HC Deb 24 May 1979 vol 967 cc1228-31
Sir Paul Bryan

(by private notice) asked the Lord Privy Seal if he will make a statement regarding the arrival in Hong Kong waters of the motor vessel "Sibonga" with 984 Vietnamese refugees on board.

The Lord Privy Seal (Sir Ian Gilmour)

The British-registered freighter MV "Sibonga", owned by the Bank Line, rescued 984 refugees from two boats in distress south of Vietnam on 21 May. The "Sibonga" arrived outside Hong Kong, its next scheduled port of call, early this morning. The Government are urgently considering the future of the refugees in consultation with the Hong Kong Government.

Sir P. Bryan

Does my right hon. Friend recall that in the Adjournment debate on Thursday night I reported that the transit camps in Hong Kong had no fewer than 29,000 Vietnamese refugees in them? Since then, in less than a week, about 5,000 more refugees have arrived, before the arrival of this ship today. If these refugees are accepted, it means that in the last week 1,000 Vietnamese refugees a day will have come into Hong Kong. The position there is desperate. Added to this there is the immigration of about 3,000 per week from China. Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that the only way to bring real help to the Hong Kong people now is diplomatic action by this Government?

Sir I. Gilmour

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. As he says, the position has got even worse since the Adjournment debate last week. In fact, I understand that more than 1,800 refugees arrived there today in small boats, adding to the 32,000 already there. As my hon. Friend probably knows, my right hon. and noble Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary has already discussed the refugee problem—especially in terms of the impact on Hong Kong—with the American Secretary of State and the Japanese Foreign Minister. We are in touch with other Governments and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as well as the Hong Kong Government about a situation that is desperately serious and is deteriorating rapidly every day.

Mr. Wrigglesworth

Although the right hon. Gentleman must be aware that right hon. and hon. Members want to see the refugees dealt with in the most sympathetic and helpful way, will he also consider making representations through the United Nations to ensure that the Vietnamese Government do something about this problem? Will he look into allegations that payments are being made to individuals and, indeed, to the Vietnamese Government to allow people to come away from that country and become the problem of the Western world in the way that they are at the moment?

Sir I. Gilmour

I agree very much with the hon. Gentleman. I do not know for certain, but my information is that payments are being made. The Vietnamese Government should not be in any doubt of the force of world opinion about their cruel and vicious practice of exporting people whom they do not want. We shall do all in our power to see that other countries also bring pressure to bear, but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, our power of leverage on such a Government is limited.

Mr. Ronald Bell

Will my right hon. Friend take into account that this is a traffic actually organised by the Vietnamese Government and that there may be no solution to the problem, because of the possible magnitude involved, unless at some point they are required to take back people whom they have deliberately exported as part of a financial transaction?

Sir I. Gilmour

I agree with my hon. and learned Friend that there may not be a solution. It may well be that they should be required to take back these people. On the other hand, there are a large number of them who, if they went back, would be ill treated. Therefore, that would be at the most only a limited solution to this very serious problem.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Opposition agree that this major problem is a matter for international agreement and that it is urgent that countries should work together? In terms of this country, do the Government stick by the policy of the previous Administration, that is, that we were prepared to accept for settlement refugees picked up on the high seas by ships registered in the United Kingdom and not acceptable elsewhere?

Sir I. Gilmour

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his earlier remarks. I am aware of the commitment that was made, and I supported it at the time. But the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the position is now altered. It has got very much worse. The numbers have risen very considerably. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that it would be wrong at this stage for us to enter into an absolutely open-ended commitment that might involve an enormous number of people. Therefore, as we have not been in power very long, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will concede that it is reasonable that we should be given a little time to consider this very serious problem.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I propose to call two more hon. Members from each side of the House.

Mr. Tapsell

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, although there is every possible cause for sympathy for the Vietnamese refugees, one ugly aspect of this traffic is the commercial middlemen who make very large sums of money out of bringing them not only to Hong Kong but to other countries in South-East Asia? Do the Hong Kong Government have the necessary powers to prosecute the captains of these ships and to confiscate the ships? I think that that would make a very practical contribution to ending this traffic.

Sir I. Gilmour

I agree with my hon. Friend that people who traffic in this are on the level of dope traffickers and smugglers of that kind, but I am far from clear that it is the captains of the vessels who are involved in it. I shall look into this, but I feel that the middlemen, whom my hon. Friend rightly criticises, keep rather further away from the scene of the action.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

Whatever the evidence of financial gain as a result of this traffic, there is no evidence that any of the people who have left Vietnam did not want to leave, and, therefore, they are refugees in a real sense. Although we all recognise that status, there seems to be no specific responsibility on the United Kingdom. If we are to take our share as part of the international community, surely the share should be worked out diplomatically and not related simply to which ships picked up which refugees.

Sir I. Gilmour

Ideally that is the right approach. I agree that a solution can be found only on an international basis.

Mr. Hal Miller

Does my right hon. Friend understand the concern in Hong Kong that, whereas an assurance has been given to the Government of Singapore, no such assurance has been given to the Government of Hong Kong about the treatment of people brought there on board ships?

Sir I. Gilmour

Of course I understand the concern of the Government of Hong Kong. They are facing a desperately serious situation. We are anxious to help them, just as we are anxious to help the refugees. But we also have our own problems. As I say, we shall urgently consult them over the next few days.

Mr. Robert Hughes

How many Vietnamese refugees are the Government prepared to accept? Can the right hon. Gentleman say by how much the numbers are rising, and what the figure must reach before the principle of sympathy for the refugees is destroyed?

Sir I. Gilmour

I have already told the House how the numbers have risen. I do not think that it would be very helpful for me to pluck some figure out of the air and say that that is the number that we are prepared to admit. As the hon. Member for York (Mr. Lyon) said, this matter must be decided internationally.