HC Deb 12 May 1999 vol 331 cc306-8
7. Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives)

If she will make a statement on her Department's support for refugees and asylum seekers. [82954]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short)

There are now some 22 million refugees in the world, which is the greatest number ever recorded. My Department provides support to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and to non-governmental organisations to help refugees across the world. Of course, the Home Office is responsible for refugees and asylum seekers in the United Kingdom.

Mr. George

In the light of the recent atrocities in Kosovo, does the right hon. Lady agree that beside the inevitability of armchair generals having the benefit of hindsight, there is an opportunity to reap the benefit of foresight by recognising the problems created for her Department by the Immigration and Asylum Bill? Following her work with the UNHCR, which has been critical of that Bill, what representations has she made to her right hon. Friend the Home Secretary?

Clare Short

I gently suggest that the hon. Gentleman is asking that question of the wrong Department. The previous Government took an exemption—that is not the correct word, but the hon. Gentleman will know what I mean—on the convention on the rights of the child in relation to child refugees. The UNHCR has written to me about the matter, and I have written to the Home Secretary. The hon. Gentleman might wish to follow up the issue with him.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

The Secretary of State knows that the vast majority of the 22 million refugees to whom she referred are in the poorest countries of the world. What can the richer countries do to support those refugees and prevent the sorts of crises that create refugees?

Clare Short

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. I visited Tanzania briefly last week. It is one of the poorest countries in the world and is hosting 330,000 refugees—which is more than in Macedonia—who are mostly from Burundi. Our task is twofold: first, we must help the poorest countries to develop; and, secondly and more important, we must prevent and resolve conflicts so that refugees may return home—which is the overwhelming wish of all refugees.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

One of the most distressing features of our short visit to Albania and Macedonia was meeting refugees who had sponsors to take them to Germany, the United Kingdom or elsewhere, but were unable to take up those offers because they did not have sufficient identification. Is the Secretary of State prepared to throw her weight against the UNHCR's incompetence and ensure that, when refugees have no papers, they speedily receive sufficient identification so that those who wish to befriend them can take them home?

Clare Short

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. Apart from killing, raping and displacing people, the Serbian aggressors in Kosovo have destroyed passports and records of birth and death in an attempt to obliterate the record of a people and thus take away their identity. It is the duty of the UNHCR to record every refugee and to supply documentation. I am afraid that that process has been slow, but there is now a concerted international effort in that regard. A new computer program—let us hope it works—aims to give people the identity documents that they will need in order to exercise their right to travel to other countries and be reunited with family members.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

One recognises the Secretary of State's concern about refugees worldwide and one is also aware of the pressure to remove many refugees from northern Macedonia. Is it not possible to allow those refugees who have been in Albania for five weeks and have friends in the United Kingdom with refugee status to come to this country much sooner so that other refugees in Albania may move south?

Clare Short

There are more than 800,000 refugees in Albania and Macedonia, and large numbers are crossing the border into Albania every day. The Macedonian border has been closed. I appeal to the hon. Gentleman, to the House and to the community at large not to suggest that somehow bringing a small number of refugees to Britain will solve the problem. We must care for people in the region, although those with medical or other special needs, or with family members in other countries, may be cared for elsewhere. If we do not follow that course, we will be doing Milosevic's work for him: he would love to see the refugees dispersed across the world. It has taken time to gear up the number of flights into Britain, but they are now increasing and there will be more under the criteria that I have outlined.