HC Deb 29 June 1983 vol 44 cc674-82

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now djourn.—[Mr. David Hunt.]

10.34 pm
Mr. Keith Best (Ynys Môn)

This debate, which I am pleased to initiate, is about people who have fled from oppression, made this country their home, and for whom I have the highest regard and respect. Their valour and determination are an example to us all. When considering the problems of the Vietnamese refugees, we must ask what sort of country they have come from. What has caused thousands to take to small boats and face the perils of the sea? It is an intolerable régime in comparison with which the fear of the unknown and the dangers of the ocean are preferable.

It is often argued in defence of Communist régimes that, while they deprive their people of liberty, they at least provide them with social and economic justice—adequate food, clothing, education and health care. In relation to Vietnam's Communist régime, the assumption that Communist régimes provide social and economic justice is false. In Vietnam today, goods and services are allocated according to one's political status and one's economic class. Party members have first priority, Government officials and those designated working class come second, and everybody else last. Special restricted access stores are a fact of life in Vietnam. The leading party members have the best local and imported food available to them. High-ranking people have their own special stores where medium quality produce is available to them. Low ranking and ordinary citizens are excluded from those stores altogether. That is certainly not socioeconomic justice.

Food purchases are in any case limited by ration cards. For the common citizen, the official food ration is insufficient and must be supplemented, but as wages are too low to enable the purchase of food on the black market common citizens are too often compelled to sell their property and personal possessions to supplement their diet with black market purchases.

This system of ranking citizens and allowing them special privileges is also extended to medical supplies. Medical care in Vietnam is administered with similar concern for social and political status. For example, the best hospitals are reserved for party members and their families. The Vietnamese Communist régime has complete control over its people by having a near monopoly over the allocation of the most basic goods and services. It is a régime that elicits loyal service from its party apparatuses by appealing to the most primitive material instincts—offering them economic and social privileges.

The Vietnamese Communist party administers a totalitarian régime whose domination of the population rests upon an all-pervasive police network, backed by an armed militia. After America withdrew from Vietnam in 1975, many leaders were apprehensive about their future under a Communist régime. The north Vietnamese leaders did not want to create a bloodbath in their efforts to conquer south Vietnam—they wanted the takeover to be as painless as possible. However, in May 1975, all members of the armed forces and civil administration of the defeated Government were ordered to register with the new authorities. In June, they were called upon to report for "re-education".

These re-education camps are forced-labour camps, employing political indoctrination. The inmates include not only military, police and intelligence officers, but former Government officials and staff of non-Communist political parties. Those put into these camps have never been charged with any crimes. The whole process of arrest and detention lacks any legal basis. It cannot be determined how many people are in these labour camps, but it is estimated that 200,000 people in the south are in them.

In addition to the re-education camps there is the prison system. Most of the south Vietnam intelligentsia has been arrested and herded off to these prisons. The north Vietnamese want to absorb former writers, journalists, and lawyers from the south Vietnamese Government. To the new authorities, the precise attitude one had toward the former régime is irrelevant.

Apart from the re-education camps and the prison system, a third element in the network of special punishment devised by the Communist régime is the system called new economic zones. These are previously uncultivated and uninhabited areas of the countryside, usually barren, to which certain categories of the population are sent because they are considered potentially disloyal. These categories include relatives of re-education camp inmates, ethnic Chinese, and urban capitalists.

In Vietnam today, the concept of privacy has been abolished, both by the public security apparatus and by the military. It is everyone's duty to watch and report on all citizens who display subversive behaviour. This type of surveillance leads to a society of mistrust. Also, practically, people have been stopped from travelling to different parts of the country.

It is not hard to understand why the Vietnamese people want to leave their country. The problem is that the Communist party does not want them to leave. To leave Vietnam one must have the Government's approval. Anyone apprehended while attempting to leave the country illegally is automatically sent to prison or a re-education camp for a period determined by the local authorities. However, since the victory of the north Vietnamese army, many people have been prepared to take the risk in leaving illegally.

For the first few weeks after the conquest of the south in 1975, people thought that life under the new Communist régime might not be horrific. However, by late 1975 it became evident that the re-education system and prison system were there to stay. Out of desperation, many concluded that they had to find a way to leave.

As Vietnam is surrounded by three other Communist régimes and the ocean, departure by boat was the only possible solution. In 1975, 378 people reached another south-east Asian country by boat from Vietnam. In 1976, that figure had increased to 5,247. In 1977, there was a massive increase to 15,690 people who left by boat.

In December 1977, the Vietnamese army launched its first major attacks against the Communist régime of Pol Pot in Kampuchea-Cambodia. However, China supported the Pol Pot Government and it was at that point that the Vietnamese Communist leaders decided that their local ethnic Chinese minority was a potential danger. At the same time, the north Vietnamese started a separate campaign of harassment against ethnic Chinese residents. Most ethnic Chinese who owned businesses were prohibited and many were sent to the new economic zones to start again. Thus, the incentives for ethnic Chinese to leave were enormous.

In the south, the number leaving by boat increased dramatically, averaging 5,000 a month. In 1978, the number rose to 12,540, and by late 1978 the number was up to 21,505.

The situation for the ethnic Chinese became worse in December 1978. In late 1978, Vietnam launched a full-scale invasion of Cambodia, overthrowing the Pol Pot régime and driving it west to the Thai border. In response to that action, China invaded Vietnam in 1979. The war failed to weaken the Vietnamese Government, and its only result was to heighten the anti-China hysteria of the Vietnamese Communist leaders. They began an all-out racist pogrom against Vietnamese ethnic Chinese residents.

The Vietnamese leaders turned the refugee problem into a successful business. They placed high taxes on visas and added high costs to identification papers. For example, the Vietnamese Communists made about $4 million profit on each ship that left.

The Vietnamese Communist régime exercises its power without any regard for the most fundamental values of the majority of its citizens, and continues to engage in overt racial discrimination against its ethnic Chinese minority.

In January 1979, the British Government responded to appeals from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Governor of Hong Kong by agreeing to a quota, by selection, of 1,500 refugees from camps in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Thailand. In addition, during 1979, over 1,400 refugees rescued at sea by British ships were admitted to the United Kingdom.

Through the summer of 1979, the exodus of boat people increased until it was clear that a major international effort was necessary to avoid severe disruption to many countries bordering the South China sea.

In response to that situation and to the growing pressure of refugees in Hong Kong, our Prime Minister took the initiative which led the Secretary-General of the United Nations to call an international conference at Geneva during July 1979. At that conference many countries agreed to take quotas of refugees, the United Kingdom itself agreeing to an additional quota of 10,000 refugees from Hong Kong.

There are now 16,000 Vietnamese refugees settled in Britain. They need support and help to integrate themselves into an environment which is a completely new way of life compared with that from which they have come. There is a different language, a different climate and culture. On a more mundane level, there are planning controls for building, whereas they have been used to building where they please in their own country. They are community-minded and like to live in groups, although many have been dispersed throughout the United Kingdom.

The purpose of the British Committee for Vietnamese Refugees, of which I am the chairman, is to try to deal with the problems confronting the people and to smooth their transition into their new lives. I pay tribute to my secretary, Madame de Roland-Peel, and also to the very considerable hard work and assistance of the other voluntary organisations, principally the British Refugee Council, formerly the British Council for Aid to Refugees, which has written to me about tonight's debate, the Ockenden Venture, and the Save the Children Fund. All have played a tremendous part, as has the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

One major concern for families already settled here is how they can be joined by their families who are still in Vietnam. The Government there are sometimes reluctant to let them go and can sometimes extort enormous sums in return for granting an exit visa. Even when there is such a visa, there can be intolerable delays.

I hope that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Home Office will urge the Government to put the maximum pressure on the Vietnamese Government to release citizens who have been given by our Government visa promise letters to enter this country. Since 1981, the Home Office has changed its policy towards relatives in Vietnam wishing to join their families here. My hon. and learned Friend's predecessor told me in a letter of 15 June 1981: our policy on family reunion for Vietnamese refugees has hitherto been more liberal than for other refugees but now that the numbers of Vietnamese resident in the United Kingdom has risen to over 14,000, the same standards must be applied to Vietnamese as are applied to refugees from other parts of the world. This means that in future we will admit the spouse and the unmarried children under 21 of refugees and look sympathetically on a case by case basis on other relatives who can be regarded as members of the nuclear family. It is unlikely however that unmarried adult brothers, sisters or more distant relatives who are not normally dependent on the person here will be admitted. The problems and needs of those people have not changed, but, by administrative act, their status has changed. Yet those relatives need to be treated in a far more humane and careful way than other relatives of refugees, not least because Vietnamese refugees are escaping from tyranny and, in some cases, death. I urge the Government to adopt a more flexible approach to ensure that relatives can join their families here.

It is right to pay tribute to the many local authorities that have played a role in accepting a few families each and providing local authority accommodation for them. I accept that it is the primary responsibility of local authorities to have a major part in resettlement programmes for Vietnamese refugees, but what incentive will the Government give them to fulfill those responsibilities? For example, will funds be made available to ensure that those services are established and monitored? What assistance will be given to local authorities that have within their boundaries a small number of families whose dispersal and resulting isolation are a major cause of concern?

We have seen recently the tragedy of Vietnamese suicide. Depression and isolation, leading to psychiatric disturbance, are problems which we must face up to. Will my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State urge the DHSS to recruit and train Vietnamese doctors in psychiatric medicine to provide a basis to cope with the increasing number of psychiatric problems experienced by Vietnamese refugees settled here?

Unemployment is a great worry and affects about 83 per cent. of Vietnamese refugees, although they are a hardworking and industrious people and I am greatly impressed by the way in which, for example, former Vietnamese army officers and those of high social status are prepared to undertake menial jobs in this country rather than be unemployed. I think, in particular, of a Vietnamese ex-army colonel who is now a car mechanic.

Greater support is needed. We need to establish a scheme to train Vietnamese business men in Western business practices to act as advisers for Vietnam refugees who wish to set up and run small businesses here. Perhaps we should even have a scheme for providing capital on special terms for Vietnamese setting up small businesses, as suggested by the British Refugee Council.

Part of the problem of unemployment is the language difficulty. As acknowledged in the Home Office research and planning unit paper 13 "Vietnamese Refugees" published last year, one of the main factors to affect the employment opportunities of the refugees is their proficiency in English". I pay tribute to the Government for funding the extra cost of English tuition by local authorities in reception centre areas. That was a major contribution towards helping refugees learn English. But will the Manpower Services Commission make provision for fully integrated job training and English language schemes? What plans are there for further support in adult education in the English language?

I end by saying something about what my committee is doing which will be a lasting monument to the courage of the people who have come here as refugees. It is a memorial. The royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea has generously made available to us a site on the banks of the Thames at Cremorne gardens, Lots road, near Chelsea creek, for Vietnamese boat people memorial. We are trying to raise the necessary funds through our charitable organisation. The statue has been designed. It is in the form of a woman holding a child in her arms emerging from the sea. It is symbolic of the emergence of new hope for a people who had nearly lost all hope. It will be a focus for the Vietnamese here and a permanent reminder of their brave countrymen, women and children who chose privation and death in their search for freedom rather than the human indignity of tyranny and fear.

Let that be a memorial for us to a courageous people and a constant token of remembrance of how fortunate we are to live in freedom and that freedom is often won at only a very high price.

10.50 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Waddington)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Mon (Mr. Best) for placing on record what life is really like in Vietnam today and explaining why so many Vietnamese have risked their all to leave their homeland. He has also given us the opportunity to look at the problems that face Vietnamese refugees in Britain and I pay tribute to his work as chairman of the British committee for Vietnamese refugees and of the Vietnamese refugees charitable trust, two of the several voluntary bodies that have already done so much to provide practical help to those who have sought refuge in this country from Vietnam.

My hon. Friend mentioned the position of relatives of refugees already here who have been granted entry visas by the United Kingdom but who have not been given exit visas by the Vietnamese authorities under the orderly departure programme worked out between the United Nations high commissioner for refugees and the Hanoi government. Our embassy in Hanoi works closely with the United Nations high commissioner and is doing its best to improve the flow of arrivals. The overall monthly rate of departure to all countries under the programme was substantially higher in the first five months of this year than last year. I know that about 100 relatives from Vietnam were expected to arrive in this country today and that the refugee agencies here expect a further 50 arrivals in the next two weeks or so.

Britain's policy is to admit a spouse and minor children only, with sympathetic consideration of any exceptional circumstances which sponsors suggest merit the admission of other relatives. I appreciate and sympathise with the disappointment and distress felt by many Vietnamese over those criteria, but I regret that given our other commitments in the refugee and general immigration fields it has not been possible to agree to any widening of them. I assure my hon. Friend that one only has to be for a short period of time in the office that I occupy to recognise how great those pressures really are.

The decision to accept the Vietnamese here was a humanitarian response by the Government on behalf of the whole community. Our selection criteria for refugees from Hong Kong were humanely drawn. Our only stipulations were that the refugees themselves should wish to come to this country; that in the opinion of the voluntary agencies it would be possible for them to settle; and that they were not personally unacceptable. Indeed, very few people who wished to come to the United Kingdom were rejected.

That generous approach, together with the fact that the United Kingdom programme began rather later than those of some other countries has itself contributed to our present difficulties. Few of the Vietnamese accepted by Britain had any sort of knowledge of English or Western culture, many come from the north, of peasant stock and were in Western terms quite unskilled, and some had been previously rejected for settlement by other countries. To those considerable disadvantages we must add a tragic background of war and hardship, the divisions within their own community and the fact that before their arrival there were virtually no people of Vietnamese extraction in Britain. In short, the task of establishing themselves and adjusting to life in the United Kingdom was far more formidable than that which normally faces refugees.

My hon. Friend referred to the employment problem. It is perhaps the most serious problem of all. The Vietnamese are a proud and industrious race and want to work. But they have arrived at a time of worldwide recession and the odds have been heavily against them. It was found in research initiated in 1981 that even after several months' intensive practice in reception centres and further language teaching in their new places of settlement, 79 per cent. of the refugees had little ability to communicate with British people. Moreover, the typical Vietnamese refugee is far less likely to come from the professions or the managerial classes than a refugee from other parts of the world, and the result is as my hon. Friend said, an unemployment rate in excess of 80 per cent.

Happily, the ability and determination of the Vietnamese, together with their tradition of self-help, means that the picture is not all black. A recent study suggests that at least 60 per cent. of those who actually found jobs have held them down successfully despite their problem with language. Some girls have already qualified as nurses; an acupuncturist, trained in China, has now set up in practice in Derby; two fish and chip shops and a small plastics firm are being run by Vietnamese in Peterborough, and there are take-away food shops in other parts of the country. But the success stories are still far too few: for most the reality is unemployment.

Since 1979 the joint committee for refugees from Vietnam has steered the efforts of the three main refugee agencies responsible for the original reception and settlement programme. We are deeply in the debt of the British Refugee Council, Ockenden Venture and Refugee Action and we owe a tremendous amount, too, to the many statutory and voluntary bodies, churches, housing associations, voluntary support groups, teachers, employers, social workers and neighbours who helped with the initial settlement and who are now continuing to support the Vietnamese community in its efforts to adjust to life in this country.

The first source of help for the Vietnamese outside their own community comes from the local support groups, which can help to supply many of the answers to the day-to-day problems that arise. But clearly they cannot provide a comprehensive service for the Vietnamese, nor help the statutory services to tackle problems calling, for example, for skilled interpretation in Vietnamese or Cantonese, and an understanding of Vietnamese customs and of their way of life. In some areas where there are few Vietnamese families, little community support has developed, and it may in time make a great deal of sense for some of those Vietnamese families who are settled in parts of the country far away from other Vietnamese, to move to areas in which there are larger Vietnamese communities. But even in some inner cities where Vietnamese communities may be comparatively large, such as in London, there may still be few volunteer support groups. Inevitably, too, there are limits to the knowledge and skills of some groups, and to their ability to respond effectively or act with the statutory authorities in the more complex situations that now call for their help.

The refugee agencies' field workers who were originally responsible for locating offers of housing and making arrangements to ease the initial stages of Vietnamese families' arrival in their new homes have now very different work to do: there are currently 42 field workers, including 10 Cantonese speakers and 21 Vietnamese speakers. Many of them are Vietnamese themselves. Their role has been crucial in bridging the language and comprehension gap. They are already being called in by the Vietnamese, by support groups or by the statutory agencies to help with family crises; they also do a great deal of interpreting when called upon by courts, the police, the health services, local authorities or local DHSS and Department of Employment offices. They work to boost the efforts of local voluntary support groups who are trying to develop the Vietnamese community's own resources.

I could speak at length about what is being done by statutory and voluntary bodies by way of language teaching and training for employment. My hon. Friend mentioned the MSC. I understand that there are many MSC projects directed to providing language and skills teaching. He suggested the possibility of giving help to set up Vietnamese in business. I am not sure that it is right to think in terms of special efforts to assist sections of the community in that way, but I assure him that many parts of the business opportunities programme are relevant when it comes to providing opportunities for people anxious to set up in business here, be they Vietnamese, other refugees or others who are without work. I was interested to hear his remarks about a memorial and I wish him well with that venture.

As for the various other matters my hon. Friend mentioned, rather than race through my notes in the minutes remaining, I should prefer to study carefully what he said, and I shall answer in writing all the other interesting points he raised.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Eleven o' clock.