HC Deb 14 November 1989 vol 160 cc330-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Greg Knight.]

1.14 am
Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

At this time in the morning, I am grateful to the Minister for being here to answer the debate.

It is a sad reflection that this brief Adjournment debate is the first opportunity that the House has had to discuss the implications of the shift in Government policy towards the repatriation of Vietnamese boat people. The announcement was made by the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) during his brief tenure as Foreign Secretary. During his one Foreign Office Question Time appearance at the Dispatch Box, he signalled the Government's decision to abandon attempts to resettle the 56,718 Vietnamese people in Hong Kong. Instead, involuntary repatriation, compulsory repatriation, mandatory repatriation, or an orderly return programme are to be the cornerstone of our future approach.

If words have any meaning at all, involuntary and mandatory mean forcible. If these are mere euphemisms and Foreign Office code, perhaps the Minister will use this debate to explain exactly what the Government have in mind.

Certainly Mr. Lionel Bloch, Sir Robin Day, Lords Havers and McAlpine of Moffat, and Mr. Gerard Noel, writing inThe Times today are clear enough in their understanding of Government policy. In a brief letter they say: Sir, why does the British Government not appeal openly and urgently to the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India and members of the EC, to take some of the Hong Kong boat people? Their forcible repatriation would be repugnant to all right thinking people. Recent events in Eastern Europe and elsewhere in south-east Asia have demonstrated deep contradictions in Government policy. On the very day after the Prime minister, in her Guildhall speech, hailed the march to freedom in Europe, it is worth questioning for a moment our double standards. The Prime Minister, and I agree with her, said: We should recognise how immensely privileged we are to be living in these historic times, how fortunate to have a share of responsibility for the way events unfold. As millions of Europeans have flooded across East-West borders, and thousands have decided to stay, no one has suggested as the Under-Secretary of State did in a letter to me on 26 October that their future can only lie in their own country. Why is it an historic event when thousands of economic migrants flee from a drab life in East Germany, and a contemporary inconvenience when they flee from Vietnam? How do we reconcile our good fortune in being able to share in the responsibility of the unfolding events in central and eastern Europe while we try to evade our responsibility towards desperate, frightened refugees seeking shelter and sanctuary in a Crown colony?

Even deeper contradictions concern the way in which we screen the Vietnamese migrants and attempt to classify them as economic and political refugees: goats and sheep. Imagine for a moment the worldwide outcry if East Germans had been subjected to the following procedures. Mr. Yan Ji Shieh of Refugee Action—an offshoot of the Save the Children Fund—has provided me with documentary evidence which the Minister needs to address. Refugee Action says that the language translation available during screening interviews is often wholly inadequate—and is actually conducted in three different languages; interviewees have no chance to prepare themselves and have no representation at the interviews; and a very narrow interpretation is made under the 1951 United Nations convention of what we think constitutes as a refugee.

If an interviewee answers the first question by saying that he wants to make a better life for his family he will automatically be screened out as an economic refugee. Among those who have been screened out, and denied political status, are former soldiers from the south. If they fail to qualify, it is little wonder that very few others get through the net.

Inevitably, any such dubious exercise will never be foolproof and is bound to lead to personally disastrous decisions. Refugee Action says that the atmosphere during interviews is often appalling; and that United Nations High Commission for Refugees officers have witnessed shouting and abuse. I hope that the Minister will say something about the rising tensions within the camps as refugees become more and more desperate. I am sure that he will have seen some of the reports last week concerning some of the events in the camp.

It is surely worth recalling that before these interviews and subsequent refusals, many refugees have spent long years festering in squalid camps. Before that they faced long and harrowing voyages through the perilous South China seas. I have heard first-hand accounts of brutal assaults, rape, and murder as refugees lost everything in their bid for freedom and a better life. It is absurd to suggest that their decision to leave Vietnam was a soft option.

In comparison with Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, which have at times forcibly repelled the boat people, the Hong Kong Government are to be congratulated on their humanitarian policy in acting as a place of first asylum. They have done their best to accommodate successive waves of refugees; but no one who has visited the closed camps can seriously describe the atrocious conditions as anything other than totally and utterly unacceptable. The initial willingness of the western countries to assist in resettlement was overcome in 1986 by a bad case of compassion fatigue. So far in 1989, only 3,393 refugees have been resettled from Hong Kong—a mere 149 in the United Kingdom. Does it not say something about life in Vietnam that, knowing all of this—all the obstacles and impediments that would be placed in their way—the refugees have continued to come?

Here is another contradiction in Government policy. Last night, in another debate, the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave), explained that the Government's decision to end aid to Vietnam in 1979 was related to Vietnam's policies on human rights, the exodus of boat people and the Cambodian invasion. He said that Vietnam's international rehabilitation will need a negotiated settlement, not a trial of strength on the battlefield."—[Official Report, 13 November 1989; Vol. 160, c. 51.] So the Government, in refusing to restore the aid programme, have indicated their abhorrence of the regime in Vietnam. The irony is that a restored aid programme linked to assisting farmers retain a greater proportion of the rice yield might actually help to end the exodus. Certainly, the British Refugee Council tells me that it favours its urgent restoration.

But the Government cannot have it both ways. If the human rights record is so bad that we cannot give aid, how can we have confidence in what will happen to refugees forced to return there?

Refugee Action says that after 15 years many former civil servants and many members of the army are still in re-education centres, deep in the jungles. It pours scorn on the idea that it will be possible to monitor the long-term retaliatory action taken against people who are forced back. After all, it is still a serious crime to leave Vietnam. And what are we to make of a country that denies freedom of movement, impedes travel overseas, and deters free speech or a free press? Refugee Action has evidence that 1,700 refugees who escaped on the last day of the war and returned in 1975 from Guam all disappeared. One re-escaped and described in detail how he had subsequently suffered.

I help to sponsor an all-party group, the Jubilee Campaign, which campaigns for Christian prisoners of conscience. I can provide the Minister with chapter and verse about Vietnamese prisoners of faith. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Defence is kindly currently sponsoring one such case: that of Nguyen Van Tuoi. In 1983 he was arrested and sentenced to five years' imprisonment. He was assistant to Pastor Ho Hieu Ha, whose church was seized and turned into a Communist Youth League headquarters, and who was sent to jail for eight years. Both are still in detention at Chi Hoa prison in Ho Chi Minh City.

Or there is the case of Father Dominique Tran Din Thu. He was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987. His sentence was later reduced to 20 years—hardly a concession for an 83-year-old man. He and 15 other priests and monks from his order are now in a re-education camp.

Another priest in prison in Vietnam is Father Joseph Nguyen Cong Doan, the regional superior of the Jesuits. He was gaoled for 12 years in 1981. He had obtained a Communist party document which called for the extermination of the Church, and principally its bishops and priests. Amnesty International adds credence to the reports which the Jubilee Campaign has received. In its 1989 report, it lists details of the persecution of Buddhists and the continued detention of prisoners of conscience.

While thinking about these reports, I was struck this morning by an account in The Independent newspaper which described the 1945 decision to send back the Yugoslays to Marshall Tito. Captain Nigel Nicolson yesterday told the court in the Aldington libel action that the refugees had appealed to us for asylum, which we had granted them. They had come to trust us and now we had to break the trust and send them back to their arch-enemy. It is not idle fancy to see parallels with the position of the Vietnamese asylum-seekers today.

Surely Ministers can see that involuntary repatriation will lead to vindictive retaliatory acts over which the British Government will have no effective subsequent control. Surely they can see the damage that will be done to our international reputation.

The new Foreign Secretary is a man who knows the value of compassion. Like his West German counterpart, who effectively responded to human need, he should now put his energies into finding a sane and decent solution which does not involve forcible repatriation; 56,000 people are little more than half the number who constitute a capacity crowd at Wembley. It cannot be beyond the wit of the civilised world to resettle them. When the Prime Minister and President Bush meet next week, I hope that Foreign Office Ministers will be urging that the need for a concerted international response based on responsibility and compassion will be high on their agenda.

1.27 am
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Francis Maude)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) for raising an issue which has attracted a great deal of attention and which, I have no doubt, will continue to do so. However, I regret the terms in which he raised a number of the issues involved. Frankly, he reported some matters in a way which did not reflect the true position, and I shall deal with some of them.

The issue of the Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong was discussed nearly two years ago in the Christmas Adjournment debate, and once again in the Christmas Adjournment debate of last year. On both occasions, serious issues were raised by my hon. Friends which were addressed responsibly and realistically by the present Minister of State, Department of Employment, who was then a Minister at the Foreign Office.

It must be clear that this is not an issue which brings pleasure to the Ministers who bear responsibility for it. It is, above all, a human problem which demands a humane and humanitarian response. It is also an issue where the commentaries and some of the commentators have simply not kept up with the pace of the events.

The simple fact is that the situation is now dramatically different from what obtained when the debate took place in late 1987. At that stage, all those Vietnamese who arrived in Hong Kong were deemed to be refugees, whether or not they were so in reality.

The international community had and has responded magnificently to a flow of refugees over many years and it is important to stress that undertakings have been given to resettle every refugee in the west. However, by the middle of 1988, it had become clear that the nature of the exodus from Vietnam had changed. That had begun to emerge as early as 1981. At that stage, a congressional committee in the United States had a staff report which said: It is true to most observers that the character of the boat people flow has changed, even as it continues relentlessly … from numerous interviews with Vietnamese boat people in the field, especially in Hong Kong, it is clear that a growing number of Vietnamese boat people are risking flight primarily for economic reasons. A classic 'migrant' flow is developing. That quotation goes back to 1981. Seven years after that it was decided by Hong Kong—I think that its decision was right—that a different approach was necessary. From June 1988, a screening system was instituted. The purpose of this was quite clear: to determine which of those coming to Hong Kong were genuine refugees and which were economic migrants seeking a better life in a more prosperous country.

The hon. Member for Mossley Hill has referred to screening, and it is important to understand what it is. It is not a process which is unique to boat people in Hong Kong; it is a process that is applied worldwide to all those, from whatever country, travelling to whatever country, who claim to be refugees. It must be absolutely apparent that it is essential if civilised countries are to continue to provide new homes for genuine refugees, as they wish to do, that there should be some system for determining who is a genuine refugee and who is not. In truth, the process of screening varies around the world. For example, those seeking to enter the United States from Haiti are subjected to a rudimentary form of scrutiny on board ship before their feet even touch the soil of the United States. Only a tiny number are determined by the authorities to be refugees.

In contrast, the system of screening introduced in mid-1988 in Hong Kong is sophisticated, elaborate and thorough. The procedures were developed not at the whim of the Hong Kong Government but in co-operation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and the questions which asylum seekers are asked are based on a questionnaire that is set out by the UNHCR. All interviews—I stress this for the benefit of the hon. Member for Mossley Hill—can be monitored by UNHCR staff.

The hon. Member for Mossley Hill referred disparagingly, I thought, to the fact that the questions are framed in three languages. They are in English, Chinese and Vietnamese, which are the relevant languages. Surely that is a matter for praise rather than disparagement.

Mr. Alton

I was bringing to the Minister's attention the complaint of the organisation that is called Refugee Action, which says that the immigration officer asks the questions from a UNHCR-prepared questionnaire in Cantonese. This is translated by an official Hong Kong Government interpreter into Vietnamese. The refugee's response is translated by the interpreter into Cantonese first and then into English. Notes are taken in English. Interpreters must pass a test, but their knowledge of Vietnamese is often inadequate. Officials often deviate from the questionnaire. That does not correspond with the brief with which the Minister has been supplied.

Mr. Maude

The interviews can be monitored by the UNHCR, which takes a close interest in the process. So far as I am aware, no complaints have been made about the process, which is subject to independent scrutiny. Independent observers can be present, and that is proper. There is no other process of which I am aware which is subject to the same degree of independent scrutiny which is that elaborate, that thorough and that independent. In most instances, the process elsewhere is far more rudimentary. In addition to the interview process, there is a full appeals process, and the UNHCR can help candidates to prepare their appeal.

I have satisfied myself that the screening process that is now in place is both fair and thorough. The results of the screening so far confirm how right it was to institute the procedure. So far, only about 13 per cent. of those arriving in Hong Kong have been determined to be refugees. The remaining 87 per cent.—nearly nine out of 10—are determined, without dispute by the UNHCR, not to be refugees.

The hon. Member for Mossley Hill talked about the journey from Vietnam being dangerous and stressful and not an easy option. The bulk of those now arriving in Hong Kong do not set off in a boat from Vietnam to cross the sea unaided. Many of them come by public transport across the mainland through China and travel only the last five miles by boat. The ones that do travel by boat generally coast hop from port to port. The journey is by no means as dangerous as it was made out to be. I accept that the phrase "Vietnamese bus people" does not have quite the same ring as "Vietnamese boat people", but the mundane reality is that many of those now arriving in Hong Kong are bus people more than boat people.

The need for this process was borne out by the Geneva conference of 1989, which agreed on the comprehensive plan of action, endorsing the principle of first asylum, and recommending measures to guarantee its survival, which might otherwise have been under threat from others from Hong Kong. It is important to stress that this plan of action was and is designed to sustain the policy of first asylum to which Hong Kong is properly committed. These measures were, first, the adoption of screening throughout the region, along the lines of that already being used in Hong Kong.

The problem in Hong Kong was already far more intense than anywhere else in the region, partly as a result of the sheer numbers of boat people, and partly because of the desperate pressure on land in the territory. We should not forget that Hong Kong has 5.7 million people in 400 square miles of extremely mountainous terrain. It was entirely right, therefore, that Hong Kong should, with our full support, have instituted this elaborate and fair system of screening when it did.

As a result, there were two quite distinct problems to be resolved. The first—it has been much muddled by many commentators, including the hon. Gentleman—was how to resettle all who were either deemed or determined to be refugees. On this issue, the conference agreed on the resettlement of all the refugees in the region, with sufficient places pledged by the resettlement countries to guarantee a new home for them all within three years. The United Kingdom has throughout played its full part in this process, and it will continue to do so.

The second, and I stress quite distinct, issue was: what should be the fate of those who were determined not to be refugees? On this second issue, which is what should principally concern us tonight, the conference agreed this: Persons determined not to be refugees should return to their country of origin in accordance with international practices reflecting the responsibilities of states towards their own citizens. In the first instance, every effort will be made to encourage the voluntary return of such persons. I stress to the House that that agreement was unanimous. Not a single participant at the June conference in Geneva—not the United States of America, not the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—dissented from that conclusion.

And so there is unanimous agreement throughout the international community that for those Vietnamese in Hong Kong who are not deemed to be refugees, there is and can be nowhere to go but Vietnam. And to those who argue glibly that there should be some great international effort to resettle non-refugees in the West, I say that not a country in the world will agree to it. It has already been tried, and it will not happen. It is dangerous and callous to suggest to people in this position that some great remedy lies around the corner. It does not and will not exist, not because of our decision but because of the unanimous decision of the international community.

The hon. Gentleman drew an analogy with East Germans arriving in West Germany. People can exercise the right of movement between countries only when there are countries that allow them to leave and countries that are prepared to receive them. We strongly support the right of people to leave their country of origin if they choose to, but it must be up to other countries to decide whether to accept them. I am glad that West Germany has decided that it will receive people—that is a matter for the West German Government. But the international community has dwelt at length on this problem and its unanimous conclusion was that no country is prepared to take Vietnamese people who are deemed not to be refugees—

Mr. Alton

Have not the British Government thrown open military bases in West Germany and magnanimously provided places in which East German refugees can stay? Surely that contrasts with the Minister's attitude tonight. I hope that in the time that is left he will face the issue of what will happen to these refugees when they return to Vietnam. How will it be possible to monitor what happens to them? What will become of our international reputation if we are seen to use force to send people back from the refugee camps?

Mr. Maude

The hon. Gentleman makes a good comparison. He talks about the British Government making available temporary accommodation in Berlin for people seeking to move. Yes, we have done so—in the same way that, over the years, the Hong Kong Government have made available accommodation at a cost of some £100 million a year; a cost borne jointly by us and by the Hong Kong Government. They have made that accommodation available for people while they are being screened and for those deemed or determined to be refugees pending resettlement. The parallel is an exact one. We shall always accept such obligations in a spirit of generosity.

The problem with the hon. Gentleman's approach is that he seeks to turn that temporary accommodation in Hong Kong into permanent accommodation by denying the only route that the international community has agreed, which is that they should go back to Vietnam.

The issue that we have to face is a stark one which, I regret to say, brooks no equivocation. It is not comfortable and it is not one that any hon. Member would like to have to face, but the issue is whether we are to leave people in closed camps in Hong Kong with no hope of resettlement elsewhere when the international community has unanimously accepted that the only place for them to go is back to Vietnam.

Everyone who has faced the problem and has borne responsibility for its resolution has come to the same conclusion. We have all approached it in the same way, not seeking a convenient solution, not trying to brush the problem away, but testing our decision against the criteria of decency, humanity and justice.

Our conclusion has been that the process of voluntary repatriation has not provided and cannot provide an adequate solution. So far, of the 3,000 people who, after screening, have been determined not to be refugees, only 37, about 1 per cent. have volunteered to return. Faced with the choice of leaving those people in closed camps indefinitely, perhaps in the false hope that resettlement awaits them—a false hope stirred up by the hon. Gentleman tonight—or returning them in safety and dignity to Vietnam, we have no doubt that we must do the latter.

I strongly support what my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) said on 25 October: It will soon be necessary to tackle the thorny question of involuntary repatriation."—[Officiai Report,25 October 1989; Vol. 158, c. 828] That is not a euphemism. "Forcible repatriation" is an emotive term and it should not be used in this context. The process of deportation is used widely throughout the world according to international standards. When a country deports illegal immigrants—that is what these people are—no assurances are sought from the home country on the safety of those returning. No arrangements are usually made for monitoring their condition and safety. But we believe that, because of the concern that has been expressed, it would be wrong for the process to start without assurances from the Vietnam Government that those who return will not be punished or badly treated and, perhaps more importantly, that their conditions after return can be properly and independently monitored.

As I have said, it is exceptional to attach such conditions to the deportation of illegal immigrants; a process, I stress, which happens across the world every day. The Hong Kong authorities have responded magnificently to a problem the scale of which we may not fully understand from the comfort of Westminster.

In the course of this year, no fewer than 33,000 boat people have arrived, sometimes at the rate of 1,000 a day. But no matter how hard the authorities worked to provide good conditions in the camps, the fact is that all the camps are 50 per cent. over capacity and people and families are living in closed camps and overcrowded conditions.

As I have said, there is nowhere for those people to go other than back to Vietnam and if conditions are unacceptable in those camps, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, it is all the more shameful that he should be suggesting that they should be made to stay there indefinitely.

Mr. Alton

I am not saying that.

Mr. Maude

No hon. Member believes that the decent and humane solution to the problem is to leave people in the camps, living out their lives in the fading belief that the West will accept them—

The Motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at sixteen minutes to Two o'clock.