HC Deb 05 November 1992 vol 213 cc424-36

4.9 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I will make a statement about Government policy towards nationals of the former Yugoslavia arriving in the United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom and its European partners have consistently held the view that the objectives of international aid to the former Yugoslavia should be to provide the means and create the confidence for as many people as possible to stay as close to their homes as possible. so that their eventual return remains a clear prospect. Without that, a fair and lasting solution to the political problems will be made very much more difficult.

The United Kingdom and its partners, however, have also recognised that for some people that policy will be neither practical nor humane. That is true, for example, of people who have been deeply traumatised by their experience, including men released from detention camps, many of whom have lost contact with their families; people who have been wounded; children who have lost their parents; and families who have lost their fathers.

The Government's view is that we should continue to help those most vulnerable groups. I believe that the British people wish to make their humanitarian contribution to ease the sufferings of the innocent victims of the civil war, but, at present, we are receiving in this country an increasing number of self-selected people from the former Yugoslavia, including arrivals from safer parts of the country well away from the war zones. For example, in an analysis of a large sample of those from the former Yugoslavia who have applied for asylum, one third were found to have come from Serbia, where many of them are seeking to escape the effects of economic sanctions.

Since the beginning of this year, the number of former Yugoslav citizens who have applied for asylum in the United Kingdom has increased month by month. Some 2,000 applied in October alone. More than 4,000 former Yugoslav citizens have continued to arrive each month as visitors. Some have subsequently made clear their intention to stay on a more permanent basis by applying for local authority housing. In addition, some 15,000 people from other parts of the world have applied for asylum in the United Kingdom since the beginning of the year.

It is extremely important that the humanitarian efforts that this country wants to make are targeted effectively on those innocent victims of the war who are suffering most. We will only achieve that if we exercise more control, and, therefore, organise specific arrangements for the reception of those whom we most want to help. At present, there is a danger of our receiving uncontrolled numbers of citizens of the former Yugoslavia who are well able to afford the air fare, and random groups organised by well-meaning organisations.

The United Kingdom is one of the few countries in Europe that have no visa requirement for any of the successor states of the former Yugoslavia. In recent weeks, several countries—for example, Germany, Sweden and Denmark—have announced the imposition of visa regimes on parts of the former Yugoslavia. It is now necessary for the United Kingdom to do likewise, so that we can control the process of admission and concentrate our efforts on the needy. From midnight tomorrow, therefore—with the exception of those holding passports issued by the Governments of Croatia and Slovenia—all nationals of the former Yugoslavia will need to obtain visas before travelling to the United Kingdom, for whatever purpose. At the same time, however, the Government will make it clear to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Committee of the Red Cross that we are ready to receive from Bosnia, and from other parts of the former Yugoslavia, people with special humanitarian needs who the international organisations judge should be evacuated, including those released from detention camps.

Numbers and timing will be discussed with the UNHCR and the ICRC. In the first instance, we shall be informing the UNHCR that, from the coming weekend, we are ready to receive 150 former detainees—and in due course, any dependants whom they may have—probably making about 600 in all. The Government will be making suitable arrangements for their reception and initial accommodation, and are urgently considering how they can best be looked after in the medium term.

It is the wish of all European Governments, and of many refugees themselves, that those who have fled from the former Yugoslavia should eventually be able to return to their homes in safety. We do not intend, therefore, that those whom we bring to the United Kingdom should make their permanent homes here; but while they are with us, we shall want to make them as welcome and as comfortable as possible. In the longer term, we shall continue to monitor the political situation with the international agencies, and when the time comes we shall be ready to assist the international organisations with the practicalities of returns.

Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield)

We welcome the decision, obviously, to respond to the direct requests to us by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Mrs. Ogata, and her deputy, Mr. Stafford, to join the long list of countries that have taken detainees from the Bosnian camps into their own countries. But, while the Home Secretary may have given hope to that small group of people with one hand, by his announcement on visa requirements today he is, with the other hand, taking hope away from many more.

Of course, some of those from the former Yugoslavia may be economic migrants or even normal visitors, but will he confirm that thousands of them are applying for genuine asylum? The real question is this: what is the practical effect of insisting upon a visa in such areas as Bosnia in the present circumstances? What effect will it have on those people?

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman therefore confirm that the impact of this statement in practice is that, as refugees, as I understand it, cannot obtain a visa until they have left the country which they are fleeing, as they cannot leave the country without a visa, and as airlines, under the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Act 1987, face fines of up to £2,000 per person if they carry refugees without a visa, all such refugees currently coming here will effectively be barred?

Worse still, as regards those refugees who are in Bosnia and are trying, as their only means of escape, to get into Croatia, the UNHCR informed me—perhaps the Home Secretary can say whether this is right—that they are often unable to get a visa in Bosnia because of the situation there and are not allowed into Croatia because the authorities there will not allow them in if they require a visa for the country of their eventual destination.

In other words, is not the truth that the announcement today, by imposing this requirement for a visa, is not simply an administrative test because, in the chaos and slaughter in the former Yugoslavia, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is, in practice, whatever the theoretical position, erecting an absolute barrier to entry for many of these people who at present regard Britain as their sole means of survival? That is the impact of his statement.

As for the right hon. and learned Gentleman's suggestion about other countries, such as Germany, Sweden and Denmark, perhaps he will confirm that those countries have already taken many more refugees than has the United Kingdom. Furthermore, as I understand it, those countries do not enforce their provisions on carriers' liability as strictly as does the United Kingdom. Therefore, their requirement on visas is not as big a practical obstacle as ours.

Was it not these circumstances that led the Home Secretary to say just a few weeks ago in response to widespread alarm among those helping refugees about the impact that any such visa requirement might have: Unlike many other European countries, including Germany, the United Kingdom has no visa requirement for nationals of the former Yugoslavia and we have no plans to impose them."? Perhaps he would confirm that this was reiterated by his junior Minister a few weeks later.

In the view of many, the real reason for this announcement is that the Government are making the plight of refugees coming to this country infinitely worse by failing to plan properly for their arrival here. Back in September, the Refugees Arrivals Project, which deals with many refugees from Yugoslavia, asked for emergency funding to help with this problem. Not merely was that request turned down, but its funding is now frozen. Perhaps the right hon. and learned Gentleman could confirm that. As a result, there are large numbers of families sleeping out on airport concourses, in dubious hotel accommodation or simply turned over to London local authorities. Many of these London authorities, Conservative and Labour, are happy to play their part in dealing with this problem, but they want to know where the burden of cost and funding will fall.

I must remind the Home Secretary of the scale and nature of the crisis with which we are dealing here. Sir Donald Acheson of the World Health Organisation—

Madam Speaker

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that he should be asking questions on the Home Secretary's statement, not making a speech on the matter.

Mr. Blair

I accept that, Madam Speaker. I merely wanted to ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman whether he accepts that Sir Donald Acheson and many others are warning that literally hundreds of thousands of people may die unless we find a proper concerted solution to the problem. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman takes this decision today without due regard for its consequences, for many thousands of people it will be dangerously and momentously wrong.

Mr. Clarke

With respect, the hon. Gentleman has not properly analysed the effect of my announcement, the whole point of which is to allow us to plan what we can do to ease the humanitarian tragedy taking place in parts of Bosnia, to prepare for those who are coming here, and to supplement all our efforts to get humanitarian relief to those on the ground in Yugoslavia, to whom I am sure Sir Donald was referring in the comments that the hon. Gentleman cited.

Since I last made a statement about visas, circumstances have changed because of the large numbers of people leaving Yugoslavia. We are one of the last countries to introduce a visa requirement, and we are doing it for the same reason as all the other countries are having to do it —to control entry, to make sure that we concentrate on the genuine cases—the people most in need of refuge abroad—and to plan properly for their arrival.

In comparing the number of people coming here with the figures for other countries, one is often not comparing like with like. Instead, one is comparing those who have already applied for asylum here with everybody who has moved to countries such as Germany.

So far this year, more than 40,000 people have come here from Yugoslavia, and 4,424 have so far applied for asylum. I suspect that most of the 40,000 will not go back to their country until matters have improved there. Last time we analysed the figures, we found that only about a quarter were coming from Bosnia, which is the main war zone, a quarter from Croatia, about a third from Serbia and a few from Slovenia and Macedonia.

Mr. Blair

It does not matter where they are coming from.

Mr. Clarke

It does. People are coming here for a variety of reasons, no doubt all of them understandable. Some are suffering from the effects of the economic sanctions that we are imposing on Serbia. Some are trying to avoid being drafted into the fighting. No doubt some are coming simply because they find it easier to get a livelihood and a more secure existence outside their country.

We are asking the United Nations High Commissioner for Regugees and the International Red Cross to help us to identify the sort of people whom we have seen on our television screens, who are being driven from their homes into camps or shelled as they move across the country, and to plan for the controlled reception by this country of a number of those people.

The result is that we are ending the uncontrolled flow of people who happen to be able to afford the air fare and who—as the hon. Gentleman says—sometimes find themselves living at or near airports, and we are substituting the far more sensible arrangements that I have described, which I think match the feeling in the country that we must make an organised effort.

On finance, the British Refugee Council will handle the transition for the first group to come from the UNHCR, and we will be paying it, as our agent, for the transitional cost. We must ensure that proper arrangements are made in the medium term for those who come here, and we are urgently considering the most suitable mechanism, particularly for the provision of some help to those local authorities that have been most hard pressed as a result of some sudden unexpected influxes in recent weeks.

Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that, because the steps that he proposes are both unfortunately necessary and manifestly sensible, they will be have widespread support among the people of this country? Can he confirm that, of the 40,000 Yugoslavs whom we have welcomed to our shores in the past year, none have been returned to countries other than the western country that they chose as their first place of asylum?

Mr. Clarke

We have returned very few people. We turned away 46 asylum seekers who arrived not from Yugoslavia but from a safe country, to which they could obviously safely return, and about 400 other visitors who failed to give a satisfactory explanation for their visit on arrival at the ports—in the same way as we send other people away under our immigration control arrangements. My hon. and learned Friend is quite right: some 40,000 people have been admitted and there is absolutely no question of any of them being returned to a war zone in Yugoslavia. I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for his support for the measures that we are taking to organise our future response to the flow.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Does the Home Secretary recognise that his statement will be regarded with dismay by the British people whose instincts and judgment are more humane than those of his Department? Does he recognise that the only organisation that he appears to be putting his mind to is how to get these people back out of the country? This is institutionalised inhumanity. The reality is that those who are seeking to come to this country from the moving war-torn zones will find it neither practical nor possible. Neither the consular facilities nor the necessary documentation to acquire these visas will be available, and the sole result will be to increase the problems and pressures on other, neighbouring countries, particularly Germany which is already receiving some seven times as many refugees as this country.

Mr. Clarke

With great respect, that is all simply not the case. At present we have a large number of people coming here, as I have just described, not all of whom by any means have even been in a war zone so far. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Committee of the Red Cross approved the general policy of concentrating most of the help to keep people near their homes where they want to stay, and Britain is one of the leading contributors to the humanitarian effort on the ground in Yugoslavia. The UNHCR and the voluntary bodies here do not approve of the well-intentioned practice of going out there and bringing coach loads, for example, of children back here and trying to place them in this country, not always with any idea of the background of the children and no proper arrangements for them here.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is asking countries like our own to take their share of the people identified by the organisations on the ground as being most in need of refuge overseas, and we have responded to that. The first batch of people will come here under that arrangement, as I have announced to the House today—probably 600 people in all eventually—and we shall be discussing with the UNHCR and the ICRC what further people we should receive.

The UNHCR and the ICRC are on the ground. They know the people who most desperately need the support of the British public, and we are organising ourselves to make sure that we have planned entry and proper arrangements for their well-being when they get here.

Sir John Wheeler (Westminster, North)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept that most people will agree that it is necessary to have an orderly regime imposed by visas to allow for a proper entry of people into the United Kingdom? Will he also agree that it is necessary to look at where they will live, because the London boroughs, in particular, cannot accommodate the increasing number of refugees? Will he further confirm that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has expressed disquiet about the removal of children of tender years to this country, and that there is an important procedure to be followed through the Department of Health with regard to the adoption of children? Will he agree that that must be pursued as well?

Mr. Clarke

On the first point, my hon. Friend is quite right to remind me that there are some councils, including his own, that are very hard pressed by the number of refugees who have arrived, particularly in recent months. For that reason, when the British Refugee Council seeks to move the incomers into local communities it will obviously look for local authorities that can be helpful, but I suspect that it will be moving them to those parts of the country that are not so desperately hard pressed already as Westminster, which is one of the places to which people just make their way when they get off the aircraft.

The second point that my hon. Friend makes is extremely important. The people organising these movements of children are, I am sure, acting from the highest motives, but it is the view of people in social services departments, voluntary agencies and adoption agencies that it is not desirable for well-meaning people to bring in children the way they are doing at the moment, either just handing them over to social services or seeking to place them with families without going through the very careful procedures that we quite rightly have in this country.

Ms. Ann Coffey (Stockport)

What practical help can be offered to local authorities? In Stockport we have 54 Bosnian Muslim refugees in temporary accommodation. I have been to talk to these families, and I can assure the Secretary of State that they are the very families who have had horrifying experiences and have been traumatised by them. It is likely that many of those families cannot return because there is nowhere for them to return to safely. In three, five or six months, there will be serious problems in respect of resettlement, rehousing and integrating those families into the wider community. What practical help does the Secretary of State envisage offering Stockport and other authorities? I hope that we will not have to wait until we reach crisis point and hon. Members such as I have to send letters begging for help. I urge the Home Secretary to tell us now what practical help he envisages offering.

Mr. Clarke

We expect that the people who will be handed into our charge by the UNHCR will also largely be Bosnian Muslims who have been through the same experiences as the people who are now living in the constituency of the hon. Member for Stockport (Ms. Coffey).

The long-standing position in this country is that people who are resident here acquire certain statutory rights which they claim from the authorities in the areas where they take up residence. Up to a certain point, that has been a long-standing feature of our arrangements and no doubt it is taken into account in the ordinary financing of local government. However, I accept that some local authorities have experienced a sudden and unexpected influx and they are having urgent discussions with my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning about what should be done.

The Government recognise that recent uncontrolled arrivals have imposed substantial unanticipated burdens on public services in some localities. We see a strong case for some assistance to some of those local authorities. However, I am not sure whether 54 additional people in Stockport necessarily places Stockport in that category. My right hon. Friends and I are considering urgently the most suitable mechanism for providing assistance to those local authorities that are particularly and exceptionally hard pressed.

Mr. Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend recognise that there will be no dismay in Uttlesford district about his announcement today? Will he acknowledge that Uttlesford recently had to cope with an influx of 171 refugees who could not be classified as necessarily the most oppressed and faced the prospect, before my right hon. and learned Friend's announcement today, of unlimited further arrivals of people in that category? Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the only rational and humane way of discharging our international obligations—which I hope that we will discharge—to oppressed people is to do that on a national basis which tries to help the worst afflicted?

Mr. Clarke

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I am well aware of the problem in Uttlesford. The incident in Uttlesford had a great deal to do with the urgent discussions inside the Government which led to today's announcement. The constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) suddenly found that about 170 Albanians arrived at Stansted airport from Kosovo—a dangerous part of the world, but not somewhere where a great deal of fighting is taking place at the moment. Those people must be cared for and they have claimed their statutory entitlement from a comparatively small district council. I quite understand that the council rightly fears that similar planeloads of people could arrive at Stansted quite steadily—at least, they could have done—unless we impose the visa requirement. The problem now facing Uttlesford is a subject which my right hon. and hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning, are considering urgently.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

The Secretary of State will be aware that there are more than 2 million refugees within the territories of the former state of Yugoslavia. Clearly, there will be enormous pressure and it is therefore right to adopt as sensible and selective a policy as we can devise. However, is the right hon. and learned Gentleman satisfied that it makes sense to impose the visa requirement on Bosnia, the major war zone, and not on Croatia or Slovenia—although I accept that he is imposing it on Serbia—where there is no fighting at the moment? Surely it does not make sense to establish a visa regime against the one area where the most desperate fighting is continuing.

Mr. Clarke

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that one's initial reaction to that is to say that it seems to be the wrong way round. However, if we consider the countries on which we impose a visa requirement and the practice of other western European countries, it is clear that visas are imposed on the places where the difficulty is occurring. It is from there that one must control the flow.

At the moment, Slovenia, I believe, is almost as peaceful as Austria. We do not have a great influx of people from Slovenia. There is no need to burden the authorities there with a visa requirement. That is not a problem, but Bosnia and the former states of the former Yugoslavia are. The problem is people travelling on passports from the former Yugoslavia. Therefore, one imposes a visa which in the first place is restrictive so that then one can have the planned and controlled entry of those whom we most want to help, of the kind that we can arrange with the United Nations.

Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that his statement will be warmly welcomed by the vast majority of people? May I seek clarification in regard to housing, to which my right hon. and learned Friend has alluded, as it is critical? Is he aware that local authorities have had it explained to them that if refugees come to their areas, they are to be treated under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 as unintentionally homeless? Regardless of the numbers, that will cause problems to certain local authorities. Also, if housing is to be made available under the homeless persons Act, it might stop other people who have been on a housing waiting list for a long time. One does not want an increased race relations problem on such emotive grounds. If more help or more consideration can be given to a way of helping to solve a potential problem, which would cause great resentment, it will be greatly appreciated by many local authorities and many private individuals.

Mr. Clarke

My hon. Friend makes a very valuable point. We are trying to encourage the humanitarian instincts of the population. We want to avoid those things that might arouse resentment in areas that become too hard pressed. My hon. Friend accurately describes the present position in which those who seek asylum are entitled to be given priority as unintentionally homeless. There are authorities in which it is almost impossible to house a long-standing resident because all the housing has been taken by refugees. That underlying problem will be addressed in the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Bill, which had its Second Reading earlier this week. [Interruption.] It does not leave refugees with no roof over their heads. It does not put them on the streets. It allows them to have temporary accommodation and not, as long as they are in temporary accommodation, acquire that first priority over the queue when it comes to homelessness applications and local authority housing.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

The Home Secretary drew a distinction between giving assistance to persons who are genuinely suffering from the war and others such as economic migrants. In the light of that, does he agree that it seems very difficult to support the distinctions that he is drawing between various parts of the former Yugoslavia? Although he gave a reply about Slovenia to the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore), in his earlier statements he said that a quarter of the refugees are coming from Croatia. Why no visa requirement there? May we be assured that more help will be given to people from Bosnia, particularly as Her Majesty's Government, in view of the Foreign Office's crazy idea of ethnic cantonisation, which was put forward by Lord Carrington some time ago, have some responsibility for encouraging the development of the war there?

Mr. Clarke

I will not go into Balkan politics, but I think that it is a rather far-fetched theory that we have encouraged the war there. Indeed, we have been in the forefront of those making strenuous efforts to try to restore peace to that rather stricken part of the Balkans. We will not be imposing a visa requirement on those who carry Slovenian passports or Croatian passports, because we do not have a particular immigration difficulty with them. People with those passports often come from peaceful parts of the world as visitors and go back again. Bosnia will have the visa requirement. but I expect that, because the fighting is worse in Bosnia, the United Nations will be asking us to take people overwhelmingly from that part of Yugoslavia.

Indeed, I am sure that the people whom we are expecting to receive in the next few days will all come from Bosnia because they have been driven from their homes. They are in a camp there and they have to be moved from the camp so that more people can go in. The effect of what I have described will be that all those people who are coming here, for whom we are now organising arrangements, will be identified as the worst victims of the war.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

May I remind my right hon. and learned Friend that, two weeks ago, Ealing had to refuse 150 Bosnians because it simply could not house them, but it still faces the problem of the legality of that action. That matter will be addressed in the Bill. Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure the council, which acted in the very best of faith, that there will be no problem in terms of the legality of that action? Will he also consider allowing section 11 money to be extended to cover the necessary education of children of refugees from countries such as Bosnia and other countries, as well as those from new Commonwealth countries?

Mr. Clarke

I can assure my hon. Friend that I am aware of the particular problems in Ealing; I have already referred to the city of Westminster. Indeed, the Minister for Housing and Planning is an Ealing Member of Parliament, so he is particularly well placed to know about the position.

The position is that those who come here and take up residence have certain statutory entitlements to social security and services. Under the homelessness legislation, they are also entitled to be treated as homeless in certain circumstances. We are modifying the homelessness provisions. The refugees cannot legally be refused statutory entitlements; nor do I think that we would want them to be so refused.

We are examining the problems of councils that have a flow of refugees that is out of the ordinary compared with the flow of homeless families who might normally turn up in any borough. There are not many such councils, but some face particular difficulties. The Government accept that there is a strong case for providing financial assistance to such authorities. We are urgently considering the best way of providing that assistance.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point about section 11. To change section 11 would require legislation. I have long considered it a weakness that section 11 is confined to ethnic minorities from the Commonwealth. That is perfectly reasonable, but section 11 excludes Vietnamese, Bosnians and other groups until we eventually find the parliamentary time to amend that part of the Act.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

The great housing burden in respect of refugees has fallen on both Conservative and Labour boroughs in London. Although the Home Secretary has heard stories of 150 or so refugees going to other places, some London boroughs are trying to look after anything up to 10,000 refugees from various parts of the world. We want to give a proper welcome to those refugees, but we cannot do so because of the enormous pressure on housing resources. What urgent measures are being considered? Is the Home Secretary prepared to meet delegations from the London Boroughs Association and the Association of London Authorities so that he can fully understand how widespread is the problem of housing refugees in the capital city?

Mr. Clarke

I made it clear that I am aware of the pressures. They are not confined to London, but I readily accept that the worst pressures are probably felt by some of the London boroughs. I have already responded but I cannot undertake to receive delegations because that aspect of the problem is not part of my departmental responsibility. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning are seized of the problem. Discussions are taking place, and delegations on housing problems should be addressed to them.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

My right hon. and learned Friend may remember that I raised the matter in the Second Reading of the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Bill and highlighted the pressure that it puts on certain local authorities in Kent. I welcome the rapid response and the co-ordinated assistance for refugees from Bosnia. Does that not dovetail with the humanitarian aid that the Government have already sent to the former Yugoslav republics?

Mr. Clarke

I remember that my hon. Friend made the point strongly in the debate earlier this week. The assistance dovetails with what we are doing in Yugoslavia. We have sent £70 million in aid to the relief effort in Yugoslavia. Our aircraft are making flights into Sarajevo, sometimes at considerable risk. Many lorries have been sent to Yugoslavia. We have troops on the ground protecting the humanitarian convoys. We have given £2.5 million of medical supplies to the World Health Organisation. We have contributed £3 million to the UNHCR for the provision of winter accommodation in Bosnia.

The British have responded as positively as any other member of the international community to the problems in Yugoslavia. The bulk of the help should be given on the ground in and around Bosnia and in Yugoslavia. We are also prepared to make a proper and organised humanitarian response in Britain to the problem of people who must get out of the territory to receive help.

Ms. Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

Does the Home Secretary not realise that as a result of his statement today many people will believe that the Government discriminate against Muslims? The Muslim population in Bosnia is suffering most. To introduce visa requirements for those people alone seems nonsense. Does he recognise that, instead of spending a great deal of time trying to push through the Maastricht treaty, the Government should do more to bring together the European countries to do more than simply feed people so that they can die with full stomachs rather than die poor and hungry?

Mr. Clarke

The hon. Lady has her arguments upside down. We do not know the religion of the people who are coming here, because we do not ask them and we do riot discriminate. Only a quarter come from Bosnia. The people who will be prevented from coming here under the arrangements that I have announced are people from Serbia who cannot demonstrate any reason for making a visit. I anticipate that the people whom we shall receive from the Red Cross and the UNHCR will overwhelmingly come from Bosnia—instead of a quarter, I expect that it will be almost 100 per cent. We certainly expect the first batch to be overwhelmingly Muslim, because more Muslims than people from any other group are being displaced. It is precisely the reverse of what the hon. Lady suggests. I have listed our humanitarian efforts, which exceed those of most other developed countries.

The British convened the London conference to take forward the peace effort. David Owen, appointed by the Government, and Cyrus Vance seek to take forward the peace effort in Yugoslavia. With the greatest respect to the hon. Lady, it is positively carping and misleading to claim that the British are not responding on all possible fronts to the desperate crisis in the former Yugoslavia.

Mr. Stephen Milligan (Eastleigh)

I welcome the statement made by my right hon. and learned Friend. He will be aware that Britain was criticised by other members of the Community for not playing a full part in receiving refugees from Yugoslavia. Will he outline how the measures that he has announced today compare with what other European countries are doing? What effort is being made to co-ordinate a European response to ensure that all countries in the Community play a fair part?

Mr. Clarke

Some of the criticism from western Europe was based on a misunderstanding of the figures and a belief that our regime was different from that which we had. I know that there was some resentment in Germany, to which hundreds of thousands of people from the former Yugoslavia have fled, largely because there were already many Yugoslavs in Germany. I have no idea how many of the Yugoslavs in Germany have fled directly from the war zones and how many former Yugoslav citizens simply think that Germany is a slightly better place to live until things become quieter back at home.

The Germans thought that we had taken only the number that we had published as asylum applicants, but the great bulk of refugees arrived in the first place as visitors. The figure is already more than 40,000 this year and it is increasing steadily. We believe that the best way of sharing the burden that has been urged on us is to work with the UNHCR and the ICRC, which support our policy of giving most of the help on the ground. They have identified for us the people who must be moved out. We are one of the first countries to offer to take a share. The Americans have offered to take 300. Other European countries have made no response so far to the request of the United Nations to take some of the people from the camps.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

The Home Secretary said earlier that the Government did not intend to return to the war zones any of those who were already in the United Kingdom. Will he give an assurance that the Government do not intend to return any of them to transit camps in other European countries such as Austria and Germany? How quickly will he decide the exact status of those who have been helped to come here by voluntary organisations? Many of them are here on a temporary basis. Unless the Home Office grants them official status they will be excluded from many of the statutory entitlements.

Mr. Clarke

Again, I give the assurance that we shall not return anyone to a war zone. We only return people to safe places. We shall continue to return holders of passports from the former Yugoslavia to third countries from which they have come, but not if they merely passed through them as part of the journey. There is no reason why we should not return people to countries where they have been living for some time and where they are safe. We never accept people here as political refugees if they claim to fear persecution in one country, but have been living perfectly safely in another country before they arrive here. That is a sensible rule which we have to adhere to.

There is a backlog in settling the status of asylum seekers. We do so as rapidly as possible. The Asylum and Immigration Appeals Bill was yet another attempt to speed up and improve the clogged-up and overcomplicated decision-making process. We can give exceptional relief to people whom we admit from the United Nations when they arrive, and their statutory entitlements will be in little doubt. The British Refugee Council is expert at advising them on those entitlements.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

This will indeed be a bad day for our country's reputation. Is the Home Secretary aware that, given the prevailing circumstances in the former state of Yugoslavia, common humanity demands a generous approach by the British Government, and not the mean-spirited approach that we have heard about today? If the same policy had been adopted at other times, many people who live in this country would never have been able to come here in the first place when they were fleeing from terror and persecution.

Why should the Home Secretary not take effective steps with his Cabinet colleagues to co-ordinate local government action to deal with the problem in the right way, as well as trying to ensure that European Community countries take a common approach, so that, instead of closing the door, we do everything that we can to help people who, in the main, are fleeing because they are terrified of what will happen to them? Many are children who want a safe haven, at least temporarily.

Mr. Clarke

I know that we are going through a period of heightened political controversy in this country, but I cannot for the life of me see the point of some Opposition Members trying to pretend that this is a mean-minded response to which they are opposed. Labour and Conservative-controlled authorities will welcome the statement for some of the reasons that we have already heard, not least those mentioned by the hon. Member for Stockport (Ms. Coffey). We are going in for a planned and organised response, taking our share of the refugees that the United Nations is asking countries around the world to receive. We shall make a more effective contribution to relieving the suffering caused by the civil war than we have done hitherto.

When the hon. Gentleman considers the matter quietly and calmly—perhaps not in public—I suspect that he will realise that it is a perfectly sensibly way to proceed.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

Is the Home Secretary able to state whether discussions have taken place between officials from his Department and the Scottish Office concerning the offers made by certain voluntary associations and charities in Scotland to place children from the war zones with families in the west of Scotland? I remind the Home Secretary that social work departments in Scotland have lists of approved foster parents, many of whom are experienced in dealing with traumatised children. Such children, who are devastated by the terrible losses that they have suffered, might be better off being placed with such foster parents than being adopted by exceedingly well-meaning, but ill-experienced, people.

Mr. Clarke

We have been keeping in touch with the Scottish Office throughout. I shall ensure that we continue to do so, because Scottish local authorities and voluntary organisations will undoubtedly be involved. I agree with the drift of the hon. Gentleman's comments about the reception of children. It is essential that it is handled by people who have experience and who know what they are doing, and who have the necessary data on where they might properly be placed. One instant and good effect of the visa regime will be to stop well-meaning people turning up with large numbers of children, not knowing how to provide properly for them in this country.