HC Deb 30 November 1992 vol 215 cc30-8

4 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Charles Wardle)

With permission, I should like to make a statement about further arrangements that the Government are making to accept in the country ex-detainees from former Yugoslavia.

In his statement on 5 November, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary confirmed the willingness of the Government to receive from Bosnia and other parts of former Yugoslavia people with special humanitarian needs whom the international organisations judge should be evacuated. We had already advised the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that we are prepared initially to accept 150 former detainees from camps in Bosnia and in due course their dependants.

In the light of the plans made to receive the first group of 150, we have now informed UNHCR that we are willing to receive over the next few months additional groups of former detainees to a total of 1,000, together with their dependants, totalling perhaps 4,000 in all.

Arrangements have already been made to receive the first group of 150 ex-detainees as soon as UNHCR confirms that they are ready to depart. The size of further groups and the timing of their arrival has still to be discussed with UNHCR. That will be dependent in part on the speed with which the international organisations are able to bring the detainees out of detention to transit camps in Croatia or elsewhere, and to complete such screening and documentation as UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross consider necessary.

We have asked the Refugee Council and the British Red Cross to provide initial reception support and accommodation for the former detainees, both the initial group and subsequent groups. The first group will be taken to three locations, a former mental hospital in Surrey, an existing Refugee Council hostel in London, and a former residential care home owned by the British Red Cross in Cambridge. Arrangements for accommodating subsequent groups of arrivals are being developed. After an initial period in reception accommodation, the evacuees will be rehoused in more permanent accommodation in the community arranged by the Refugee Council.

The British Red Cross will liaise with the ICRC to trace the dependants of the former detainees, and arrangements will be made in consultation with the Foreign and Commonwealth Department and voluntary organisations to bring them here.

Once rehoused in the community, the evacuees, and their dependants when they arrive, will be entitled to receive the range of statutory benefits and services which are available to the rest of the population.

I am sure that we all hope that these evacuees will be able to return in due course to their own country. They will be admitted to this country exceptionally outside the immigration rules for six months initially. We shall obviously wish to review the position in the light of individual circumstances and the on-going situation in the former Yugoslavia.

The Government will be meeting the cost of transport of the former detainees and of their dependants to this country. They will reimburse the costs incurred by the Refugee Council and the British Red Cross in providing initial reception support and accommodation, and they will fund the Refugee Council to provide the necessary on-going support.

Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield)

I welcome the greater generosity shown to Bosnian refugees. It has rightly been forced on the Government by the strength of feeling in the country about the need for Britain to do more.

Let us be clear about the rules that will govern entry by refugees into Britain. Is the Minister accepting, as we have pressed, that there is a category of refugees who may not fall within the strict definition of the United Nations convention because they are not individually the subject of persecution but whose lives are nevertheless in serious danger because of ethnic cleansing and civil war in Yugoslavia? Therefore, is it not time that we properly defined that group, so that they can be distinguished from mere economic migrants? Once the group has been properly defined, would it not then be right to agree with the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross on a proper process of certification for those who are, in the broadest sense, refugees, and publish the terms of the agreement so that we may debate them?

On the broader issue that the Minister raised, is it not more important that Europe keeps its nerve at present? Although we can all unite against bogus refugee claims, we must not be stampeded into a fortress Europe policy which will not simply shut the door on genuine refugees who fear for their lives but be a serious betrayal of Europe's long-term future? Does the Minister agree that it is better for policy in Europe and Britain to be determined by balancing calmly practical reality with humanitarian causes, not by bending in the wind of racially motivated attacks, whether in Germany or elsewhere?

We know that there is a meeting of immigration Ministers today and a meeting of the so-called Trevi group tomorrow. Is the Minister aware that in many other countries the agenda for such meetings is published and debated before their Parliaments? Is it not high time that the secrecy surrounding such meetings ended and we were given the same opportunity to discuss such vital matters in the open as our other European partners are?

Mr. Wardle

The additional number of ex-detainees will be received on precisely the same basis as the 150 to whom my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State previously referred in answering a private notice question. They will be received outside the immigration rules and given exceptional leave to enter. The selection of the ex-detainees to come here will be a matter for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, together with the International Committee of the Red Cross.

There is no such thing as a fortress Europe. Some half a million people a year seek to enter western Europe. Immigration Ministers are meeting today, as the hon. Gentleman said, against a background of increased ethnic tension in Germany. There is nothing illiberal in seeking to establish firm but fair controls. There is certainly no hidden agenda. The agenda for today's meeting was made available to the press days ago, and has been available. My right hon. and learned Friend will ensure that a detailed account of the meeting is made available to the House in the usual way—in the form of a written answer.

Up to 2.5 million people have been displaced by the terrible conflict in the former Yugoslavia. The hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) ducks any sense of responsibility by refusing to say whether he would turn anyone away. We must ensure that an effort is made among the international community, working with the UNHCR, to establish that the most needy humanitarian cases are brought outside the former Yugoslavia.

Sir John Wheeler (Westminster, North)

My hon. Friend is right to exemplify the arrangements that have been made with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and to define how the temporary admission procedure will enable the entry of 4,000 more people from Bosnia or the associated areas of the former Yugoslavia. Does my. hon. Friend agree that the entry of those people imposes a substantial burden on some local authorities, notably in central London and in other parts of southern England? Will he ensure that there are proper arrangements to share the burden of the increasing number of people whom we welcome into the United Kingdom, and that accommodation is available for them outside the inner-city areas?

Mr. Wardle

My hon. Friend's description of the self-selected groups that arrived here until recently—until the visa regime was imposed—is absolutely right. On the arrangements for ex-detainees selected by UNHCR, I have already outlined the initial accommodation for the first group of 150, and plans are in train to make arrangements for following groups. The Refugee Council will be asked to seek accommodation after the initial reception period, in districts where there is less pressure on local services and where support can be given by voluntary organisations. What my hon. Friend has said about the pressure on some local authorities will be carefully taken into account.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Does not the Minister realise that it is unacceptable to be told that statements were made to the press days ago and that the House of Commons will be informed by means of a written answer? What are the determinations of the Ministers in the councils that are meeting today and tomorrow in London? Why has the Secretary of State not tabled in the House a proposal to share the burden of refugees from former Yugoslavia which he is prepared to place before his colleagues in the councils and which are being tabled before the Dutch Parliament, and debated there? What proposals is the Secretary of State putting forward on behalf of hon. Members and of many people in this country who are more concerned about the plight of the refugees than the Government appear to be?

Mr. Wardle

I have already made it clear to hon. Members that there is no hidden agenda. The draft agenda for the immigration Ministers' meeting was made available to the press some time ago, and is a matter for general publication. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State made it clear before, and has done so at the immigration Ministers meeting today, that he favours as open treatment as possible of the matters considered by the immigration Ministers. Any text agreed at today's meeting will be published, and my right hon. and learned Friend will take the earliest opportunity to make available to the House in the normal fashion a detailed account of what was agreed at the meeting, as has been the practice in the past

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton)

I know that my hon. Friend's statement will be welcomed by many of my constituents. Will he outline the response that we can make to constituents such as those from whom I have recently received letters, who have accommodation in their homes and are asking if there is any way in which they can help when people arrive here, complete the counselling process and have been seen by the authorities?

Mr. Wardle

My hon. Friend is right to say that many members of the public are willing to help in a most thoughtful and responsible fashion. However, the British Red Cross and the Refugee Council have advised the Government against the idea of dispersal into family units. They think that it is much more important to provide mutual support by placing people in larger groups in rented accommodation, whether from the private sector or from local authorities. I am sure that there will always be a role for voluntary organisations to play in supporting refugee groups when they have been so placed.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

As all four of my grandparents found refuge in this country, and as the rest of my family who remained in Europe were wiped out by a previous ethnic cleansing process, I welcome the modest increase in national humanity shown by the Government. Will the Minister give the House and the country an assurance that, in addition to those who are to be admitted now, genuine refugees—people who are escaping from death and persecution—will continue to be admitted to this country in that great tradition of which so many of us are so proud?

Mr. Wardle

The hon. and learned Gentleman will be aware that there have already been 20,000 applications for asylum this year. The Government stand, as previous Governments have consistently done, by the terms of the Geneva convention—there is absolutely no question about that. The hon. and learned Gentleman talked about a modest increase. I hope that he will bear in mind the all-round humanitarian effort made by the Government to assist in the terrible problems of the conflict in former Yugoslavia, and will recognise that, by making an increased offer to the UNHCR, the Government hope that other members of the international community will do likewise.

Mrs. Judith Chaplin (Newbury)

I am sure that many will welcome the additional numbers coming into the country, but is my hon. Friend concerned that the provision of housing and other benefits for the group with which we are concerned may seem unfair to the refugees who are already here and who are not able to obtain such benefits, such as those in my constituency?

Mr. Wardle

My hon. Friend points precisely to the reason why it is important to turn to UNHCR and to obtain the assistance in this country of the Refugee Council and British Red Cross, and properly to organise the placement of the ex-detainees and their dependants. As I have already said, the Refugee Council will be encouraged not to seek rented accommodation to which ex-detainees will move after the initial phase in parts of the country where there is already undue pressure on local services.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

Does not the United Kingdom carry a special responsibility for the situation that exists in Yugoslavia, in that it was the European Community, with the support of this country, that recognised the break-up initially? In those circumstances, we should be desperately concerned about the plight of refugees. We should not continue to adhere to a policy that essentially means that refugees must return and be dealt with almost entirely inside Yugoslavia, when we have recognised the disappearance of that country.

Mr. Wardle

I understand the concern that the hon. Gentleman expresses. I hope that he will not forget the efforts that are already being made by the British Government within Yugoslavia in terms of 2,300 troops, 200 airlift flights to Sarajevo, medical assistance, trucks and drivers and technical assistance. I hope that he will bear all that in mind. I hope also that he will remember that the United Kingdom is playing a significant part in the pressing cases which UNHCR says should be evacuated from the former Yugoslavia.

I understand that the total number of detainees in camps who have been recognised and identified so far by UNHCR is about 5,000 to 7,000. That will give the hon. Gentleman an idea of the scale of the contribution that has been made by the United Kingdom. I hope that he appreciates that it is important to take that lead but to understand that 2 million to 2.5 million remain displaced in former Yugoslavia—they face considerable problems—and to attempt to move them in significant numbers would be impracticable and would give way to the evil goal of ethnic cleansing, which I am sure he will agree we must all resist.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

I warmly welcome my hon. Friend's statement, but will he acknowledge that, for schools that have to teach the children of Bosnian refugees, there are additional burdens? Will he confirm that it remains the Government's policy to seek to reform section 11 of the Local Government Act 1966 so that schools will be able to apply for additional funds to support the teaching of children whose first language is not English, irrespective of whether those children come from Commonwealth countries or elsewhere?

Mr. Wardle

My hon. Friend makes a clear case for his views about the need for revision of section 11. I am sure that his concern has been heard.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

Is the Minister aware that we can understand why he appears to be extremely embarrassed about making such a pitiful statement on behalf of the Home Secretary? Is it not shameful that even today he cannot name a date when the 150 refugees will be received here? If the 1,000 are received on the same basis, it will be well into 1993 before they arrive. Was the gesture of receiving 1,150 refugees accepted by the EC immigration Ministers today? Am I right in thinking that the Home Secretary will be making a full statement on that meeting tomorrow or, at the latest, on Wednesday?

Mr. Wardle

I have said already that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will be providing a detailed account of today's meeting and tomorrow's meeting of the Trevi group in the normal fashion.

As for the 1,000 ex-detainees that are to be selected by UNHCR, the hon. Gentleman should understand that the Government have stood ready to accept the first 150 since 5 November. We wait upon the UNHCR to select those ex-detainees and to make arrangements to transport them, and stand ready, with the assistance of the British Red Cross and of the Refugee Council, for their reception. The date of the departure of each group is a matter for the UNHCR.

Mr. Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the measured and reasonable nature of his announcement makes the Opposition's initial accusations look—in the light of the announcement by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary—like institutionalised idiocy? Will my hon. Friend confirm that, under the arrangements that he outlined, the burden of caring for refugees coming to this country will not fall, as before, on any one housing authority but will be shared on a reasonable basis?

Mr. Wardle

My hon. Friend expresses himself in colourful fashion, in referring to the views held by Labour Members. He is right to point out that, with the help of the Refugee Council and of the British Red Cross, dispersal plans for ex-detainees will be such that undue pressure will not be imposed on any one local authority.

Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North)

Is the Minister aware of the large quantity of mail that all right hon. and hon. Members have received expressing the public's horror at the limit placed on the number of refugees from the former Yugoslavia allowed to enter this country? Why was the Minister's statement confined to former detainees? Although one recognises that they are a most deserving category, there are others whose lives are genuinely in danger because of their political views, ethnic origin, and so on. Does not the limit to which I referred illustrate the Government's illiberal attitude?

Mr. Wardle

The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind the fact that the British Government, in common with other members of the international community, turned to the experts—and it is the UNHCR and the ICRC that point to the need to bring ex-detainees, as the most urgent humanitarian cases, out of the country. It is still open to other individuals to apply for a visa. If they refer to an interest in asylum, their cases will be considered outside the immigration rules. If there is a direct family link with this country, this country will consider their asylum applications.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

Does my hon. Friend accept that it is prudent and necessary to take account of the rising tide of hostility to incomers to the European Community, but that making the argument of it the cause of restricting immigration can fuel that horrible habit? Does he agree that the European Community must make much greater efforts in terms of education, legislation and law enforcement to stamp out the growing tide of xenophobia and racism?

Mr. Wardle

I accept entirely my hon. Friend's observations, and I am sure that he joins me in wishing well all those brave Germans who made it absolutely clear in their national protests that they find utterly unacceptable any expression of racism or ethnic hostility in their country. At the same time, I hope that my hon. Friend will bear in mind the fact that, with some half a million people seeking to enter western Europe every year, there must be an organised basis for firm but fair immigration controls.

Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)

Further to that statement, what advice does the Minister have for the family in my constituency whose relatives are stranded in Germany and probably at risk of racism attacks, and who have even been refused a visa to visit this country? Will he be more sympathetic and allow a long-term visit of perhaps three or six months until things settle down, and see what happens then?

Mr. Wardle

I do not know the circumstances of the family to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but if he will bring them to my attention, no doubt we can discuss the matter. It should be absolutely clear to the House that it would be wrong to suggest that every asylum applicant or ex-detainee in Germany is under some form of threat. I am sure that is not the case, and that the German Government have made that entirely clear.

Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon)

Can I suggest to my hon. Friend that the generosity of approach in his statement will be greatly welcomed by many of my constituents, who have been much moved by the suffering in the former Yugoslavia and who are anxious that our Government should do all that they realistically can to help, both here and in the Balkans?

Mr. Wardle

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. I hope that he and his constituents will bear in mind the fact that the most caring and effective way to offer help to ex-detainees is to do it through the offices of the UNHCR and the ICRC in order to make sure that we identify the most pressing humanitarian cases and then arrange a well-organised reception in this country so that continuing support and care is provided in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Does the Minister recognise that his statement is inadequate in a number of ways? He has not yet conceded that it was wholly wrong and inhuman to introduce the visa regime for people coming to this country from the former Yugoslavia. The imposition of a specific numerical limit on the number of people seeking political asylum from the former Yugoslavia seems to suggest that others will be denied access unless they can obtain visas, although the Government know full well that it is impossible to apply for a visa to visit this country from any part of the former Yugoslavia, because of the travelling difficulties.

Mr. Wardle

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that visa issuing is now possible in our offices in Zagreb, so every effort is being made to make visas available to those who make individual applications. The hon. Gentleman will also bear in mind, I am sure, the fact that it would have been impractical and irresponsible simply to countenance the uncontrolled flow of arrivals. He will note that Britain was among the last of the European countries to apply a visa regime. Having done so, the Government have turned to the UNHCR to provide a properly caring and organised programme to make sure that the most urgent humanitarian cases are received and treated in this country.

Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate)

I believe that there is great sympathy in this country for, in particular, the plight of families who have fled from Bosnia. A mother and her three young children are, happily, living in my constituency and are well supported by local people, but her husband, the father of her children, is living in Crete. Will my hon. Friend give priority to reuniting that family?

Mr. Wardle

My hon. Friend will be aware that applications from people with direct and close family ties are given priority. If he will give me the details of that case, I shall give the matter the closest attention. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that his constituents, and others, feel strongly that to put our reception of ex-detainees on a properly organised basis is the responsible way of going about helping, at this end, with the humanitarian effort that is so badly needed because of the terrible conflict in the former Yugoslavia.

Mr. Bryan Davies (Oldham, Central and Royton)

Will the Minister accept my gratitude for the efforts by his private office to trace the head of a family, which I visited in Slovenia, who is believed to he in this country? Does he recognise that there is a sharp contrast between the limited response of the British Government and the generous response of the British people? Does he not acknowledge that the people in my constituency, for example, are already organising lorryloads of goods to go to Slovenia to aid the refugees there, that that poor benighted country, small though it is, is overwhelmed with refugees, and that the British Government's response has been extremely limited?

Mr. Wardle

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words about the efforts of my private office. I hope that he will bear in mind the fact that the Government's widespread efforts in the former Yugoslavia to provide both aid and technical assistance and to put in hand a programme that, as I have described, is earmarked to receive about 1,000 of the between 5,000 and 7,000 ex-detainees already identified by the UNHCR is a significant contribution, by any standards, by the British Government.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

As t come from a family of Yugoslav refugees, may I give a warm welcome to the announcement, which follows in the finest of British traditions? The Government have already accepted 35,000 Yugoslav visitors to the United Kingdom. Would my hon. Friend be willing to repeat his guidelines to charities such as Leeds European Refugee Trust to ensure that refugees go through the proper authorities and thereby prevent queue barging? Will he say when he will review the next intake?

Mr. Wardle

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to talk about the need for a properly organised basis for receptions. I am sure that that is well understood and appreciated by the many well-intentioned voluntary organisations that have done so much already to help with the problems in Yugoslavia. I am sure that their efforts are much appreciated by the House. My hon. Friend is aware that some 40,000 people from former Yugoslavia have entered this country in the first 10 months, some of whom have undoubtedly already returned, but, by the end of October, 4,500 had applied for asylum. If she adds that to the 4,000 ex-detainees and their dependants who are likely to be included in this programme, she will appreciate that the Government are making a considerable effort.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is the Minister aware that, however limited his announcement is, it is certainly welcome? Although Opposition Members were bitterly attacked by the Home Secretary and his supporters at the time, is it not clear that they reflected the generous spirit of the British people—who, as they have in the past, recognised that, although we cannot do all we would like, we can help those who are fleeing from persecution and terror?

When the Minister meets his German counterpart, will he tell him that many British people do not believe that the German authorities are taking enough action against the fascists, racists and hate-mongers? To some extent, that is not surprising, because in the past 50 years German authorities have been reluctant to bring many Nazis to justice. Perhaps their reluctance explains their continued ambiguity towards the extreme ultra-right in Germany.

Mr. Wardle

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's words will have been heard and noted in the House. I hope that he will agree with what I said a few moments ago about the commitment and integrity of the many members of the German public who demonstrated in the past few days to make it absolutely clear that there is no public appetite for racism or the kind of ethnic tension that seems to have surfaced. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's words of welcome to the expansion in the programme of the reception of ex-detainees. He spoke of the attitudes of Opposition Members, but I hope that he will bear in mind the fact that it is equally important to make it clear that it is impossible and wrong to seek the removal of between 2 million and 2.5 million people, because that would be succumbing to ethnic cleansing. We must operate on a carefully organised basis, working with UNHCR.

Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)

Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to ensure that the voluntary organisations and charities, particularly in my part of the world, such as the Tertia trust and the Leeds-based trust, ALERT, are given clear guidelines on the role he sees for them to ensure that we avoid a repetition of the unfortunate situation that developed just a few weeks ago? Will he ensure that a press release or statement is released detailing governmental responsibilities and the charities' responsibilities so that those who want to play a part in voluntary organisations can assist with this project?

Mr. Wardle

I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that many of those organisations have made considerable efforts. I agree that it is most important to have clear-cut guidelines for co-ordination. I suggest to my hon. Friend that he advises the voluntary groups with which he is in touch to approach the Refugee Council to talk about that form of co-ordination.

Several hon. Members

On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

Order. I must hear first an application under Standing Order No. 20.