HC Deb 18 October 1993 vol 230 cc122-8

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

10.1 pm

Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)

The dramatic fall of Saigon took place 18 years ago, and to this day Americans call it the end of the war. For the south Vietnamese, it was the beginning of a dark age of revenge, repression and fear as the communists took over. It was, therefore, understandable that many of them should seek to escape in any way that they could, especially those who were associated with the previous regime and American forces. The boat people, as they came to be called, captured the hearts of the free world, which then did not hesitate to accept them, and 138,000 came from Hong Kong alone.

In more recent years, new waves of boat people have been landing in Hong Kong, mostly from north Vietnam, seeking a better life. Because of a growing refusal to accept them elsewhere, Hong Kong has had no choice but to house them in special camps and has had no alternative but to reach agreement with the Vietnamese Government on an orderly repatriation programme for those who have not been screened in as refugees. Conditions in those camps and the enforced return of their inmates to a country that remains a one-party communist state which continues to deny human rights caused international outrage, which reached a pitch four years ago. It encouraged many constituents to write to their Members of Parliament.

In a statement to the House on 12 December 1989, the Foreign Secretary emphasised that the criteria for establishing who qualifies as a refugee, and thus who is to be repatriated, were agreed with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The matter was fully debated by the House on 19 December 1989 under supplementary estimates and has been raised since, not least in my questions to Foreign Office Ministers.

Concerns about the situation were expressed in the European Parliament and in the Council of Europe. It was feared that, despite the Vietnamese Government's assurances to the contrary, returnees might be persecuted once they were back in Vietnam. Moreover, human rights non-governmental organisations strongly criticised the screening process operating in Hong Kong, as well as conditions in the camps.

In the Council of Europe, those concerns were referred to its Committee for Refugees, Migration and Demography, which held a hearing last March at which three Vietnamese-in-exile organisations submitted representations to us. In response, the Committee produced a report and appointed our late colleague, Ted Garrett, as rapporteur. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to Ted, who was a good friend to all of us on the Council of Europe and whose death earlier this year was so untimely.

When Ted retired at the last election, I replaced him as rapporteur and, with the Committee's approval, undertook a fact-finding visit in January to see at first hand the situation in the camps in Hong Kong and conditions for the repatriated boat people in Hanoi and Haiphong, which is where most have returned. I should like to record my thanks and that of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mr. Parry), who accompanied me, and to our right hon. Friend, Chris Patten, for all the excellent arrangements that were made for our visit, and to pay tribute to officials concerned with the organisation of the camps and the screening process for the most difficult and sensitive job that they have to do. I particularly wish to mention Brian Bresnahan, the Hong Kong Government's refugee co-ordinator. I should also like to thank our diplomatic staff in Hanoi for arranging my visit there in such an efficient manner.

I shall not take up the time of the House by referring in detail to my visit, which is recorded in the Council of Europe document 6818, which led to the resolution passed by the parliamentary assembly on 14 May this year. Had I embarked upon the report three years ago or even later, my recommendations would almost certainly have been completely different. Perhaps I would have wholly accepted what many still feel strongly to this day—that forced repatriation deliberately violates everything for which our European convention on human rights stands, that instead of returning the migrants to Vietnam we should offer them an internationally controlled haven until Vietnam becomes a democracy and they are no longer at risk, and that the screening process is so unfair and conditions in the camps so inhumane that they should be radically reviewed and drastically improved.

I hope that I shall not compromise myself now by saying that today such conclusions are no longer realistic because of the dramatic change in the position over the past 12 months. Last year, only 12 boat people reached Hong Kong; this year, to date, 39 have done so, compared with more than 20,000 in 1991. More than 30,000 have been returned and fewer than 37,000 remain. No doubt my right hon. Friend the Minister will refer to the latest figures when he replies.

To seek to stop that process now would not be credible and would be unfair to those who have returned. It is reasonable to say that the Vietnam to which they are returning is not the same Vietnam from which they risked their lives to flee. While it remains a one-party communist state, maintaining many of the hallmarks that we condemned in communist eastern Europe, its commitment to economic reform since the Soviet Union ended its subsidy and the considerable progress that has been made cannot be denied. That progress is encouraging predictions that the country is poised to become the next Asian dragon.

In the light of what I saw and the extensive discussions that I had, I made a number of proposals to the Council of Europe which are realistic and practical, and which will improve the position for the remaining boat people who await the determination of their status as refugees. It is essential that the European Community be persuaded to maintain its assistance programme in Vietnam beyond next year and to encourage European companies to invest in Vietnam.

We must be encouraged that the United States has now partially lifted its embargo. That must be in the interests of a better life for the returnees in their own country. It will help Vietnam to complete its economic reforms in a free market which includes privatisation, and encourage the improvements in infrastructure that are essential for it to develop its vast potential for tourism and to exploit its rich resources.

I urge that there should be better information services for the migrants in the camps so that they may appreciate more fully the opportunities that await them on their return to their country, instead of fearing the worst as most of them do. I want the opportunities arising from the depletion of the camps to be used to improve the conditions for those who remain in them. I want a more sensitive screening process with better legal representation and the establishment of a permanent review body which will being together those who represent the migrants and those responsible for determining their status to avoid injustice.

Can my right hon. Friend the Minister confirm that, to put pressure on the population in the camps to return, the UNHCR is to reduce repatriation grants by one third—from $360 to $240 per head—if they do not volunteer to return by 1 November this year? Can he confirm that adult education and vocational classes in the camps have been cancelled and opportunities to earn money by helping to administer the camps have been cut?

These are not humanitarian gestures for people who live in unacceptable conditions which my right hon. Friend sees for himself regularly—I believe as recently as last week —and we are fearful about their future.

It is clear that no boat person can feel confident about being returned to Vietnam for as long as that country's Government remain associated with its unacceptable past, for as long as it remains a one-party communist state and for as long as it denies democracy and human rights. Thus, we should be calling on the Vietnamese Government to help themselves by putting their guarantees of no persecution to the test of full access by Amnesty International and other non-governmental organisations, to publish their 1992 guarantees to end all censorship, and to close their gulags and release all their prisoners of conscience.

I understand that Catholic and Protestant priests, several of them in their mid-eighties, remain in prison in Vietnam. They include Father Dominic Tran Dinh Thu, sentenced in 1987 to life imprisonment for criticising the regime's attitude to Christian believers. His sentence was later commuted to 20 years. He has refused release until all other priests of his order have been freed as well, and the Government have returned the property confiscated from his order, the Congregation of the Mother Coredemptrix.

We should also urge the Vietnamese Government to enter into genuine dialogue with the Vietnamese exiles to end their mistrust and encourage reconciliation, so that Asia can prosper in the same way as eastern Europe, where people have buried the past and united to build a better future.

Finally, is it not time for the British Council to establish a presence in Vietnam, now that it is coming out of the cold? The council does a great deal of good promoting our heritage and values throughout the world—values in which there is much interest and for which there is much demand. I hope that the Minister will tell the House tonight that the British Council will be established in Hanoi as soon as possible.

10.11 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Alastair Goodlad)

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) for raising the important issue of Vietnamese migrants to Hong Kong, a problem with which I have been concerned since it first arose. My hon. Friend plays a distinguished role in the international efforts to reach a solution to it. I join him in paying tribute to the efforts of our late friend and colleague, Ted Garrett, who did much to assist international efforts to alleviate the suffering of the migrants.

The problem has been with us for two decades, during which its nature has changed, just as the situation in Vietnam has changed. There are now just over 37,000 Vietnamese people in Hong Kong camps; much work remains to be done, but there has been remarkable progress over the past few years and I am confident that the end is now in sight.

I welcome the opportunity that my hon. Friend has afforded the House, first to underline what has been achieved and, secondly, to correct certain misconceptions about the treatment of those who have been screened out and of the returnees. I should also like to give credit where it is due—to the people and Government of Hong Kong who have borne the brunt of the problem for so long by providing a place of temporary refuge.

I also give credit to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and to the International Organisation for Migration. They have worked tirelessly with us over the years to ensure that Vietnamese migrants who qualify as genuine refugees are resettled and that those who do not are returned to Vietnam under conditions that guarantee their safety and give them the best chance of picking up their lives where they left off.

It was quite understandable, with conditions in Vietnam as they were in 1975, that all Vietnamese migrants arriving in countries in the region were accorded refugee status and offered resettlement in the west. There is no such justification for according blanket refugee status to all those leaving Vietnam today.

Since 1986, Vietnam has pursued a programme of economic reform, described as Doi Moi, along market economy lines. Living standards have improved and foreign investment has soared. With the lifting of the United States block on the normalisation of Vietnam's relations with the IMF and other financial institutions in July, the country's economy is expected to boom. The Vietnamese Government have enacted a number of recent reforms aimed at guaranteeing the legal and human rights of their citizens.

More than 195,000 of those fleeing Vietnam since 1975 have taken refuge in Hong Kong. Until the mid-1980s, the Vietnamese refugee population in Hong Kong steadily declined as the resettlement programme took effect. About 15,000 in all have come to the United Kingdom, but from 1986 onwards, the situation started to deteriorate rapidly and dramatically. The rate of new arrivals began to outstrip the number of resettlement places available to them in the west, and it became clear that the majority of those leaving were economic migrants, mostly from the northern part of Vietnam, rather than genuine refugees with a well-founded fear of persecution. The United States closed its doors on those people.

In response to those new circumstances, the Hong Kong Government decided, with the British Government's full support, that from 16 June 1988 all Vietnamese arrivals would be subject to screening, to distinguish between those who were refugees and those who were not.

That procedure, based on internationally accepted criteria, including the 1951 convention and the 1967 protocol relating to the status of refugees, and the guidelines issued by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, was developed in close consultation with UNHCR to ensure that it was fair and thorough and that genuine refugees would not be returned to Vietnam. The screening in Hong Kong, as well as having the full approval of UNHCR, has also passed the scrutiny of judicial review.

Other places of first asylum in the region adopted similar screening measures in March 1989. The arrangements for screening, resettlement and repatriation were embodied in a comprehensive plan of action, agreed at the second international conference on Indochinese refugees in June 1989, and were reviewed at meetings of the steering committee of the international conference in 1989 and 1990. A further steering committee meeting is expected to be held next year.

The comprehensive action plan offers a humane and durable solution to the problem of what are called the boat people. Hong Kong will continue to be a place of first asylum. All Vietnamese migrants arriving there will be screened. If initially found to be non-refugees, they have the right of appeal to an independent review board. If the board upholds the original decision, UNHCR retains the right to exercise its mandate. That guarantees that no one whom the UNHCR believes to be a genuine refugee will he returned to Vietnam.

Some 33,000 Vietnamese have volunteered for repatriation from Hong Kong since March 1989. However, it became clear that voluntary repatriation alone could not solve the problem. In October 1991, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and Vietnam, with the UNHCR's involvement and encouragement, signed a statement of understanding on the principles of an orderly repatriation programme for all non-refugees in Hong Kong.

Under those arrangments, as a first step all Vietnamese arriving in Hong Kong after 29 October 1991 would be screened immediately and those found not to be refugees would be returned to Vietnam without delay. Later, all non-refugees who were in Hong Kong on 29 October 1991 who did not volunteer to return home would also be repatriated. The modalities for that second phase were agreed between the three Governments on 12 May 1992.

The programme is intended to buttress the UNHCR's voluntary return scheme and to show those in the camps in Hong Kong who have been screened out that we have the will and the means to return non-refugees to Vietnam and that there is no alternative but for them to return. It is based firmly on the principle that no one who is returned will suffer persecution. The programme is fully in accordance with the comprehensive plan of action and with normal international practice for the removal of illegal immigrants. It also serves the best interests of those in camps in Hong Kong without hope of resettlement, whose future lies in their own country—Vietnam.

Since the introduction of the orderly repatriation programme in October 1991, there has been an encouraging surge in the rate of non-refugees volunteering to return. More than 12,000 returned from Hong Kong in that way during 1992. More than 7,000 have returned voluntarily so far this year and more than 4,000 more are currently being processed for return. Even more encouraging, as my hon. Friend has said, the outflow from Vietnam has, for the moment, more or less ceased.

The camp population in Hong Kong as at 1 October was as follows: the number awaiting screening, 11,548; those screened out, 23,600; refugees awaiting resettlement, 2,019, making a total of 37,167. As I have said, 4,000 of those screened out have volunteered to return.

The Vietnamese authorities have reaffirmed that no one returning to Vietnam will be persecuted. They have agreed to facilitate the monitoring of all those who go back, regardless of their mode of return, to ensure that they are able to resume their lives in safety and dignity.

We recognise that Vietnam's record on human rights still contains room for improvement. We raise our concerns about Vietnam's human rights record at every suitable opportunity. I visited the country about a year ago. We also seek to encourage more accountable government in Vietnam. To that end, we invited the chairman of the Vietnamese National Assembly to visit London later this month, to obtain a better understanding of our own parliamentary system. As my hon. Friend knows, the Prime Minister of Vietnam was a welcome visitor to this country a few months ago.

I emphasise, however, that the Vietnamese Government have scrupulously respected their undertakings not to persecute returning Vietnamese migrants. Since the voluntary repatriation programme began in 1988, more than 45,000 people have returned to Vietnam. UNHCR representatives and British officials monitoring their return have not found one substantiated case of persecution. I see no reason why the Vietnamese authorities should not allow Amnesty International access to returnees. They have certainly allowed a wide range of other non-governmental organisations and human rights organisations to visit them.

We recognise the importance of tackling the root causes of the exodus from Vietnam. We have contributed £4 million to the European Community's international reintegration programme, in addition to our share—currently approximately 16–5 per cent.—of the Community's population We also increased our bilateral aid to Vietnam. As my hon. Friend said, the EC programme will come to an end in 1994. However, Community developmental assistance is likely to continue to flow once the EC-Vietnam co-operation agreement now being negotiated is finalised.

My hon. Friend rightly raised the question of the British Council, which has been a concern and an enthusiasm of my own since I took on my current responsibilities. I am happy to be able to tell my hon. Friend that a British Council representative will begin work in Vietnam within the next month. I hope that that will help further to promote an even better understanding between the United Kingdom and Vietnam.

We are still discussing with the UNHCR possible ways of increasing the rate of voluntary returns, including increased information services. There is a natural limit to the number of returnees that the Vietnamese can handle at any one time, but even if only present levels are maintained, the Hong Kong camps could be empty in less than three years. I can confirm that UNHCR reintegration payments have been reduced—the savings made will be used for reintegration projects in Vietnam—and that adult education and vocational classes have been cancelled. With the decline of the camp population, the UNHCR feels that money is better spent in other areas. Essential services such as children's education and medical care have most certainly not been cut.

We hope that the current arrangements, together with improved conditions and prospects in Vietnam, will ensure that the majority of non-refugees remaining in Hong Kong camps will volunteer to go back home. For those who do not, there will need to be further repatriation flights from time to time.

I pay tribute to the people and Government of Hong Kong. One reason why so many Vietnamese decided to make for Hong Kong was that the territory was staunchly maintaining the principle of first asylum, in spite of the refusal of the major resettlement countries to continue to accept economic migrants. The Vietnamese migrant problem has so far cost Hong Kong about £430 million.

It is not generally appreciated that in other countries in the region, the UNHCR meets care and maintenance costs in full, while for Hong Kong those are on a repayment basis. The LTNHCR is able to repay Hong Kong only to the extent that it has funds available and, as a result, Hong Kong is owed some £63 million by the UNHCR. It fully acknowledges its moral obligation to repay, and now includes a reference to that debt in its fund-raising literature.

As a Government, we have firmly reminded the major donors of the debt that the international community owes to Hong Kong for having shouldered the burden of Vietnamese migrants for so long, and we will continue to do so. Since 1989, we ourselves have contributed more than £60 million towards a solution of the problem.

I hope that this debate initiated by my hon. Friend will help to bring wider recognition of Hong Kong's admirable contribution to finding a solution to this long-running problem—and that the solution will be timely and successful.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Eleven o'clock.