HC Deb 25 July 1991 vol 195 cc1280-8

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

9.36 am
Sir Peter Blaker (Blackpool, South)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important topic. Our debate will be followed with close attention by the people of Hong Kong to whom this matter is of great concern. I pay tribute to the members of the Executive and Legislative Councils of Hong Kong and to the Hong Kong Commissioner and his staff who have been extremely helpful to many right hon. and hon. Members in keeping them informed on this and on other subjects.

We refer to those who are the subject of this debate as boat people because originally in the 1970s they arrived by boat. They came mostly from South Vietnam, many of them were of Chinese race and, since South Vietnam had recently been defeated in war by North Vietnam, it was natural for them to cross the South China sea rather than travel via Vietnam on the land route.

We remember the harrowing scenes on our television screens of small unseaworthy boats, and the stories of attacks by sharks and pirates and the sinking of boats in storms. Such stories naturally and rightly evoked the sympathy of the world for the Vietnamese boat people. Since then, the situation has changed, and those who have been coming to Hong Kong in recent years have tended to come by land, many of them travelling all the way round almost as far as Hong Kong along the south China coast and then picking up a boat at the Pearl river. They arrive in Hong Kong as if they were boat people who had travelled all the way from Vietnam, which in most instances in recent years has not been the case. Nevertheless, because of our memory of the harrowing scenes of the 1970s, the boat people, as we continue to call them, still attract a great deal of sympathy and feeling among many people in many parts of the world.

The numbers of such people have varied from time to time. The largest number to arrive in one year was 66,000, and they came in the first seven months of 1979. In 1988, some 18,500 arrived, and in 1989 the figure was 34,500. I am speaking of those who came to Hong Kong. More than 14,000 have arrived this year. A few weeks ago, as many as 180 a day were arriving in Hong Kong. I am glad to say that that figure has now dropped, although it is still running at 56 a day—a substantial number. Ever since the 1970s, every year, significant numbers have arrived.

All this time, Hong Kong has, to its credit, followed the policy of first asylum. No Vietnamese migrant, whether arriving by boat direct from south Vietnam or from some other place, has been turned away. Partly because of that splendid record, 97 per cent. of the people who leave Vietnam clandestinely come to Hong Kong. We have to remember that Hong Kong is a crowded place. There are 5.8 million people living in an area only twice the size of the Isle of Wight. That is a density of 5,385 people per square kilometre, compared to our density of 230. Therefore, the refugees are even more of a burden for Hong Kong than they would be for a less populated country.

Up to about 1988, all people leaving Vietnam in these circumstances were treated by the world as refugees. However, shortly before 1988, the practice of some of the resettlement countries began to change, and they began to differentiate between those who were genuine refugees—those who came in the 1970s and early 1980s probably were refugees escaping from persecution or the fear of it—and those who were leaving for economic reasons.

As a result, resettlement from Hong Kong dropped off dramatically. In 1980, 37,000 were resettled from Hong Kong to other recipient countries, but in 1987 only just over 2,000. This change obliged Hong Kong also to change. Therefore, in June 1988, it adopted a policy of screening the Vietnamese arrivals. The screening is monitored by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and its aim is to differentiate between those who are genuine refugees, who are placed in open camps, and those who are economic migrants, who are put into detention centres. Screening has shown that over 80 per cent. of those who arrive are economic migrants.

All this imposes a heavy burden on Hong Kong. As of 22 July—three days ago—there were 5,736 refugees in Hong Kong. Those who had been screened out as non-refugees numbered 18,194 and those awaiting screening and the results of screening numbered 37,770—a total of 61,700 people. If the same numbers were applied to the United Kingdom, given the difference in our population, 600,000 people would be here either as refugees or as people in detention. That would be regarded by the people of this country with horror. Our whole population would say, "This is intolerable. Something has to be done about it." Not surprisingly, that is the attitude of the people of Hong Kong who, for so many years, have put up with this burden. The cost has been substantial. Most of it has been borne by Hong Kong, although some has been borne by the United Kingdom.

In 1989, as a result of this change of policy and the introduction of screening, a conference of 75 countries was held in Geneva. It evolved a comprehensive programme of action, which has four parts: first, continuation of the policy of first asylum; secondly, the practice of screening; thirdly, resettlement in other countries for those who are genuine refugees; and, fourthly, repatriation to their countries of origin for those who are non-refugees. The first three parts of the programme have been successful; the fourth has not. Since March 1989, only 7,700 Vietnamese have voluntarily returned to Vietnam from Hong Kong. In that time, 53,400 have arrived and 5,100 have been born in the camps, so the situation has been getting worse.

It is universally accepted that people who move from one country to another for economic reasons should be repatriated to their country of origin. It happens everywhere else except in this case. It happens in this country. If somebody arrives from south Asia or the Caribbean without permission, not as a refugee and not seeking asylum but for economic reasons, that person is turned back. Hong Kong turned back 30,000 Chinese illegal immigrants last year. This is one of the sore points for the people in Hong Kong. Their own compatriots—cousins, uncles, perhaps even brothers—are sent back across the border, whereas the Vietnamese are accepted. There is no particular friendship between the Chinese and Vietnamese races.

The position of the United States is wholly illogical. It agreed to the comprehensive programme of action, as did Vietnam, but it is impeding putting that programme into practice. At the same time, it turns back, without any ceremony, boat people from Haiti, and the regime in Haiti is at least as oppressive as that in Vietnam. It turns back people from Mexico if they arrive at the border, and British people arriving at United States airports if they do not have permission to enter. The United States, like other countries, has recently been sending back Kurds from Turkey to Iraq, whether they like it or not. This is the universal practice for illegal immigrants. Therefore it is essential that the same policy should be applied in the case of Vietnamese boat people who are screened out as not being genuine refugees.

About a year ago, when I was in Hong Kong, I went to a detention camp, as many hon. Members have done. The camps are not very pleasant places to visit, because the overcrowding is so intense. Through the interpreter I asked a young, fit Vietnamese who had arrived three weeks before where he had come from and what he expected to happen to him. His reply was, "You in the west are so weak, I expect to end up in California." We must break that assumption, because as long as it applies these people will continue to arrive in Hong Kong. We must make it clear beyond doubt in Vietnam that non-refugees will ultimately be returned to Vietnam.

The fourth point of the policy evolved in Geneva in 1989 is not being put into force largely because of opposition from the United States. Because the United States is opposed to compulsory repatriation, so is Vietnam, because it is seeking favour and aid from the United States now that it has lost aid from Soviet Union. I recently discussed this question with the State Department in Washington, when I went over there with a small all-party group. We had a thorough discussion of the whole subject. We pointed out this illogicality, and the people in the State Department treated us courteously but did not have a satisfactory answer.

It is clear that the United States Administration still feel that it is inconceivable that people should be returned to Vietnam, a country that, in the folk memory of the United States, is a terrible place to be, whatever the changes in recent times, and whatever the improvements in life there. I asked the State Department officials what would be necessary before the United States would formalise its relations with Vietnam, and they said that there were two conditions. The first was that there must be a solution to the problem of prisoners of war and those missing in action. I fully understand the trauma that that still causes to people in the United States, and especially to the relatives of those who are missing.

The second condition was that there should be a solution to the problem of Cambodia. I said to the State Department officials, "Are you really saying that there must be a solution to the problem of Cambodia as a precondition? Surely the solution to the problem in Cambodia lies not with Vietnam alone but principally with the four parties in Cambodia. It lies with the Chinese and with other countries. Why are you saying that there has to be a solution to the problem of Cambodia when it is not within the power of Vietnam to produce such a solution?" We left it at that. I hope that the United States, a country for which I have great admiration and respect, will realise that the time has come to move on towards normalisation of its relations with Vietnam.

A possible way forward—and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will deal with it when he replies—is the new concept of a holding centre in Vietnam to which non-refugees could be returned. The concept has been discussed by the Government with the Vietnamese, and it seems to me to hold great promise. Such a centre would be run by an international and impartial body and monitored by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

There is resentment in Hong Kong at the burden that the territory has had to carry for such a long time. Apart from the financial burden, there are pressures on accommodation and manpower and the dangers to which Hong Kong officials are exposed in the camps. There is resentment because of the criticism that Hong Kong receives from the world in spite of its humanitarian approach; for example, criticism that the screening process is not operated especially well, and that there is not sufficiently good accommodation for those who are in detention camps.

I hope that the people of Hong Kong will realise from this debate that there is a great deal of support for Hong Kong in the extremely difficult situation that it faces. The British-Hong Kong parliamentary group is one of the largest of its kind. We share the feelings of the people of Hong Kong, and we support the efforts that Her Majesty's Government are making. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will give us some grounds for hope when he replies.

9.53 am
Sir Richard Luce (Shoreham)

My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Sir P. Blaker) has done the House and the people of Hong Kong a great service by raising the issue of immigration before we go into the summer recess. It is a timely moment to discuss it. The problem of the Vietnamese migrants, or boat people, is imposing an intolerable strain and burden upon the people of Hong Kong at a time when they are struggling, with all the support that we can give, to maintain their way of life and to make a success of the 1984 general declaration.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South has set out succinctly and clearly the figures and the scale of the problem. He told the house that there are about 61,000 Vietnamese living in Hong Kong, of whom only about 6,000 are classified as refugees. As he said, 61,000 is a considerable number. When I had ministerial responsibilities for Hong Kong—I left that job in 1985—I think that I am right in saying that there were 13,000 Vietnamese in. Hong Kong. That was regarded then as a considerable strain upon the community and the territory. The strain is now much greater. I went to Hong Kong last February and saw one or two camps. I saw for myself the heavy burden and strain that is imposed upon Hong Kong. More recently, as my right hon. Friend said, a delegation of Legislative Council members visited Britain, led by Mrs. Rita Fan. They expressed their anxieties clearly.

There are other exacerbating problems in Hong. Kong. My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South referred to population density and to the fact that illegal Chinese immigrants are returned promptly to China. It is worth noting that since 1975, when the problem of immigrants first began, the Hong Kong Government have spent no less than £220 million of taxpayers' money. It is worth noting also that Hong Kong appears to be the only country in the far east that observes the first-asylum obligation. None of the other countries in the region appears to be doing so. At the same time, the world is less willing to resettle refugees, perhaps partly because of the economic problems.

All the problems being faced by Hong Kong must be set against the background of the major preoccupation of the people of Hong Kong. No territory in the far east could have shown more humanity and practical help in assisting the Vietnamese. Hong Kong's humanity has been demonstrated in other respects: for example, there was its help with the Red Cross during the Gulf war. More striking and more recently, no less than £30 million has been made available to help to alleviate the problems of the Chinese following their recent flood. That information came to me during this week. The money came mainly from the private sector of Hong Kong. Only a small proportion came from the Hong Kong Government. If ever there has been a demonstration of Hong Kong's humanity for its neighbours, that is it.

The Legislative Council elections are coming up soon, the pressures are increasing, and it is vital to focus on making a success of the 1984 joint declaration. This can serve only as an intolerable extra burden for the people of Hong Kong. My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South is right to refer to ways in which action can be taken, and whch must be taken urgently. He referred to the comprehensive plan of action and the screening process, which used to cause me great concern. There was much anxiety about the thoroughness of the process. Having watched the process myself—it is now under the supervision and guidance of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—I can say that the procedures are very thorough. I do not think that the process could be better implemented. There are appeal procedures. I feel that it is the best that we can do to identify those who are genuine refugees and those who are not.

The problem of refugees throughout the world is a growing and serious one. The only real way of tackling it is through the countries of origin. Those countries must be helped to find solutions and ways of attracting refugees and migrants back to their countries, or to discourage them from leaving in the first place.

In that context, I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South that the concept of an international holding centre offers an ideal way of arriving at a solution. Clearly the centre would have to be under international supervision and extremely carefully devised. If such a centre can work in Vietnam, it might be a concept that could be implemented in other parts of the world. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will give an assurance that we are concentrating in a major way on trying to achieve this objective.

Another important factor is regional progress. My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South was right to say that Cambodia on its own must not be a precondition for the United States helping to solve the problem that faces Hong Kong. The fact that there is progress in Cambodia should help to create a better atmosphere in that part of the world. The fact that the Vietnamese and Chinese are beginning to establish closer links is a good sign. The western world should be doing everything possible to encourage Vietnam to move towards some form of plural democracy and to generate growth in their economy. That must be done with the encouragement of Vietnam's neighbours in the far east and with western help and assistance.

Mr. Jim Lester (Broxstowe)

I agree with everything that has been said so far, but does my right hon. Friend accept that the solutions to the problems of the Vietnamese economy are not furthered by the fact that the Americans have imposed a trade embargo, which means that the economy cannot fulfil its function even if the possible solutions to which he has referred were implemented? If we are to solve the economic problems that are forcing people to leave Vietnam, we should encourage the United States to normalise relations and, possibly, not to stop others, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World bank, from assisting and investing in Vietnam.

Sir Richard Luce

My hon. Friend has put his finger on it. It is important to give every encouragement to Vietnam to make progress. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is extremely important that the United States should do what it can to remove trade restrictions and to help with economic development in Vietnam.

The United States has imposed involuntary returns. Of course, it is right to have a hang-up, to put it bluntly, about its experiences in Vietnam in the 1960s, but times have changed and conditions and circumstances are quite different. The United States has an obligation to assist the British Government and the people of Hong Kong to find a solution to the problem. Our Government's first duty is to Hong Kong and its people, and we look to them to take a positive lead, but with the help of the United States. That is the least that we can do for the people of Hong Kong.

10 am

Sir Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

I hope that we can persuade the Americans to lift their restrictions on trade with Vietnam, even though the process of liberalisation in Vietnam is proceeding more slowly than we had hoped. Even if that liberalisation comes, many Vietnamese will be in camps in Hong Kong for the foreseeable future, and I am especially concerned about the children. I hope that the open camp system, such as Taia Chau, can be extended so that families with children are not locked behind barbed wire as they are at High island and Whitehead detention centres—where children spend years without seeing a tree or a blade of grass.

The open detention camps, which are run by Hong Kong Refugee Housing Ltd. are far superior. I hope that we can extend the amount of education provided in the camps, and especially the teaching of English. The refugees will be settled in English-speaking countries, and it would help their resettlement if they could learn English while they were in the camps. All that will cost money. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, unlike other United Nations agencies, is short of cash rather than of competence. We are giving £20 million this year, which is not a bad contribution. It is the sixth largest in the world, and twice as much as France is giving. I hope that the sum will be increased. I am glad that we are giving an additional £6 million to UNHCR in Hong Kong, but I hope that we can lead an international drive to extend the amount of money being given to it.

10.2 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mark Lennox-Boyd)

We are all grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Blaker) for raising such an important issue. The debate provides an opportunity for our right hon. and hon. Friends to show the great concern in Parliament about the matter, and it gives me, as Minister, the opportunity to give an update to the people of Hong Kong on the Government's thinking and on our actions to deal with this major problem.

First, I wish to pay tribute to the Hong Kong authorities which, despite preoccupations with their own future and during a time of considerable uncertainty, have continued to provide a safe haven for more than 175,000 Vietnamese who have arrived in the territory since 1975. No Vietnamese has ever been turned away, and Hong Kong's humanitarian record is one of which it can be justly proud.

My right hon. and hon. Friends have referred to the deterioration in the position in Hong Kong, and I do not propose to reiterate the figures. However, I can well understand the frustration in Hong Kong at having to continue to bear that burden, and the desire that immediate steps and measures should be taken to try to stem the flow of Vietnamese migrants to the territory. Finding a durable solution to the problem is a top priority. Since 1989, we have contributed £35 million, £18.5 millon direct to Hong Kong, in support of international efforts to devise a durable solution to the problem. In 1991, we have pledged a further £6 million to UNHCR's appeal for funds, specifically for its work in Hong Kong.

My hon. Friends have said that economic progress is desirable, especially in Vietnam, and we recognise that to tackle the root causes of the exodus it is clearly desirable that Vietnam should become a better and more prosperous place. We have welcomed the Vietnamese Government's acknowledgement of their responsibilities towards their own citizens in Hong Kong and we shall consider aid to Vietnam, including a bilateral aid programme in that context. We also contribute to non-governmental organisation activity in areas of Vietnam from which the asylum seekers in Hong Kong originate.

In February this year, at our instigation, the European Commission inaugurated a six-month, £7 million pilot programme of reintegration assistance in areas of Vietnam from which those people originate. If successful, that will be followed by a two-and-a-half-year, £84 million programme financed by the international donor community. I need hardly add that that programme will be stillborn if non-refugees do not return to Vietnam.

The comprehensive plan of action agreed at the second conference on Indo-Chinese refugees in June 1989, provides for the maintenance of first asylum, the screening of new arrivals to determine refugee status, the return of those found to be refugees, and the repatriation of those found not to be refugees to their country of origin. Screening in Hong Kong has been developed with the co-operation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The criterion used is that contained in the 1951 United Nations convention and the 1967 protocol relating to the status of refugees. That states that a person is a refugee if he has a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion and who, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of his country of nationality.

Improvements in the screening procedure in Hong Kong have been introduced where necessary, and I am confident that it is both fair and achieves the main objectives of ensuring that no one facing repatriation need fear persecution. Since 1975, more than 13,000 Vietnamese refugees have been resettled in the United Kingdom. At the second international conference on Indochinese refugees, we also undertook to resettle a further 2,000 refugees from Hong Kong within three years.

We have been active in efforts to persuade non-refugees now in Hong Kong to volunteer for repatriation to Vietnam. At the fourth meeting of the steering committee of the international conference on Indochinese refugees in April this year, Vietnam reaffirmed its undertaking that no one returned to Vietnam would be persecuted and that UNHCR would have unhindered access to those who returned. More than 9,000 asylum seekers have already taken advantage of the voluntary repatriation programme, 7,800 from Hong Kong. UNHCR reported in April that there was no evidence to suggest any of them have been maltreated.

The British embassy in Hanoi also makes regular visits to areas of Vietnam to which significant numbers of migrants have returned from Hong Kong. Since December 1989, 11 such visits have been made. Many of the 51 sent back on 12 December 1989 have been contacted more than once. Again, no evidence of maltreatment has been discovered.

However, despite our efforts, it is clear that voluntary repatriation alone will not work. We must seek other ways to repatriate those non-refugees who do not opt to return to Vietnam. Those people are no different from other illegal immigrants except that, because of the emotive background, their deportation is a matter of contention. It is not fair on the people of Hong Kong to expect them to continue to provide a temporary place of asylum at great cost without any expectation of an early solution. Nor is it fair to the Vietnamese themselves to hold out false hopes of resettlement, as some misguided people have done. I note the comments that my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South made as a result of an interview that he had with one of those people. There is absolutely no prospect that the international community will change its mind and resettle Vietnamese who are not refugees.

We are also concerned about the plight of unaccompanied minors, some of whom have been sent abroad by their parents in Vietnam in the hope that, if the child secures refugee status, the parents will then be able to follow. We continue to urge UNHCR to expedite its procedures to determine the status of those children so that they may be resettled or returned to their parents as soon as possible.

We are, therefore, taking the lead in international efforts to find ways to repatriate non-refugees. But it is essential that any solution that we propose can be implemented. In particular, we need to take account of Vietnam's sensitivity to international and, particularly, United States reactions to any measures which might be taken.

The fourth meeting of the international conference on Indochinese refugees steering committee in Geneva on 30 April and 1 May reaffirmed the principles of the comprehensive plan of action. It confirmed that there would be no change to the policy of screening asylum seekers, not to cut-off dates, and that all non-refugees must return to their country of origin. The steering committee also agreed to further consultations on alternative and additional measures to bring about a greatly accelerated rate of return of the non-refugees to Vietnam.

My right hon. Friend rightly drew attention to the position of the United States and made several comments on the United States Administration's opinion. Following contacts with the United States Administration at the highest level, we informed the Americans that we intend to pursue actively the proposal to create a centre under international management in Vietnam to which non-refugees who do not volunteer can be returned pending reintegration into their own communities.

That approach has the support of UNHCR and the International Organisation of Migration. We believe that it offers the best chance of reaching a durable and human solution to this complex and difficult problem. We also believe that the Americans now accept the importance of making the idea work. Discussions on the proposal for internationally managed centres are currently taking place in Geneva between ourselves, the Vietnamese, UNHCR, and IOM. All sides are keen to make progress. But much work remains to be done.

Meanwhile, we will continue our unremitting efforts to secure a permanent solution to the problem and to ease the pressures on Hong Kong.