (Mr. Stonehouse) had to go abroad after securing this Adjournment debate.

If I might say, first, a few words about the general refugee policy of the territories, it is to try to maintain a balance between our moral obligation towards the refugees, on the one hand, and our practical duty to the territories, on the other hand; to try to avoid any change in the hitherto rather good relationship of the South African Government towards them. I mention this aspect only because it is important to the territories, which are, as hon. Members know, almost entirely dependent upon the good will of the South African Government.

Bechuanaland and Swaziland have long common frontiers with South Africa and Basutoland is completely surrounded by the Republic. All these territories have Customs unions with South Africa and draw a significant proportion of their annual revenue from that source. Their external trade is largely dependent on the Republic. At any given moment, over 200,000 people who normally live in the territories are working in South Africa. So that as they are so economically vulnerable, we have to have regard to this aspect of the matter. It would be unrealistic not to do so.

On the one hand, therefore, we cannot allow the territories, and they do not themselves want, to become a base for any sort of subversive activity against the Republic. On the other hand, neither we nor the territories want to condone apartheid. So we have to steer this rather difficult course to try to avoid both appeasement of the Union and provocation of the Union. Our policy must be based, therefore, entirely on the best interests of the people of the territories.

This policy has, of course, the support of the Executive Council in Basutoland, where four unofficial members are Africans, and also in Bechuanaland. I believe that it has the support of the majority of the people in all three territories.

I do not feel ashamed of our refugee record. It is difficult to be precise, but I think that I am right in saying that since Sharpeville probably 1,500 to 2,000 people have passed through our territories and about 300 are still living there, 200 in Bechuanaland and about 50 in each of the other two territories. Amnesty International, which reported on all this in 1963 in—I should like to pay that organisation this tribute—a dispassionate presentation of the facts, stated that The British Administration of the three High Commission Territories has, in our view, observed the norms of traditional British policy. That is true, and I should like to try to define as precisely as possible what our policy is.

In 1957, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Dame Patricia Hornsby-Smith), then Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, tried to define our policy in regard to people coming to this country. The position can be paraphrased to apply to the High Commission Territories, too. It is, in fact, the basis on which we work there. I should like to give the following quotation from what was said on that occasion: … we do not regard as eligible those people who wish to come to this country simply because they do not like the régime under which they are living. If, however, it is reasonable to suppose that the result of refusing admission to a foreigner would be his return to a country in which he would face danger to life or liberty, or persecution of such a kind and extent as to render life unsupportable, he would normally be admitted, unless there were positive grounds for considering him undesirable."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th March, 1957; Vol. 566, c. 747.] These things are difficult to define shortly, but if applied suitably to the High Commission Territories that is probably about the most fair definition we are likely to achieve.

These are poor countries, particularly Bechuanaland and Basutoland. They cannot provide enough employment even for their own people, many of whom have to find work in the Republic. They have, therefore, strict immigration laws deliberately to prevent outside people coming in and taking the jobs for which they think they should have the first priority. Provided, however, that people are genuine political refugees, they are automatically given temporary residence permits for a period of months—in some cases, perhaps, three months, and in others six months—after which they are expected to move, if possible, to another country; but if it is not possible without danger, they are, of course, allowed to remain.

They are never obliged to return to the Republic of South Africa. I do not know of a single case of a refugee who has claimed political asylum being compelled to return to the Republic, and any proposal to deport a refugee in these circumstances to South Africa would certainly have to be referred to my right hon. Friend for his personal authority. It has never happened, but it would certainly have to go to him.

Mr. G. M. Thomson (Dundee, East)

In the case of Basutoland and Swaziland, knowing that it is impossible at present to get refugees out of the territories with safety, would it not be better to discard the three months' permit that my hon. Friend was complaining about?

Mr. Fisher

Well, it would automatically be extended if there were any danger for them in returning to South Africa. This is almost playing with words. We certainly should not hand them back, so I do not think that it really matters very much what particular period we put on the initial residence permit.

Both the hon. Member for Lincoln and the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway) have criticised the territories for requiring refugees not to engage in politics, but I think it reasonable that people who are admitted under specially favourable conditions simply because they are refugees should not embarrass the country which gives them political asylum. This, also, was looked into by Amnesty International, which reported that the condition on applicants for asylum that they should not indulge in politics is almost universally applied and is contained by inference in article 15 of the United Nations Convention on Refugees. In our view the enforcement of this condition is not unreasonable, and on investigation of the facts we do not think that those who complain of the enforcement of the condition have justifiable grounds for complaint. All we ask is that refugees should refrain from the sort of political activity which might either create trouble in the territories or embarrass the Territories in their relations with the Republic. The condition does not preclude membership of a political party or the casting of a vote. It is applied both to black and white refugees but it does not, of course, apply, as the hon. Member for Eton and Slough pointed out, to people, black or white, who are not refugees and who are merely applying for a residence permit.

The point is that residence permits are only granted under rather stringent conditions. For example, the applicant must be able to support himself and must not take a job which a local resident could do, but refugees do not have to comply with conditions of that sort. They are admitted automatically if they are refugees, and the only condition which they have to comply with is this condition that they must not engage in politics.

I should perhaps add—I think I am at variance with the hon. Member in this—that if any white South African who had been granted a residence permit went round advocating apartheid or embarrassed the territory by championing the cause of the South African Government he would be very unlikely to have his permit renewed. Our policy is not based on appeasement of South Africa, but simply on the interests and welfare of the people of the territories.

I should like now just to touch on the point of the large party of South-West Africans who entered Bechuanaland in March this year. I must make it clear that none of them has claimed political asylum, or that they are political refugees. As I think I mentioned in answer to a Question earlier this week, nine of them have left the territory of their own accord and, so far as we know, have come to no harm at all on their return to South-West Africa.

They all entered the Protectorate under the impression that they could obtain scholarships, but they had no documentary evidence of this, and a United Nations representative who visited them explained to them that, with the exception of about 20 people for whom he arranged entry into Tanganyika, no scholarships were available for them. I think that, of the original 155, 127 were illiterate, and only one had the junior certificate of education. The Commissioner, on the advice of his Executive Council, gave them residence permits valid for six months, though restricted to 12 miles from Makunda. This was done on 19th April.

It is quite true that there are very few employment opportunities in the Makunda area, except as herdsmen, but this applies to the people of Bechuanaland, too. Unfortunately, as I have said, Bechuanaland cannot find enough employment even for her own people, let alone the refugees, and the people of the country think, not unreasonably, that they ought to have the jobs which are going. So I cannot undertake to provide employment for these people from South-West Africa. But there is no evidence that they are suffering hardship in the Makunda area. If anyone has evidence of hardship, I shall, naturally, be very ready to look into it.

As for helping them to go North, the difficulty is that no Government to the north of Bechuanaland have so far offered to take them. Northern Rhodesia will give them transit facilities provided that Tanganyika will have them, but, so far, the Tanganyika Government are not willing to admit them to their country.

The question of travel documents is difficult. The High Commission Territories do not issue travel documents to refugees because to do so might well result in a flood of people coming in to obtain travel documents to go to the independent countries of Africa and elsewhere. The issue of travel documents would also imply the right to return to the country which issued them. Although one can sympathise, and I do very much, with people who wish actively to oppose the policy of apartheid, I think that we should invite almost inevitable reprisals against the territories if we allowed Bechuanaland, for instance, to become a sort of high road for people whose sole object in going North was to return later to make trouble in South Africa.

Broadly, our policy is this. We do not want to close the route from South Africa, but we cannot organise or finance the route, partly because this would endanger the existing relationship of South Africa and the territories, which would be inevitably to the detriment of the territories, and partly because these places really have not got the personnel or the financial resources to cope with large numbers of people from South Africa who might prefer to live somewhere else. In fact, there have been no influxes since March, and we do not want to encourage them by setting up reception camps and facilities in Bechuanaland.

Now, a word about the points which the hon. Member for Lincoln raised with regard to the members of the South-West African Peoples' Organisation, the three who came down from Southern Rhodesia, having come originally, I think, from Tanganyika. They said that they had come to assist the South-West Africans in Bechuanaland to move northwards, but they could not produce any evidence at all that these people would be accepted in Tanganyika, and, as I have said, the Northern Rhodesia Government have made quite clear to us that they will not allow through their territory people who cannot ultimately go elsewhere.

In the circumstances, these three people, who were not themselves refugees—and none of them had travel documents—really had no reason to remain in the territory. They were not achieving much, so they were sent back to Northern Rhodesia.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at sixteen minutes to Twelve o'clock.