HC Deb 18 June 1979 vol 968 cc908-17
Mr. Shore

(by private notice) asked the Lord Privy Seal whether, following his discussions with the Governor of Hong Kong and the recent statements made by the Malaysian Government, he will make a further statement of Government policy on the plight of refugees from Vietnam.

The Lord Privy Seal (Sir Ian Gilmour)

The House is aware that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister proposed to the United Nations Secretary-General on 31 May that a special conference should be convened urgently under his auspices to deal with the problem of the Indo-Chinese refugees. The need to convene the conference soon has greatly increased since the proposal was made. My right hon. Friend is sending a further message to Dr. Waldheim, in the light of the most recent events, and has sent a message to the Prime Minister of Malaysia.

We have urged interested Governments to support our proposal, to consider themselves making additional offers of help and to bring their influence to bear on the Government of Vietnam to abandon the policies which are causing so much hardship for the refugees and for Hong Kong and the South-East Asian countries where they land. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office is now in Geneva for talks with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on whom responsibility rests for protecting and assisting refugees.

This morning my right hon. and noble Friend has discussed the convening of the conference with the French Foreign Minister in Paris, who indicated to him that the French Government, like others of the Nine, support our proposals.

Mr. Shore

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that statement. While accepting that the root of the problem undoubtedly lies in the policies of the Vietnamese Government themselves, and while also appreciating the great problems that face Malaysia, may I ask him whether he is aware of the sense of shock that most people felt on hearing the orginal statement made by the Malaysian Government—a shock only partly dimnished by their subsequent statements?

I note the number of approaches that the Government intend to make and, indeed, are making, but in view of the great magnitude and gravity of the issues, and in view of the fact that a number of the countries which can be expected to have great influence on Vietnam and to contribute most to the solution of the problem are members of the Security Council, has the right hon. Gentleman considered whether, in approaching the United Nations, this might not be a suitable matter to bring before the Security Council itself?

Lastly, in view of the need, in the interim period, to assist those countries in South-East Asia which are bearing the brunt of the problem, including Hong Kong and Malaysia, may I stress how very important it is that the British Government should make all possible aid available to the High Commission for Refugees, so that the immediate pressures and urgencies, if they be financial, can be alleviated, and thus contribute at least to staving off some of these dreadful actions which are now being contemplated?

Sir I. Gilmour

I thank the right hon. Gentleman. I hope that it is appropriate to welcome him to his present Shadow post.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman entirely about the magnitude of the problem. I also agree with him that the problem stems from the disgraceful and inhuman behaviour of the Vietnamese Government, whose racial policies defy all reason and all excuse.

I also agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the orginal statement from Malaysia caused great disquiet, no doubt not only in this House but outside it.

The House may be interested to know that the Malaysian Prime Minister has today made clear that while Malaysia will take firm measures to prevent a further arrival of boat people into Malaysia, those measures will not include shooting. The Malaysian Prime Minister has added that Malaysia is not prepared to be left with the refugees and that if they are not accepted for resettlement after a reasonable time, the Malaysian Government will "send them away".

We are, as the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate, in close consultation with the Governor of Hong Kong, who was here last week. We are considering the possibility of increasing reinforcements for Hong Kong. I note what the right hon. Gentleman says about aid to the refugees, but he will be aware that resources are limited, and that is something which should be considered in the light of the conference, which we are convinced is necessary.

I note also what the right hon. Gentleman said about the Security Council, but, as he knows, our effort is being directed to obtaining a special conference, which we believe would be much more effective. As he will be aware, on the last two occasions when Indo-China was discussed in the Security Council—on 15 January and 16 March—the discussion was concluded with vetoes by the Soviet Union.

Mr. Bowden

Will my right hon. Friend advise hon. Members what they should do if they have constituents who would be prepared to offer accommodation to the boat people? Will he consult the Home Secretary to see whether a sponsored scheme could be prepared, on the same lines as the type of scheme that we had for Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany before World War II?

Sir I. Gilmour

I think that my hon. Friend should get in touch with the Home Office on that interesting suggestion, but I shall certainly draw it to my right hon. Friend's attention.

Mr. AlexanderW. Lyon

Whilst recognising that the allocation of refugees should be done on a better basis than the basis of which ship picked them up, may I ask the Lord Privy Seal whether he agrees that there is no real reason why this country should put the considerations of Vietnamese refugees above the need to reunite the families from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh? In the calculations that are made about the number of refugees who should be taken, will that consideration be borne fully in mind?

Sir I. Gilmour

I entirely agree with what the hon. Gentleman said. People's humanitarian feelings are naturally aroused by what is going on. If they were not so aroused, there would be something badly wrong. But, as the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, this country already has many other important obligations.

Mr. Cormack

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the statements emanating from Malaysia will make a complete mockery of its membership of the Commonwealth, especially if any of those threats are carried out? Further, what representations has my right hon. Friend or my right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs made to the Government of the Soviet Union and the Soviet ambassador in London, bearing in mind that the basic responsibility for that tragic and appalling situation belongs to the Soviet Union?

Sir I. Gilmour

I would not go so far as to say that Malaysia should not be a member of the Commonwealth. As I said earlier, we all regret the original statement. Although the present statement is still open to criticism, it is undoubtedly an improvement. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has sent another message to the Malaysian Prime Minister. He is under enormous difficulties, and the House should recognise that there is an appalling problem for the Malaysians. As to the Soviet Union, I called in the Soviet ambassador and conveyed our feelings.

Mr. Ennals

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about an international conference and about Vietnam, but does he agree that Britain's position in making these representations would be stronger if we adopted a more constructive approach in helping countries in Asia, including Hong Kong, and dealing with refugees at home? Will he have urgent discussions with his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to see whether we can increase the quota to allow a larger number of boat people to come to this country, so that our voice may be heard more loudly than with our present modest contribution?

Sir I. Gilmour

I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman's implications that our approach has not been constructive. He will have heard the comments of his hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Lyon) about our other obligations. As he will appreciate, the admission of refugees is generally a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson

I am glad to tell my right hon. Friend that the Sopley resettlement camp is working well, but will he ensure that if we intend to take more refugees greater time is given to local authorities and local elected bodies for the planning of that operation? A short-term emergency is one thing; a sustained programme of relief could be very different.

Sir I. Gilmour

I entirely agree that the more time that can be gained, the better. Again, these are matters for my right hon. Friend and I shall draw them to his attention.

Mr. Alton

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that while there is procrastination people are being shipped out from Malaysia who will be in need of immediate help? Discussions may go on around the conference table while people are being drowned. What action will the Government take to help them? Secondly, what action will be taken against the Malaysian Government as soon as the first shot is fired?

Sir I. Gilmour

There is certainly no procrastination by this Government. We regret the situation. It has been caused by the behaviour of the Vietnamese Government. We are not the policemen of the world and cannot control what everyone else does. We shall do what we can, and that is what we are doing by proposing an international conference. We shall be as humanitarian as we can, but there are severe limits to our power and influence.

Mr. Hordern

Should not the conduct of the Vietnamese Government be brought to the attention of the Security Council, and why have the Government not done that already? If there are difficulties in forming an international conference under the auspices of the United Nations, can my right hon. Friend say what further proposals he may make for an international conference to deal with the problem?

Sir I. Gilmour

I am hopeful that there will be an international conference. I should not like to speculate on what would happen if there is not. Regarding the Security Council, we are concerned to effect a change of policy by the Vietnamese Government and do what we can to help the refugees. For the reasons that I gave earlier, in our judgment a meeting of the Security Council, which we would by no means rule out, would not be helpful at present.

Mr. Russell Kerr

In view of the deep involvement of the Australian Government in the Vietnamese war on the American side, have there been discussions with that Government to ensure that they bear their full weight of that commonly shared burden?

Sir I. Gilmour

I am not sure of the relevance of the hon. Gentleman's first remarks, but we have had conversations with the Australians and they have taken quite a number of people.

Mr. Fletcher-Cooke

Will my right hon. Friend be more specific about who or what is preventing a United Nations emergency conference? Has he observed that the Prime Minister of Thailand, which is a country most deeply and immediately involved, has offered to host such a conference in Bangkok at once?

Sir I. Gilmour

I am not aware that I said that a conference is being prevented. These things do take time, and we are urging the United Nations to move quickly. My right hon. Friend has today sent another message to Dr. Waldheim and we are hopeful that a conference will soon be convened. At this stage I would not like to comment on the best place for a conference.

Mr. Newens

Should we not recognise that Vietnam has suffered an unparalleled measure of destruction, loss of life and misery in the wars of the past 30 or 40 years, and that that has been aggravated by natural disasters? Is it therefore not natural that many people wish to leave the country merely because of the lowering of the standard of living, as many of them have indicated? In these circumstances, would it not be preferable for Western nations to offer aid to Vietnam to help keep its refugees at home by raising their standard of living?

Sir I. Gilmour

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should demean himself by seeking to defend the actions of the Vietnamese Government.

Mr. Newens

I am not doing that.

Sir I. Gilmour

There is nothing in Vietnam's past that can excuse what is happening today. The Government there are behaving in a blatantly racialist and thoroughly corrupt manner. They are endeavouring to improve their economy by taking gold from these people and sending them out in boats. At least one-third, and probably more, drown before they reach any destination. In those circumstances it is astonishing to say that the country should be aided. Vietnam does not need aid; it needs to return to decent behaviour.

Mr. Lawrence

Bearing in mind the extreme urgency, will my right hon. Friend say what responses he has received from any country in the United Nations outside Europe in answer to our request for an international conference?

Sir I. Gilmour

The response has been widespread and favourable. We now need action.

Mr. Snape

During the talks, did the Governor of Hong Kong let the right hon. Gentleman know that the pressure on the services in that colony is bringing them close to breakdown? Does he agree that the problem of refugees in Hong Kong is seen by the international community as primarily a British responsibility? Will he further consider the suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Ennals) that we should set an example to that community by increasing the quota coming to this country?

Sir I. Gilmour

I have already answered the hon. Gentleman's last question, but even he may not be aware of the full extent of the problem. It is worse than most people think. On 17 June there were 54,178 boat refugees in Hong Kong, of whom 13,390 arrived this month. I am sure that he and the House will agree that the Government are right and that the vast pressure on Hong Kong caused by the influx of refugees can be relieved only by concerted international action.

Mr. Crouch

We sympathise with the immensity of the task that faces the Government and the serious situation that faces Malaysia, but will my right hon. Friend be careful in his pronouncements not to give even a modicum of support to a hardening of attitudes regarding the tragedy? It could be with us for many years. Will my right hon. Friend also assure us that the boat people, as refugees, will not become pawns in an international bureaucratic system that might be continued for a long time?

Sir I. Gilmour

I hope that nothing I have said could conceivably lead to a hardening of attitudes. On the second part of my hon. Friend's question, it is precisely to prevent that that we have put forward proposals for an international conference.

Several Hon. Member


Mr. Speaker

I propose to call those hon. Members who have been rising since the beginning of the question.

Mr. Winnick

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Vietnamese earned a tremendous amount of respect—though not from the Conservative Benches—for the manner in which they won their national independence, first from the French and then from the Americans? Is he also aware that they would earn more respect if they accepted fundamental human rights, treated all their citizens as equals, and did not penalise in a scandalous way one ethnic section of the Vietnamese community?

Sir I. Gilmour

I leave aside the hon. Member's first comments, but I strongly agree with the second part of his remarks.

Mr. Ronald Bell

Is it not absolutely scandalous that the United Nations, which was so prompt to condemn Rhodesia as a threat to peace, should now remain a passive spectator of this disgraceful conduct by the Vietnamese Government? Does the United Nations intend to take any action against Vietnam? Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that this country has made more than its full contribution to taking refugees from the various parts of the tropical world and that we have now had enough?

Sir I. Gilmour

We are more concerned with getting action both in Vietnam and on the refugee problem than in securing condemnation of what Vietnam is doing, although, heaven knows, the Vietnamese Government deserve condemnation. I agree with the hon. Member for York (Mr. Lyon), who said that we have made a substantial contribution.

Mr. Aitken

Is my right hon. Friend aware that here at home Ministers seem to have indicated a certain reluctance to admit many more of these refugees to Britain, whereas on the international front it seems that by calling this conference, presumably with the object of asking all members of the international community, including Britain, to increase the number of refugees they accept, they may be creating an area of ambiguity in our policy? Will he clarify this ambiguity by estimating today how many new refugees the Government feel they may have to take here at home?

Sir I. Gilmour

No. The whole drift of my hon. Friend's question is a matter for the Home Secretary.

Mr. Stanbrook

Since the problem of the resettlement of these unfortunate people can only be solved internationally, is it not undesirable for Britain to go on with unilateral action? Surely in the end this will postpone an international decision on the subject.

Sir I. Gilmour

I am not sure what my hon. Friend means. I do not think that we have taken much in the way of unilateral action. Our whole approach is international.

Mr. Adley

I confirm the comments made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) that the local authority in his constituency and mine, and the local people concerned, are happy about what is happening and are doing their best to cope with the problem. Does my right hon. Friend not find it extraordinary that all those people who campaigned so hard to change the Government in Vietnam have now so little to say, other than suggest pouring more aid into that country? How long will it be before we are faced with a similar situation caused by the same people's proposals for Iran?

Sir I. Gilmour

The question of Iran is rather outside the scope of this private notice question. There is a wide measure of agreement in the House that what has been done by the Government of Vietnam is disgraceful and totally inexcusable.

Mr. Hal Miller

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether, in view of the reluctance of many nations in Asia to accept refugees off British ships and the inability of Hong Kong to cope with any more, fresh instructions will be given to masters of British ships? Is this country prepared to accept further human cargoes, perhaps involving a reduction—contrary to what I think he indicated to the hon. Member for York (Mr. Lyon)—in some of the other obligations that we are shouldering?

Sir I. Gilmour

It is quite impossible for us to give different instructions to British masters. As the Home Secretary said on 11 June, we shall honour our international obligations, which are quite definite, in accordance with the convention on safety of life at sea. It is an obligation that a master must pick up those in distress on the sea, and we have no intention of changing that.