HC Deb 28 July 1989 vol 157 cc1474-81 1.30 pm
Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to refer to what is currently happening in Bulgaria and to report to the House on my recent visit there.

As I speak, hundreds of cars and trucks are lining up at the Bulgarian frontier with Turkey at Kapitan-Andreevo, containing members of entire families with about as much as can be transported, including, as I saw for myself last week, the kitchen sink. They leave behind their homes, jobs, livestock, other property and the country of their birth. They are all Bulgarian citizens. Their parents and grandparents, and their relations before them, were all born in Bulgaria, which is their home.

Currently, they are leaving Bulgaria and are unlikely to return. The reason, quite simply, is that they have had enough. They consider that their rights have been denied, and, for the first time, they have been given passports and can obtain exit visas. Most of them are leaving for good.

Those people are the so-called Bulgarian ethnic Turks. The authorities prefer to call them Bulgarian Moslems, which they are, but so are the Pomaks, who are not of Turkish origin but are Slavonic. These Bulgarians regard their identity as Turkish, which is what they are; one has only to meet them to see that. They are the remnants of those Turkish families who settled in the Balkans over the centuries of the Turkish occupation. I was to hear the phrase "Five centuries of Turkish yoke" repeatedly and with so much venom—understandably so, in view of the history. One has only to recall the Bulgarian atrocities of the last century, the Bashi Bazooks, and Gladstone's campaign to raise British public opinion on behalf of persecuted Bulgarian Christians, in which he called for the Turks to depart "bag and baggage".

The tragedy today is that, contrary to the spirit of Helsinki, the Balkan wars are still being fought by propaganda and repression. As a consequence, we are witnessing the largest movement of people since the second world war.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) said on the "Today" programme from Turkey, 185,000 Bulgarian Turks have crossed the border to date, 3,000 are crossing every day and over 250,000 applications for exit visas have been made to date. It is obvious that that is only the beginning.

From what I saw and heard during my visit, the majority of the Bulgarian Turkish population, which numbers about 1 million—10 per cent. of the total population—want to leave and are planning to do so.

Apart from the human tragedy that that represents and the humanitarian issues involved—such as the division of families, the parting with friends, neighbours and colleagues at work, many of whom are Bulgarian Christians, and the emptying of communities, it is also resulting in growing problems for the Bugarian economy because of the unexpected loss of manpower.

It is resulting in major problems for Turkey, which is accepting the burden of providing for those people on their arrival there—in effect, as refugees rather than as tourists, as the Bulgarians would have it, although many of them have relatives somewhere in the country.

Surely few of those people can want to leave their country, homes and friends in that way. Does Bulgaria want to lose so many of its citizens? It says not. Surely Turkey can do without more refugees at a time when it is facing considerable economic problems of its own and is trying to provide for tens of thousands of Kurdish refugees from Iraq.

I believe that this tragedy was avoidable. Despite all the rhetoric and propaganda from both sides, it stems principally from the Bulgarian Government's policy to assimilate. I appreciate that they describe that as a process of national consolidation. However, they want to assimilate, integrate and regulate the ethnic Turkish population at the expense of its identity, culture and way of life. To the Turks, that represents their self-respect, indeed their very soul.

I first became alerted to the problem when it was brought to the attention of the Council of Europe committee for relations with non-member countries in March 1985, three months after the Bulgarian Government embarked on their assimilation policy. Every Bulgarian without a Slavonic name was required to sign a legal document to change it. Bulgaria maintains that that was a voluntary requirement, but from what was reported then and what I heard last week, I am convinced that it was carried out with threats and force. Henceforth, Mehmet, Ahmet, Ali and Hussein were to be called Mikhail, Ivan, Angel, Stojan and so on. That applied not only to the living Moslem population but to the dead. Names on tombstones have been erased and, as I saw, from 1985 only the initials of a Moslem name were allowed to appear.

Without a Bulgarian name, opportunities for employment, travel and a normal way of life would be impossible. Turks were not allowed to speak to each other in their own language in public. To do so would risk police beatings, fines, arrest and internal exile for those who persisted.

All Bulgarian radio broadcasts in Turkish ceased in January 1985, as did the publication of Turkish language newspapers in Bulgaria and the printing of Turkish books. Turkish community schools had long since been merged with Slavonic schools and the Turkish language was dropped as an optional subject in 1974. The wearing of traditional Turkish clothes such as the shalvar—baggy trousers—was penalised. Automatic telephone calls to Turkey could not be made and letters addressed to Turkish names were not delivered.

Perhaps the most insulting of all to many Moslems were the obstacles placed in the way of professing their religion. They effectively prevented them from performing marriages, funerals and circumcision in accordance with their Islamic rights and traditions. There are reports of mosques being closed, cemeteries being bulldozed and Moslem intellectuals and teachers of religion being imprisoned or even killed.

All that was contrary to the international commitments, treaties and protocols into which Bulgaria has entered concerning the rights of minorities. These include the original treaty of Berlin of 1878, which re-established the independent Bulgarian state, the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, the Helsinki Final Act, the numerous bilateral treaties with Turkey and, not least, its own constitution. Article 35 of that constitution forbids such discrimination on the grounds of religion and ethnicity, and article 45 entitles ethnic minorities to be educated in their own language.

It is not surprising that the implementation of such a policy met with opposition and resulted in violence. Reuters reported that 40 people were killed in the first month—December 1984—including 10 Bulgarian soldiers. Although the international press was not allowed to visit the areas concerned, foreign embassies reported eyewitness accounts of villages being surrounded by tanks while people were rounded up to exchange their personal documents for those bearing their new Slavonic name. Those who resisted and tried to escape were shot. Prominent Turkish community leaders who objected were held at the Belene island prison camp.

In response to all that, I was appointed the Council of Europe's rapporteur and in my report, which was unanimously adopted by the parliamentary assembly in September 1985, I called for an end to such a repressive policy and the violation of minority rights. We also called for a fact-finding visit, but the Bulgarian authorities did not respond. Instead, they continued their policy and there was no way out. No Bulgarian ethnic Turk was allowed an exit visa and none was allowed to emigrate. However, by now, the rest of the world was waking up to what was happening.

The events were raised by the United Kingdom in 1985 at the Ottawa meeting of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe. In March 1986, Amnesty International reported over 100 names of ethnic Turks killed in Bulgaria. Then, in December 1986, a Bulgarian weightlifter Naum Shalamanov, sought political asylum in Ankara. Better to be a garbage collector in Turkey than a national hero in Bulgaria, he said. At the Seoul Olympics last year, he won a gold medal under his previous Turkish name, Naim Sulemanoglu.

The Norwegian Helsinki committee reported on the position in 1987. The United Nations special rapporteur, Dr. Ribbiero, reported to the United Nations human rights commission in February 1988, and we raised the issue again at the Vienna review conference. Last year, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs heard Mr. Georg Schepfass submit: the West has some responsibility to look very carefully at what Bulgaria has been doing to its Turkish minority. Last October, the Council of Europe repeated its call for an end to the persecution of ethnic Turks and the elimination of Moslem identity in Bulgaria, and embarked on a new report, with a further request to be allowed to send a fact-finding team. Only when it was realised that the report would be debated by the parliamentary assembly in May did the Bulgarian authorities at last agree to such a visit, which postponed the debate and which took place earlier this month.

Our visit could not have been more timely. In advance of the CSCE human rights conference in Paris in May and June, Bulgaria announced that, in accordance with its Vienna obligations, it would allow passports to be available to its citizens and exit visas to be provided for all those who wished to leave, with the freedom to return. That, of course, was what the Bulgarian Turks had been waiting for, and the exodus began. It also gave Bulgaria the opportunity to expel those whom it did not want anyway, and the first 1,000 or so passports went to them, with a 48-hour notice to get out of the country. They were the first to arrive in Austria, Sweden, Yugoslavia and Turkey.

Our fact-finding team consisted of an Austrian liberal, a Spanish Socialist and myself, with our committee's secretary and our own interpreter. We had insisted that we should be allowed to go wherever we wished, and to meet and talk to whomever we wanted. During our week in Bulgaria we had meetings with Ministers, parliamentarians, human rights campaigners, university professors and students, representatives of all the religions, and national, provincial and local government officials. We found all that very useful, and it helped us to understand the position better, particularly from the Bulgarian point of view.

Our task, however, was to establish to our own satisfaction whether basic human rights were being denied to the Bulgarian's ethnic Turkish population, and, if so, whether that was the principal reason for the current exodus. I believe that we achieved that aim, and that is what I believe we shall conclude, without any shadow of doubt.

In the two areas where the majority of these people live, the Loudogorce and Kirdzhali regions, we were able to establish genuine and spontaneous dialogue with ethnic Turks who were keen to share their views and experiences with us—although, as several said, they would be observed, reported, questioned, arrested, beaten and given 14 days' hard labour for doing so. There is no doubt that they consider themselves Bulgarian citizens who are Turks; nor is there any doubt that the denial of their religious and ethnic rights is the principal reason for their discontent and their departure. Asked if they would return, few expected to do so; asked whether they would leave if their old names were allowed to be restored, most said that they would stay. They confirmed that many had been forced to change their names at gunpoint, that fathers had been gaoled for circumcising their sons and that they would be fined for speaking Turkish in public.

It is also clear that renewed unrest, hunger strikes, demonstrations and violence broke out in many places on 20 and 21 May—perhaps to coincide with the forthcoming Paris CSCE conference—and that there were several deaths and many injuries at the hands of the militia. I shall never forget our arrival at one of the places—Dzebel, in the south—where there had been much violence. Everyone stood around in silence and apprehension, waiting for something. They were waiting for our arrival, of which they had been informed by the media. It was like "High Noon" in a Western town. The atmosphere was electric. At first no one wanted to talk to us, then everyone did, until the police moved them on.

In our discussions with Bulgarian officials, we found a total failure—or perhaps it was a refusal—to appreciate this situation. They blamed Turkish propaganda for inciting hysteria and provoking the exodus. They cited pan-Turkism as the motive, and warned of Islamic fundamentalism.

They are quite certain that these people will return, as they are entitled to do, because they will not find that the grass is greener in Turkey where, it was suggested. they will not be allowed to restore their original names.

I do not know the truth of that. It may be that the Voice of Turkey has gone over the top in encouraging resistance to exploitation and in offering a haven to all. Perhaps many will return to Bulgaria as some have, we were told, already done. We were not satisfied with the meetings which had been officially arranged for us with local muftis who run the mosques. Their denials of the restrictions did not always match the evidence or satisfy our questioning.

In conclusion, while I cannot anticipate the recommendations which our Committee will wish to make to the Council of Europe in September, it must be right to appeal once again to the Bulgarian Government to alter their policy of enforced name changing and to end all those petty restrictions against the expression of Turkish identity and Moslem religious practice. That is an essential step, which at a stroke could reduce, perhaps even reverse, the present exodus, and which could perhaps form the basis of a new attitude to Bulgaria's ethnic Turks that truly recognises their cultural identity and respects rights that are equal, civil, and human. It would also do much to restore Bulgaria's dreadful image abroad, which is rivalled only by that of its neighbour Romania and which is the principal obstacle to establishing better relations with the rest of Europe, including many of its own allies.

Today, it is totally out of the question for the Council of Europe to contemplate offering Bulgaria the special guest status that Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union have accepted and about which my hon. Friends the Members for Southampton, Test (Mr. Hill), for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg) and other hon. Members spoke in yesterday's debate on the Consolidated Fund.

At the end of the day, these problems will only finally be resolved bilaterally between the Bulgarian Government and the Turkish Government, both of whom have their own explanations as to why their 1988 protocol has failed to establish the process of dialogue that is essential. Common sense must prevail sooner or later, and as a good will gesture the Turkish Government should end the propaganda element of its Voice of Turkey radio broadcasts, to which Bulgaria takes understandable exception.

Finally, we in Europe should make available our good offices, backed up by aid to both Governments, to ensure the peaceful resettlement of the refugees in Turkey or their return to their Bulgarian homes, depending on which they want to do. The Council of Europe has immense experience in human rights and in the problems of refugees. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will ensure that the Government will give their support to what we shall recommend to bring this latest Balkan tragedy to an end.

1.47 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. William Waldegrave)

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) draws attention to a great series of tragedies. He is right to say that the movements of population now taking place are perhaps the greatest such movements in Europe since the second world war. The scale of events is great. His speech was sensible and generous. It was sensible in urging the Turks to take such steps as they can that will not exacerbate the situation, and to make some gestures. I applaud my hon. Friend for that suggestion.

As in all such situations, it is easy to become as wholly partisan that problems are exaggerated. My hon. Friend has not done so and I pay tribute to him for that. He was generous in recording correctly the series of strong protests that the Government have made on these issues, and he gave an account of some of them. I think that it would be fair to say that we took the lead in the Paris conference on the human dimension of the CSCE in the matter. Earlier this week, during her visit to Turkey, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) went to see what was happening.

My hon. Friend, with a proper sense of history, reminded us of the irony that this of all Houses of Parliament should be raising this matter, when we responded with such passion and generosity under the leadership of the then Prime Minister, Mr. Gladstone, to similar atrocities being carried out at that time to the Bulgarians. It is fair to remind the Bulgarians that our concern for human rights is not new, and is pursued impartially. There is no question of a vendetta against Bulgaria or anything like that. We are concerned about the events and the people.

The last time that I made a protest was to the Bulgarian ambassador on 1 June. As my hon. Friend knows, on 14 June, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey issued a statement calling on the Bulgarian Government to allow the Turkish minority to live where they wish, free of harassment. My hon. Friend gives a full account of his long-standing involvement in this. It is no exaggeration to say that, among western European politicians, he has been one of the leaders in drawing attention to this issue.

The scale of the movement of people makes it clear that the fears and pressures on the Turkish minority population in Bulgaria are not the result of events over a few weeks or months. The name-changing programme began in 1984–85, and when the full-scale assimilation programme described by my hon. Friend was put into full swing, that made matters much worse. We have emphasised again and again to the Bulgarian Government that they should reverse that policy. It has no chance of success and will produce nothing but conflict and unfairness. The pressures probably go even further back, and the right, now given under the CSCE process, to a passport has merely given a hope of escape to many who have suffered pressure for many years.

However, as my hon. Friend said, if this policy were reversed, many people might chose to stay in the areas in which they have had their livelihoods and families and in which their fathers have lived. My hon. Friend was right to draw attention to the name-changing point and to emphasise that even a symbolic gesture against that might do a great deal by itself to change the flow.

Bulgaria recognises the immense damage that what is happening has caused to her economy. She is in dire economic straits, particularly in agriculture, because she has lost so many of her best farming people. Others are being desperately drafted in to try to deal with the harvest. Because she is suffering from an exodus, it is in her own interests to try to resolve the matter fairly.

On 21 June, we invoked the first stage of the human dimension mechanism, the new mechanism established by the Vienna conference under the Helsinki process. This is a formal request for information, and the Bulgarian Government have provided some information. However, I am sorry to say that that does not seem to have had any effect on the practices about which we are complaining. The situation can be resolved only by negotiation. We have been calling constantly on the Bulgarian authorities to negotiate agreements, where they are needed, with their Turkish counterparts. These agreements should lead to an orderly and proper departure for those who want to leave—that is their right—with their property and the right of return, should they wish to, should be safeguarded.

What is most important is that we should secure guarantees that the human rights of those who wish to stay are properly observed in Bulgaria. Therefore, we look to an early conclusion of negotiations between the Turks and the Bulgarians. Recent steps that looked at one time as if they were leading to high-level talks have broken down again. There are rumours that the Soviet Union has been seeking to act as a mediator, and we should not exclude anybody who seeks, with good will, to try to mediate in this situation.

I told my hon. Friend that I would give him some account of my right hon. Friend's visit, which confirms much of what he said. When speaking in public after visiting the crossing point at Kapi Kule, she said that what she saw was heartbreaking. She saw families split as they were crossing. She saw families divorced from their possessions before they crossed. In the chaos and disorder afterwards, she saw desperate families seeking to be reunited with other family members and property. She said that it reminded her of the pictures in her generation—the generation of my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) and my generation, let alone the generation of my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell)—of the massed forced migrations of the second world war. Those were tragic pictures. She said that leaving families had been forced to give up their house keys and car keys, with rather obvious implications. She returned from her visit reinforced in her belief that what is happening is a human tragedy on a great scale.

Bearing in mind what my right hon. Friend had seen, she asked me to pay a tribute to the Turkish Red Crescent organisation. My right hon. Friend has travelled widely as a representative of the Government in Africa and elsewhere. She has seen similar situations in other parts of the world but she added that she had never seen better organised refugee camps and reception arrangements than those which the Turkish Red Crescent were arranging. The British Government were able to give some small financial help to this work, with a donation of £300,000 to the Turkish Red Crescent.

I would add a footnote. I urge the Turkish Government once again to give the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, access to the Kurdish refugees, which they have not done so far. We would be happy to contribute financially to that problem, too. There are certain ironies, but perhaps this is not the appropriate time to draw attention to them. Something of the same policies of assimilation, pressure and use of langauge, for example, impinge on the Kurds at the other end of Turkey.

We are dealing with the Turkish tragedy, however, and that must not be disguised. There is no excuse for it. Perhaps we have the right also to remind the Turkish Government not to fall into the same traps themselves in their treatment of the Kurdish minority. Above all, we ask them to let the UNHCR have access to the camps so that the funds which are available in the western world—£8.5 million is on offer from western European countries—can flow to deal with another desperate situation.

I appreciate that the debate is about the Bulgarian situation, and I do not wish to detract from the deep concern of the British Government and of Parliament. I believe that the British people who have studied the events and accounts that have appeared in the British press feel a deep concern for what is happening. Surely it is not too late for Bulgaria to see that its economy will be damaged and that its reputation among its friends and in the wider world is being severely damaged.

It is not too late for a foolish and wrong policy to be reversed. In many instances, people will seek to return, and will probably be willing to respond to gestures of the sort that my hon. Friend has described. In the end, that is surely the best way forward. We know from wider afield—the Soviet Union is perhaps the greatest example of all—that the most thorough-going persecutions and suppressions of people's ethnic identity do not work.

Although Stalin moved millions of people, suppressed religions and killed thousands or millions of people, as the Russians now admit, yet when a more liberal regime appeared in the welcome form of Mr. Gorbachev, it became clear that those ethnic feelings were still alive throughout the great Soviet empire. It is quite beyond the capacity of the Bulgarian Government to suppress the culture and the traditions of their Turkish minority. This doomed and futile enterprise, which has caused so much harm to Bulgaria and to the people involved in it, should be abandoned and a more sensitive policy of proper treatment of a minority population should at once be undertaken.

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