HC Deb 17 November 1992 vol 214 cc141-50 3.30 pm
Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the decision to refuse entry to 180 Bosnian refugees.

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

On 5 November I made a statement to the House about the offer that we were making to the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to receive from Bosnia people with special humanitarian needs who the international organisations judged should be evacuted from detention camps and elsewhere.

I said that we would be discussing numbers and timing with the UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross. We have informed the UNHCR that we are ready to receive in the first instance 150 former detainees and their dependants, probably making 600 in all. At the same time, I announced the imposition of visas on certain nationals of the former Yugoslavia, making it clear that such action was needed to enable us to target our humanitarian assistance where it was most needed.

The Leeds European Refugees Trust—ALERT—was advised the following day, 6 November, by my officials that the group that it intended to bring to the United Kingdom could not be exempted from the visa regime to be imposed from midnight on that day. That information and advice was repeatedly given to ALERT before its coaches left the United Kingdom on 9 November—four days after my statement. Despite that clear advice, ALERT proceeded with its plans and then used its coaches to move the group from more comfortable conditions in the safe city of Ljubljana to the equally peaceful but colder mountainous region on the Austrian border.

The ALERT group then lodged applications at the British embassy in Vienna which were referred to the Home Office asylum division on 13 November.

I decided yesterday that visas may be authorised for six members of the group who have existing close family ties with the United Kingdom. They will be free to travel here to lodge applications for asylum, in accordance with normal policy, as the United Kingdom is the most suitable country of refuge in their cases.

I also decided that another 180 members of the group should be refused visas because they have insubstantial or no links to the United Kingdom. Their cases are indistinguishable from the plight of about 2 million people displaced in former Yugoslavia. They are more fortunate than those likely to be referred to the Government by the UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross in that the ALERT group are housed in hotels and hospitals far away from the fighting.

Eight other cases, two with medical conditions, and their relatives remain under active consideration and are the subject of further inquiries. These inquiries include the need to establish that it is necessary for them to have medical treatment in the United Kingdom rather than in the hospitals where they are at present in Slovenia. It would also be necessary to ensure that the national health service could provide treatment for the patients if that case could be made.

The Government have repeatedly made clear their willingness to make a humanitarian contribution to solving the problems in the former Yugoslavia by helping to take the cases which the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Committee of the Red Cross judge to be the most needy. As I have already stated, we have agreed to accept an initial group of about 600 people in all from both international bodies. Numbers and timing are being urgently considered with the UNHCR and ICRC and, of course, we stand ready to consider numbers beyond the 600 I have mentioned.

We did not implement the new visa regime without thought for transitional cases. Groups similar to ALERT who were caught by my statement on 5 November and had already then started their journeys were, in fact, exempted from visa requirements; 187 individuals were admitted to the United Kingdom on 7 and 8 November, two and three days after my statement, without visas on the basis that they had already started their journeys. ALERT, however, was fully warned of the position before even starting the journey with its coaches from this country, and at no time did it have any basis for raising the hopes of the unfortunate people concerned.

Mr. Blair

I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his statement, but will he agree that the people to whom he is refusing help today are beyond doubt victims of war, some from concentration camps and all in a desperate situation? Although for the past two days since the affair broke they have been in hotels and hospitals, previously they were sleeping on buses in the freezing cold. If no asylum is given, they will go back to the refugee camps from which they have come, or in some cases to Bosnia itself.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has criticised the ALERT organisation. Some organisations may be well meaning but irresponsible, but will he confirm the following: that ALERT has wide experience in the refugee crisis; that this was the sixth such mission it had made and the first on which there were any problems; that it had recently been commended by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for the responsibility of its conduct; and that it had secured places for all 180 people in this country before setting off?

Following the initial conversations with the Home Office, ALERT had got for the Home Office a letter from the head of the International Red Cross in Ljublijana on behalf of the Red Cross, backing up the Slovenian Red Cross, and saying that these people were victims of war with desperate need. Since the Minister is now saying, apparently, that the letter is invalid because it is from the Red Cross on the ground and not the Red Cross in Geneva, why was the first that any of the refugee bodies knew that there might be a doubt about the certification of the Red Cross when they heard the Minister on the radio this morning? How does he explain that?

Although everyone accepts that there must be proper regulation of the flow of refugees, in this case of clear suffering—involving mothers and children, where accommodation in Britain has been agreed and where the Red Cross on the ground has recommended help—would not the Minister command more support in the country if, instead of every day placing new barriers in the way of help, the Government were to show the same spark of humanitarian concern as has been shown by the British people?

Mr. Clarke

There are at the best estimate 2 million people displaced by warfare in former Yugoslavia. They are all distressed; many are homeless and many are obviously in need of as much assistance as we can give. This country is in the forefront of the international community in giving humanitarian assistance inside Yugoslavia to those people. We have joined in, making our offer to take a share of those referred to us by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The hon. Gentleman gives no indication as to whether he would refuse any of those 2 million if they presented themselves to come to this country [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] It is quite true. I have faced the hon. Gentleman for several days. He shares my instincts; he shares my values. He believes that we should make an offer in this country, but he refuses to face the responsibility of saying that we in this country should decline to take anybody who is offered to us to come to this country. He also declines to take any notice of what I have already explained to him about the policy that we have been following.

I made a clear statement on 5 November about the basis on which we were proceeding and the introduction of the visa regime. Those people who had already started their journeys were allowed here without visas. ALERT, the organisation whose cause the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) has taken up, sent the coaches from this country on 9 November after being advised for three days that it was sending out coaches to fetch people who did not qualify under the visa regime that we had introduced.

ALERT now appears to have persuaded the hon. Gentleman that somehow it had the authorisation of the Red Cross by producing to him a letter from Ljubljana with the Red Cross symbol on it. The body that we are negotiating with, the body that will send and identify for us the first 600 or so people from the detention camps, is the International Committee of the Red Cross—a large international organisation based in Geneva with many people active on the ground in the areas affected by the fighting in the former Yugoslavia.

There is a perfectly reputable body. The Ljublijana branch of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies—[AN HON. MEMBER: "It is exactly the same body."] It is not exactly the same body. It is a Ljublijana branch of a federation between Red Cross and Red Crescent organisations of people based in Slovenia. That federation has sent a letter today from its headquarters—a different headquarters—from the head of the Europe department about the letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw) stating: The letter was drafted in good faith by the Head of Delegation on basis of information which he could not verify at the time of writing. It does not reflect the view of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. The Ljublijana branch did not have the authority of its headquarters, of that organisation, for the letter that it gave.

In any event, that organisation is quite different from the International Committee of the Red Cross, with which we are working. The ICRC and the UNHCR are running detention centres very close to the fighting. They have accepted our offer to move to us about 600 people of those at the moment in the heart of the fighting who need to be evacuated because they have been traumatised by their experience. They will be added to the 68 wounded whom we have already taken from the area at the request of the Red Cross and who are being treated in national health service hospitals. Of course, we already have 40,000 people from the former Yugoslavia here as visitors, 4,000 of whom have already applied for asylum and most of whom are not returning.

We are targeting our effort on those identified to us by the international organisation. The people we are talking about today are housed in hotels and hospitals in a peaceful part of former Yugoslavia far removed from the fighting. They have been moved there from Ljublijana for some reason by an organisation which took coaches there for that purpose some days after my announcement.

The hon. Member for Sedgefield must accept that there is a sensible case for saying no to some of those 2 million. Britain will take its share in making a humanitarian contribution to the most needy.

Sir Giles Shaw (Pudsey)

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware, because he has just quoted it, that I have become involved in the issue through many of my constituents who work for Leeds European Refugees Trust. They are constituents of great Christian motive and they are highly effective in what they have been doing to date.

My right hon. and learned Friend will also be aware that they sought the information and I agree with him that they were given strong advice that they should not move on Monday the 9th. Equally, my right hon. and learned Friend will now know, because he quoted it, that the information from the Ljublijana branch of the International Red Cross was of such a character that it was quite impossible for me or for ALERT to say that it was not a step towards the visa requirement so clearly set out in my right hon. and learned Friend's statement the previous Thursday.

I apologise unreservedly to my right hon. and learned Friend for being a nuisance in this matter, and unreservedly also if I have unwisely passed on advice to ALERT. My considered view was that the letter was meaningful, and it is only now that little meaning has been attached to it. Based on that encouragement, I suspect that ALERT allowed the buses to leave. They contained important medical supplies and other material which would have been received in the area concerned in any case. I hope that in considering the flexibility of the system, at a short distance, my right hon. and learned Friend will consider the humanitarian aspect of assessment.

Mr. Clarke

First, my hon. Friend has no need to apologise to me or to anyone else. He has quite properly taken an interest in a distressing and difficult decision. I accept that it is plainly the case that the 180 people who are waiting on the border of Slovenia and Austria had appalling experiences. They are displaced and they are among literally millions of people who are suffering innocently and directly from the consequences of the warfare. My hon. Friend knows of the advice given to ALERT not to go there and select people to bring back from among those millions. He has been helpful throughout, and letters to him have finally been clarified by the letter that I just quoted from the European headquarters of the Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

We considered the case of each person on those British coaches. Visa forms were taken to them from Vienna, flown back to London and given priority over all the other incoming applications for refugee status and asylum. The forms were worked on over the weekend. When going through those cases, in the interests of making the most effective contribution, I had to decide that only six had any sensible case for choosing Britain as the place to which they should go from their current safe haven in the far reaches of Slovenia. Were we to take many more, or to admit more to our hospitals, we would reduce our capacity to take the people whom we have promised to take from the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. He and I have been wrestling with an impenetrable tangle and have both been aware of the important humanitarian issues which lie behind it.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. Before we go further down this road, with long statements and not very brief answers, I remind the House that this is a private notice question and requires to be dealt with in a particular way—by direct single questions and brief answers.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Is the Home Secretary aware that his voice sounds like that of his predecessor, Sir Samuel Hoare, who bundled Jewish refugees back on to planes to Germany in 1939? When he speaks of allowing 150 people in desperate straits into the country on the one hand and of 2 million refugees on the other, he does less than justice to our international role as a humanitarian country and simply deposits the problem in the lap of the German people. Does he think that that is an appropriate response for this great country?

Mr. Clarke

I respect the hon. Gentleman's passionate sincerity on the matter, so I shall not bridle with indignation at his outrageous allegation. I have been getting used to outrageous allegations about my conduct in recent weeks. On calm reflection, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will not find any comparison between the returning of Jews to a regime which was systematically killing them in the gas chambers and my refusal to allow people into this country from hotels and hospitals on the peaceful mountainsides of Slovenia where they are far removed from the fighting, having escaped from it, and where I trust that no one will attempt to pursue or to kill them.

There are a large number of displaced persons and all international organisations and European countries have agreed that the best policy is to keep as many of them as possible as near to their homes as possible, so that they can return when peace comes. We shall take our share of the people who are most traumatised. The International Committee of the Red Cross and UNHCR are best placed to tell us who those people should be.

Mr. Peter Fry (Wellingborough)

Would my right hon. and learned Friend agree, in view of his last answer, that the urgent need is massive extra aid to countries such as Slovenia so that refugees can be kept in safety not far from their homes? Up to now, the support given to new republics and other countries surrounding the former Yugoslavia has been insufficient. Does he agree that our resources, and policy for the future, should be channeled in that direction?

Mr. Clarke

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I remind the House that the British contribution so far has been £70 million worth of humanitarian aid made directly and indirectly. Sums of money have been spent on medical supplies and assistance given to maintain health and water services in the worst affected area. I have mentioned the 40,000 people who have been allowed here as visitors and the 68 wounded who are being treated in our national health service hospitals. We have 2,300 troops on the ground running humanitarian convoys, we have run about 200 mercy flights taking in aid so far, and we have provided winter shelter for about 20,000 people in the worst affected areas. The British contribution to what is being done in Yugoslavia is one of the most formidable from western Europe. Combined with that, we are offering to take our share of people.

We could give help to Slovenia. Indeed, there is a case for giving help to Slovenia in relation to Austria. The Germans must really decide for themselves what they intend to do about the flow of people going to that country. It is not a model but a warning—what we must avoid—if we do not control what happens now. We are making our contribution, and matters are not helped by Opposition Members who are not prepared to say that we should be in any way selective when a group of 180 people turn up who they think should stay here.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

As there is so much conflict about what advice and assurances were given, may I ask the Home Secretary to invite the president of the Immigration Appeals Tribunal to review the applications for visit visas made by the members of the group on the basis of support, maintenance and accommodation to be arranged by ALERT?

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman recognise that if that reasonable request for an independent review is not met, he and his officials and his Department will stand accused of duplicity and deceit and another nail will have been driven into Britain's reputation as a civilised, compassionate and caring country?

Mr. Clarke

There is no dispute or doubt about the advice that was given. I have stated the position factually and clearly. In another part of the House, we are discussing the way to unclog the appeals system in this country, which is overburdened with huge arrears of serious cases—people waiting to have their fate decided as to whether they will be allowed to settle here. We cannot start introducing a new appeals procedure to hear about applications from Slovenia in respect of people who have never set foot in this country when we have looked at their visa applications and it is plain that they do not comply with our requirements.

The hon. Gentleman winds up with his usual outburst about outrageous behaviour. Frankly, he is either gullible in believing every version he hears from various groups or he is simply out to be mischievous throughout the whole episode. I leave it to people outside to decide into which category he falls.

Dr. Keith liampson (Leeds, North-West)

There are three aspects on which my right hon. and learned Friend might have broad support. The first is recognition that the members of ALERT did not have dishonourable motives in trying to help people whom they were encouraged to believe were in distress. The second is that it would be sending the wrong signal to well-meaning groups in Britain if they were led to believe that they could just go in buses and pick up people there and bring them back here. That is not the way to help the victims of civil war.

Thirdly, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the real answer is to move as quickly as possible to take into this country people recommended by the United Nations and the Red Cross so that other well-meaning groups realise that the situation is being coped with?

Mr. Clarke

I accept what my hon. Friend says, and what has been said by Opposition Members, about the motives of those involved. I have no reason to doubt that those involved with ALERT have acted in what they believe to be a humanitarian cause and that they desperately believe that they must get the people concerned to this country. In campaigning from the border, they have made many misleading statements to try to get people here. I imagine that they regard those misleading statements as justified by the higher aim that they are pursuing. I am sorry to disappoint them but, as my hon. Friend said, many other groups would otherwise do the same.

Every international traveller knows the difficulty of going to a third world country or a country where there is trouble. It is easy to go there and see people whom one would like to bring back here for national health service treatment, for housing, and for the better conditions that they would enjoy in the United Kingdom. We cannot have that in respect of the former Yugoslavia. We have already stated to the international organisations our readiness to take in the first 600 or so of those whom we want to help. We are prepared: we could take them tomorrow. In the heart of the fighting, however—as opposed to the peaceful mountains of Slovenia—it is difficult to organise bringing people out. The British Government stand ready to play their part as soon as the 600 people can be brought here by the organisations who are trying to bring them out of the camps.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is it possible for the Home Secretary to understand the heartbreak of those involved, especially the women and children, bearing in mind what is happening in the former Yugoslavia? Whoever was responsible for making them believe it, they believed that they would be able to get to the safe haven of the United Kingdom, at least for a temporary period. Is the Home Secretary aware that in all the interviews that he gave he seemed to lack compassion and understanding for the people involved? It is not a matter of accepting all who wish to come here. The Opposition as well as the Government accept that only relatively small numbers can come. In view of the hopes that were built up in the people whom we are now discussing, however, I believe that the Home Secretary has reached a wrong decision and one of which he should be thoroughly ashamed.

Mr. Clarke

I understand absolutely the plight of Yugoslavia—a country which I know reasonably well—and I can visualise the distress of every displaced family in the former Yugoslavia. There are many people who are more distressed than those at present accommodated through the arrangements made by ALERT in the part of Yugoslavia to which they have been transported by that organisation.

I say again that compassion in this case does not mean simply agreeing that every application which happens to be before us should be permitted on exceptional grounds. The time has come to target our effort, and we shall do so: we stand ready and waiting to take the next 600 refugees referred to us by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that among the people of Britain there is genuine concern about the refugees, and a considerable desire to help on a greater scale? I, too, have been approached by constituents who want to help. What advice would he give? What is the correct procedure that people should follow? Whatever that procedure is, can we please speed it up?

Mr. Clarke

The British Refugee Council will help us to receive and accommodate the refugees referred to us by the UNHCR and then to disperse them in Britain and settle them with people, voluntary organisations and local authorities able to offer them help. I advise my hon. Friend and others to approach the council if they want to make positive offers of help, or offers to receive people from Yugoslavia and take part in the process. I am sure that the British people want to take part in helping people whom the Red Cross and UNHCR ask us to take.

Mr. Derek Fatchett (Leeds, Central)

Will the Home Secretary accept that his attempt to blame ALERT cheapens his reputation and that of his office as Home Secretary? It stands in sharp contrast to the altruistic, charitable and Christian motives of the ALERT organisation. Does he further accept that in his reply to the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Dr. Hampson)" in which he accused ALERT of making misleading statements from the border between Slovenia and Austria, he virtually accused ALERT of lying?

I suggest that it would be appropriate from a man who holds the office of Home Secretary to apologise to the House and to the people who work for ALERT. Does the Home Secretary recognise that it is likely that the 180 people involved will be sent back to refugee camps or possibly to the war zone? In the name of humanity, I ask the Home Secretary to reconsider the decision that he has made—or does he want to take the risk and the consequences of that decision?

Mr. Clarke

As I have already said, ALERT sent out the coaches from Britain several days after it had been repeatedly advised that it would not be able to bring people back into Britain under the new visa regime. ALERT moved the people from Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia—a country not at war—to the place where they are now. The organisation appears to have found accommodation and treatment for them there. I see no reason why the people should be taken back to the war zones. I do not believe that anyone is standing ready to transport them back there. I do not believe that that is the case. Other groups want to continue to fetch people from Yugoslavia, to bypass the visa regime and bring them here. We must tell all those groups, as I already have, "We respect your motives but, frankly, this is impractical". The British Government must concentrate on acting at the request of the Red Cross and the United Nations, which are more active at the heart of the conflict in Yugoslavia than those groups are.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware of the group in my constituency called Haven, which has successfully brought a number of people from erstwhile Yugoslavia into Melton Mowbray where, incidentally, they have been housed at little cost to the social services. Having found itself in exactly the same position as ALERT, following my right hon. and learned Friend's statement, the group phoned me and I in turn phoned my right hon. and learned Friend's office. I was given a quick clarification of how the rules would apply and told that no dispensation was permitted. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that Haven's behaviour has been exemplary, that he is to be congratulated on making himself available for the quick clarification of the rules, and that those who thwart the rules deserve no special dispensation?

Mr. Clarke

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Most organisations like Haven—there are quite a number of them—welcome the Government's stepping in to start to organise what is done in this country. I hope that those organisations, including ALERT, will continue their efforts by contacting the British Refugee Council and helping it to organise reception arrangements for those who will now enter this country at public expense, organised by the Government at the request of the Red Cross and the United Nations.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Does the Home Secretary recognise that the basic problem is that he made a cruel and callous decision 10 days ago to introduce a visa regime? The decision was never debated in the House and its consequences are that people at great risk will be debarred from entering this country. We need a proper United Nations sponsored programme so that every country can take its share of responsibility for the people suffering in former Yugoslavia and grant them a safe haven in western Europe. Is not the Secretary of State's policy slamming the door in the faces of people who are fleeing for their very lives?

Mr. Clarke

It is not slamming a door to make an offer to the international organisations to pay for and receive 600 people whom they have identified as the worst sufferers from the present conflict. The rule changes will be laid before the House and can be debated if anyone so wishes. If they are debated, we shall defend them as an obvious and common-sense response to the pressure that we are under and we shall have the support of the vast majority of people in this country, who want us to make an organised response to the problems of the people in Yugoslavia.

Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet)

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for the speed with which his Department and the Foreign Office acted last week to grant a visa to one of the people on that convoy so that he can soon rejoin his wife and small child in my constituency, in a hostel run by ALERT. Does he agree that one of the high priorities which he should now adopt in assessing how the remaining visas should be allocated is to reunite families who have been sadly separated by that horrid war in the former Yugoslav territories?

Mr. Clarke

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pressing that case on me. When we went through all the cases, that was one of the priorities which emerged. The six visas that I have granted are largely for people who have become separated from wives, husbands or children in the course of the conflict. It seems obvious that we should reunite those people and it happens that a few of them were on the convoy organised by ALERT.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

Does the Home Secretary realise that, every time he has spoken about the Government making a contribution to resolving the problem, he has spoken in terms of the minimum possible number of people being granted refugee status? Against that background, and given the fact that 2 million people have been displaced, will he give the House a categorical assurance that he has not set a maximum number and that every judgment will be made on compassionate grounds? Otherwise, we shall stand accused, as we did in the 1930s, of turning our backs on ethnic cleansing which in that case turned into a holocaust.

Mr. Clarke

I said on 5 November, and I have said throughout, that the numbers that we shall take through the United Nations and the Red Cross are, in the first instance, 150 people plus their dependants. We stand ready to take more and shall discuss numbers with the international organisations. Obviously, the aim of the discussions between me and my opposite numbers in other parts of western Europe is that we should share the burden.

We shall continue to take more people, but at the request of the international organisations and after discussion with them about the numbers that we can take. Comparisons of numbers are usually extremely wild. The comparison usually made is with all those citizens of former Yugoslavia who have made their way to Germany. I repeat that I understand the great problems faced by the German Government. The position in Germany is not a model of what should happen. Most people in Germany realise that they are facing potential disaster due to the flood into Germany of hundreds of thousands of people largely because their families were among the pre-existing large Yugoslav population. I assure the hon. Lady that the German Government are in the forefront of those pressing their European partners to begin to organise more carefully what happens in relation to Yugoslavia.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

Order. I take points of order after statements. If the hon. Gentleman will have a little patience, I will look his way later.