HC Deb 17 May 1979 vol 967 cc543-52

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Lord James Douglas-Hamilton.]

9.56 p.m.

Sir Paul Bryan (Howden)

At the outset I should like to declare my interest as chairman of the all-party Hong Kong group and as a friend of Hong Kong. At the same time I should like to say how delighted the people of Hong Kong are at the appointment of my hon. Friend the Minister of State as the Minister with special responsibility for South-East Asia, especially in view of his great knowledge of that country, which is well known in Hong Kong.

I wish to raise the problem of Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong as I do not believe that the House yet realises what a frightening problem faces the authorities there. Furthermore, unlike most of Hong Kong's problems—which the people there seem fully capable of handling on their own—this is a matter with which only Her Majesty's Government can deal effectively.

If present trends continue, Hong Kong expects to have about 75,000 Vietnamese refugees temporarily in transit by the onset of the north-east monsoon in October. That is more than the total population of many of the constituencies that we represent in the House.

Hong Kong is not large. It is about 400 square miles, but only 100 square miles are suitable for urban development and agriculture. The rest is steep hillsides or waterless islands. In the metropolitan area the population density is 67,000 per square mile. For 20 years after the war the population grew at nearly 10 per cent. per annum due to immigration and natural increase. In the next 10 years the rate of growth dropped to less than 1¾ per cent. per annum. By 1977 Hong Kong's population growth seemed to have been brought to a reasonable level. That was due as much to the successful efforts to reduce the birth rate as to China's control of emigration.

With no natural resources, the people have pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. The gross domestic product has grown faster than the population. There is full employment. Wages have moved ahead of those in all other countries except Japan. There have been remarkable achievements in the development of social services, housing, education, medical services and social security. So, unaided, these industrious people, under a Government for which Britain is ultimately responsible, were beginning to see some hope of raising their standard of living and meeting the social deficiencies caused by the post-war influx from China. All that has been put at risk by the staggering increase of immigration, legal and illegal, from China, and the refugee influx from Vietnam.

In 1977, net immigration rose sharply to an average of 2,750 a month. In the first six months of 1978 there was a net flow of 5,000 immigrants a month. In the second half of the year it was 13,000 immigrants a month. In the first three months of this year it has been 22,000 immigrants a month. Since the beginning of 1977, the gross intake of immigrants from China and elsewhere has been about 250,000.

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Lord James Douglas-Hamilton.]

Sir P. Bryan

The most rudimentary requirement of this new population is, of course, housing. Even now, over a million people in Hong Kong are inadequately housed, in spite of a housing programme which has housed nearly 2 million people in the past 25 years. The housing programme and other works have made demands on the construction industry that it cannot meet. The Government have had to slow down the rate of growth in development expenditure. Even so, the housing programme over the next six years will provide housing for about 185,000 people a year. In other words, housing for an additional million people will be provided by 1985.

But the situation is now becoming desperate. I understand that, on present trends, it is now being forecast in Hong Kong that there will be 500,000 immigrants of all sorts this year. This makes nonsense of the Government's attempts to improve housing or any other social services for their own people. Nor is it easy to see how the economy can expand to provide jobs for such numbers.

Hong Kong lives largely by manufacturing. Nearly half of its exports are of textiles and clothing, but its principal markets, the United States of America and the European Economic Community, have imposed restrictions which prevent any meaningful growth in volume of its main exports. It can trade up, but this will not create more jobs. Indeed, trading up is more likely to reduce jobs. A committee in Hong Kong is looking at the problem of the diversification of industry, but no rapid results can be expected.

This background of the pressure of people sets the scene for the onset of the refugee problem from Vietnam. Upon the fall of South Vietnam, Hong Kong accepted for permanent residence some 7,000 Indo-Chinese who were caught in Hong Kong and unwilling or unable to return. A total of 31 charter flights were arranged by the Hong Kong Government to bring out some 5,000 relatives of Hong Kong people from Vietnam. Any of the boat people who establish connections with Hong Kong are admitted, even though some may have landed first elsewhere. Hong Kong is doing its part by finding permanent homes for 15,000 refugees who have connections with Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is treating refugees humanely, observing scrupulously international conventions on safety of life at sea and on refugees. No leaky boats have been towed out to sea from Hong Kong. Accommodation has been contrived efficiently and food provided. But this very humanity and efficiency is becoming known and is drawing in more than Hong Kong's share of these unfortunate boat people, especially now that the north-east monsoon has abated and the sea journey to Hong Kong has become less perilous.

Not only have the elements become more clement, but the risks of escape can now be avoided by paying Vietnamese officials. This cynical exploitation of the misery which the Vietnamese Government have created has opened the way to escape not only to the ethnic Chinese in Vietnam but increasingly to the Vietnamese themselves.

The extent of the depravity of the Vietnamese Government can be judged by the reports circulating among would-be refugees to the effect that when the wealthiest have left, the price of freedom will be reduced to maximise returns.

In another place on 14 February, Lord Goronwy-Roberts condemned this State profiteering at the expense of the refugees I am sure there is no party difference on such an issue. The rapid recent increase in the numbers of refugees leaving Vietnam shows the emptiness of the assurances of orderly emigration given by the Vietnamese Government to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and referred to by Lord Goronwy-Roberts in February.

In addition to the 15,000 Vietnamese refugees to whom Hong Kong has granted permanent residence, there are now 29,000 refugees temporarily in Hong Kong awaiting resettlement. Hundreds are still arriving every day. Last Thursday, in one day, 1,724 landed from small boats. Less than over a quarter of the refugees now in transit in Hong Kong have been accepted by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, whose procedures are unable to keep up with the arrivals. Only 3,000 have been found homes abroad this year.

Hong Kong has faced and overcome many problems on its own, but in the matter of refugees from Vietnam there is a clear obligation on the international community to provide speedy and effective help.

An international effort on a totally new scale is required. Only three countries now have an ongoing refugee resettlement programme of any size—namely, America, Canada and the United Kingdom. The American programme, which is the largest, shows signs of slowing down, not accelerating. If all the EEC countries were to accept refugees for resettlement in the same proportion to their own populations as Hong Kong itself has done already, new homes for 650,000 people should be available.

We have for the most part left Hong Kong to deal with its own problems, and it has done well. But one inescapable responsibility of a metropolitan Power which we cannot shift on to a dependent territory is the conduct of its foreign relations. Its Foreign Minister is Lord Carrington, just as he is ours. It is therefore the responsibility of the United Kingdom to generate an adequate refugee resettlement operation in other countries through the United Nations.

It is now up to the United Kingdom to impress upon the rest of the world the gravity of the situation developing rapidly in Hong Kong. We have agreed to accept 1,000 refugees from Hong Kong this year. This figure was set before the rapid escalation of the problem in recent weeks became apparent. If we are to carry conviction in pressing other nations to accept more refugees in this new situation, we shall have to do more ourselves.

In addition to accepting more refugees from Hong Kong, the important step for the Government to take now is to acknowledge and accept responsibility for finding resettlement places for all refugees landing in the British dependency of Hong Kong—not just those whom they are able to accommodate in this country. Resettlement requires a diplomatic initiative which a dependent territory is in no position to take. Other countries in South-East Asia can do so and are having some success. Since only the United Kingdom can take the initiative on the Hong Kong problem, it must be the United Kingdom which accepts responsibility for its success or failure. I hope that the House can be assured that the Government cannot contemplate failure in the discharge of this responsibility.

10.9 p.m.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Peter Blaker)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Howden (Sir P. Bryan) for his kind remarks about me and for raising this important subject. He speaks with authority on Hong Kong, and his views will command the respect of the House. I say at once that I agree entirely about the seriousness of the situation.

I should like first to pay tribute to the Government and people of Hong Kong for the sympathetic and humane way—which my hon. Friend brought out very well in his remarks—in which they have responded to a problem which has been thrust upon them and is not of their own making.

The figures involved are indeed alarming. I apologise to the House because I shall be giving even more figures, which, though not particularly at variance with those of my hon. Friend the Member for Howden, are the latest figures that I have.

Earlier this year considerable publicity was given in this country to the events surrounding the arrival in Hong Kong of two ocean-going freighters, the "Huey Fong" and the "Skyluck", carrying between them 6,000 refugees who had been callously exported from Vietnam in return for large payments of gold. The "Huey Fong" and the "Skyluck" attracted worldwide attention and sympathy. It is often not realised that the refugees who arrived in those two ships were only one aspect of the problem which confronts Hong Kong at present. Most of the refugees arrived in small boats, a few dozen people at a time. They arrived inconspicuously, though often perilously, and they did not make headline news. But together they add up to a much greater problem than than posed by the "Huey Fong" and the "Skyluck".

Over 27,000 refugees have come to Hong Kong from Vietnam since the beginning of this year—that is the latest figure I have—and more than 18,000 of them arrived in Hong Kong in small boats. As my hon. Friend said, the situation is getting worse. In January over 2,000 refugees arrived. In April the total was more than 6,100. In the first 14 days of May, no fewer than 6,577 refugees arrived in Hong Kong, an average of 470 per day.

Unfortunately, there is every reason to suppose that the number of arrivals will continue to increase over the next few months. If that happens, Hong Kong could well be providing temporary shelter for 70,000 or more refugees from Vietnam by the autumn. That more or less confirms the figures given by my hon. Friend.

These figures would be worrying enough anywhere, but they represent a particularly acute problem for a territory such as Hong Kong which, with 4.7 million people living in its 400 square miles, is already—as my hon. Friend quite rightly explained—one of the most densely populated places in the world. Finding accommodation in which temporarily to house those refugees is an increasingly difficult problem.

Even more important, the flow of refugees from Vietnam must, as my hon. Friend pointed out, be seen against the background of a very high level of immigration from China. There were over 100,000 legal and illegal immigrants from China last year, and at least 60,000 have arrived so far this year. Immigration from China on this scale places enormous strains on Hong Kong's social services, particularly its public housing.

At this point I should like to endorse the remarks of my hon. Friend about what has been achieved in Hong Kong in recent years. We welcome the great progress that has been made in housing, education, medical and health services and other areas. The sharp increase in immigration has been discussed with the Chinese authorities a number of times. I believe that the Chinese understand the difficulties which this influx causes for Hong Kong. They have said that they will take steps to limit the flow, and I hope that there will soon be a real improvement.

In these circumstances it is greatly to the credit of the Government of Hong Kong that they have maintained their traditional humanitarian policy of offering temporary shelter to all refugees who arrive in their own boats, or who are picked up at sea by ocean-going vessels for which Hong Kong is the next scheduled port of call.

Turning now to the wider picture, I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that the exodus from Vietnam is a major problem for the region as a whole and that it can be solved only through concerted international action. There are two aspects to the problem: first, to try to speed up the outward movement of refugees to countries of permanent settlement, but also to do everything possible to tackle the problem at source and to bring some order into the departure of people from Vietnam. I shall take the second point first.

My hon. Friend referred to Lord Goronwy-Roberts' remarks in another place on 14 February about the role of the Vietnam Government, and I endorse my hon. Friend's remarks. As my hon. Friend said, there is no party difference in this matter. The Government will take every opportunity to impress on the Vietnamese Government our abhorrence of the policies which have driven so many people to flee that country, often at great risk to their lives.

There can be no doubt that the Vietnamese Government have actively encouraged and profited from the traffic in boat refugees. Most of them are required to pay, on a fixed tariff, for the right to leave Vietnam and to embark on long voyages in vessels which are overcrowded and often unseaworthy. Information at the Government's disposal about the extent of their involvement has been brought to the attention of the Vietnamese Government. They have also been urged to collaborate fully with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the interest of achieving an orderly flow of people who wish to leave the country.

We shall also support the Hong Kong Government in their efforts to deter this cruel traffic in human lives. We hope that more countries will follow the example of Hong Kong in introducing tough penalties for anybody found to be involved in the carriage of refugees for profit.

But I have no illusions that representations to the Vietnamese Government, or deterrent action of the kind taken by the Hong Kong Government, will improve the situation in the short term.

So we must also concentrate on speeding up the process of permanent resettlement. I have said that this is a regional problem, and I certainly acknowledge that it is one that Hong Kong shares with the ASEAN countries. But Hong Kong is now receiving proportionately more boat refugees than anywhere else in the region, yet the rate of onward movement from Hong Kong is proportionately much lower.

In the first three months of this year, over 14,000 boat refugees arrived in Hong Kong compared with 13,400 in Malaysia, 2,750 in the Philippines and 2,100 in Thailand. Only 2,300 left Hong Kong for permanent resettlement elsewhere, but over 10,700 were resettled from Malaysia, nearly 1,900 from Thailand and 1,150 from the Philippines. I hope, therefore, that our friends the ASEAN countries will understand why the British Government attach importance to Hong Kong's being included in the scheme now under discussion among ASEAN countries for the establishment of a regional processing centre for refugees.

We shall also continue to work closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in his attempts to find solutions to the problem. We know the difficulties that he faces, and we are very conscious that the problem of Vietnamese refugees is far from being the only one with which he has to deal. But it is important that ways should be found to speed up the processing of refugees in Hong Kong.

As my hon. Friend has mentioned, the High Commissioner's representative in Hong Kong has so far assumed responsibility for only one-quarter of the refugees from Vietnam in the territory. I hope that the High Commissioner will now agree to accept responsibility for all refugees from Vietnam in Hong Kong, and start the process of resettlement for all of them. But the main requirement is for more resettlement places, and this above all is where a major new international effort is needed.

I accept my hon. Friend's point that diplomacy is required. I note what my hon. Friend has said about the need for this country to do more, whether under the last Government or under this Government. As the House is aware, the United Kingdom has already offered to take 1,000 refugees from Hong Kong and 250 each from Malaysia and Thailand over the next year or so. This is a considerable gesture in the light of our other commitments. Nevertheless, the Government will keep this matter under careful review.

In addition to ourselves, only the United States and Canada have at present programmes for the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees from Hong Kong. On the basis of our present knowledge of offers that have been made, or are likely to be made, it seems improbable that resettlement places will be available for more than 800 or so a month during 1979. With arrivals now averaging nearly 500 a day, as I have said, and still going up, it is clear that this is wholly inadequate. We intend, therefore, to pursue all possible opportunities for increasing this rate of resettlement and shall urge other countries to take on a fair share of the burden.

Mr. James Lomond (Oldham. East)

Is the hon. Gentleman really saying that he feels that our Government are playing an adequate part by accepting 1,000 of these Vietnamese refugees? Surely, if we are attempting to persuade other countries to come to their assistance, we could make a more generous gesture, because 1,000 is nothing at all.

Mr. Blaker

Of course, 1,000 was the decision of the former Government.

Mr. Lamond


Mr. Blaker

I said that this was a considerable gesture, and I think that is the right phrase in the light of our other commitments, because many people come into this country and present a problem which does not occur all over the world. However, I have said that the Government will keep this matter under careful review.

I want to refer finally to remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove and Redditch (Mr. Miller) in the debate on the Address on 15 May. He said that the people of Hong Kong looked to the Government for an assurance that Britain would continue to be responsible for their interest and to care for them. I am happy to give that assurance. The Government are fully aware of their responsibilities and obligations towards Hong Kong, and will fulfil them.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes past Ten o'clock.