HL Deb 04 March 1959 vol 214 cc754-66

2.49 p.m.

THE LORD BISHOP OF SHEFFIELD rose to call attention to the continuing plight of stateless persons and homeless refugees in many parts of the world; to urge Her Majesty's Government to give the High Commissioner for Refugees liberal help in carrying out his commission, and to keep the permanent solution of the problem actively before the United Nations; and to move for Papers. The right reverend Prelate said: My Lords, in rising to move this Motion, I do not think I need apologise for putting it on the Order Paper. We have had discussions on various aspects of the refugee problem from time to time as part of our foreign policy debates, but I do not think the whole subject has been before us for debate for a good many years.

Our post-war world is haunted by the homeless man. He is no ghost; he is a reality. Sometimes he is emaciated and infirm, but he is flesh and blood such as we are. As Doctor Elfan Rees, who has given many years to refuge work since the war, has said: The refugee problem is the largest single human issue facing the world of our time, and yet there has been no full confrontation of it by the world community". Yorkshire is only a small part of the world, but in a Yorkshire town last year there was a flag day for refugee service. A passer-by in the street stopped in front of a lady with a tray of flags, not to buy one but to deliver himself of the sentiment: "I do not believe in refugees." Twenty-five or thirty years ago your Lordships probably hardly believed in the possibility of homeless and stateless persons in Western Europe, and we were horrified when the Hitler regime in Germany began to turn members of the Jewish race out of their jobs and out of their homes and to give them almost the choice of leaving the country or taking the risk of a concentration camp.

Since those days the political climate has changed. The victorious Allies, by Article 12 of the Potsdam Agreement, allowed the movement of large populations from their homes and thereby set a most baleful precedent. So much so that to-day the practice is endemic in our post-war world. It has occurred in Central Europe, Finland, the subcontinent of India, Palestine, China, Korea, and more recently Indonesia. Nearly 160,000 women, children and old men have fled from Algeria to Tunisia and Morocco; 10,000 Tibetans into Nepal, 5,000 Assyrians into Lebanon, and so on. There seems to be no end to this process. The flight from East Germany to West is running at the rate of 800 a night, and it is a rather interesting fact that in 1958 there were over 11,000 professional people who made that sad journey; and, if I may just say so in passing, I am rather proud of my brethren of the ministry of the Christian Church because among those professional people there were no pastors or priests; they stuck by their congregations, for better, for worse.

Even those of us who regard all this as a crime against humanity are in some danger of accepting it fatalistically: the astronomical figures blunt our imagination. We fail always to recognise the amount of vicarious suffering which is entailed. It is very hard for those of us who accept as a matter of course our national status and our home to understand how life appears to people who are homeless and stateless. Even if one is face to face with such a person there is a great gulf. I remember some years ago in Austria turning aside from the gay centre of Salzburg, in the middle of its lovely musical festival, down a side street into a camp site of dilapidated army huts. There, among others, one came across a distracted woman, four children, one noisy idiot child and her husband, a T.B. case in a hospital; and one asked oneself, "So what!" I do not think I need take up any time in underlining the intensity and extent of human suffering in this situation, or how masses of homeless and stateless people in the world contribute to the political unrest in the world.

But, dark though this picture is, it is lightened and its grimness alleviated not only sometimes by the heroic patience of refugees, but also by the care and compassion and generosity of people all over the world. We all remember the wonderful way in which the Jewish people in the world stood by their persecuted brethren before and during the war. To quote just from two of the largest operational agencies, last year the refugee service of the Roman Catholic Church in the world contributed £8 million worth of goods—and no doubt cash in proportion. The Inter-Church Refugee Service Department of the World Council of Churches, whose concern is to care for homeless people, whoever they are and wherever they are, passed on £800,000 and about £6 million worth of goods. Then each of these two operational agencies has been responsible during the last ten years for moving over 300,000 refugees into new countries and new homes. In our own country last Christmas the Churches associated with the British Council of Churches gave £80,000 to this purpose.

The useful distribution and spending of this vast sum of money and goods has called out the devoted personal service of a great number of men and women in many countries who have spent themselves on serving the refugees. The intransigence of some Governments and some Government officials makes this work very tedious and slow requiring a good deal of patience. I was told last year that merely to arrange for the movement of one man in Germany somewhere or other took 105 letters. I think very often of a young friend of mine—though not so young now—who, years ago, served with me in trying to befriend the long-term unemployed families in Northumberland. Since the war he has given himself to the service of refugees, first in Austria, then in Korea, and, more recently, in Malaya; and he has just gone to Hongkong. There are many more, of many different countries and religious beliefs, and without them, who are doing that kind of thing. The spirit of humanity has received many hard blows and wounds during and since the war but, thank God, it is still alive. But I would suggest that it needs a little more encouragement from some Governments in the world.

There are three places or situations at the present time which call for urgent and special attention. The first is the fact that there are still 160,000 unsettled refugees in Europe. A month or two ago 38,000 of these were still in camps maintained by Governments or by local authorities. I must say, in passing, that those in the camps are often far better off than those outside. As your Lordships know, many of these are elderly and infirm folk, or families who are unwilling to be broken up. No doubt there a re some who have got so accustomed to this vacuous existence or have been so frequently disappointed in their hopes that they prefer to stay where they are, rather than face the unknown in some unknown land.

But the main reason why there is still this residue, or hard core, in Europe is the difficulty experienced in getting them received into other countries and the general cost of carrying it through. As a matter of fact, there are still in European camps 10,000 refugees who belong to a family having at least one handicapped member. It is most difficult to get countries to accept a family as a unit. Your Lordships may have seen in the Press last week that the New Zealand Government had agreed to accept twenty such families, consisting, so we are told, of fifty-five persons. That is all to the good; but it leaves, if my arithmetic is correct, 9,945 still to be moved to other countries, including the United Kingdom.

The second place where the matter has become very grave, as I think we all know, is Hong Kong. Of the total population of the Crown Colony two out of seven are now refugees: obviously, the place is terribly overcrowded. Most of these are Chinese, and it is not going to be at all easy, even if it is possible, to disperse the majority of them to other parts of the world. A much smaller number, 8,000 to 9,000, are Europeans. Most of these are still on the mainland, and are of the Orthodox faith. Their movement has been held up by the difficulty of getting visas, and finance to transport them. In the middle of last year, the Chief Commissioner for Refugees was so denuded of financial support by the Governments who are supposed to support him that the operation was very nearly held up, and he had to borrow or get money from various voluntary organisations.

Thirdly, there are the Arab refugees in Palestine: these, we are told, now number over one million, and the birthrate among them is rather high. There is here a desperate situation, for which nearly everybody is to some extent to blame—Israel for turning some of them out and being reluctant to let them back, and the Arab countries surrounding Israel for maintaining them as Stateless people in order to keep an open political sore. That is a classic example of a humanitarian situation being bedevilled by politics—and by bad politics at that. Those are three situations requiring urgent attention. Moreover, until the trend of political opinion in the world has been reversed, and the moral conviction has been re-established that it is a sin against God and man to treat innocent people in this kind of way, the United Nations Commissioner and the voluntary societies must always keep in hand some emergency fund for some new situation which may arise.

One way to change this political climate, not overnight but gradually, would be for the Governments of the United Nations to tackle the situation more vigorously, both by relaxing some of their restrictions on emigration and by providing the High Commissioner for Refugees with the finance he needs to deal with it efficiently. Your Lordships may know that at the present time he is asking for an all-out effort to deal particularly with the European camp situation and the Hong Kong situation, radically and thoroughly, in this year and next. For the former he is asking (I am sorry to have to quote dollars) for 5,700,000 dollars in the two years; and for the twofold Hong Kong operations he is asking for just over 5 million dollars. In addition, he is asking for 700,000 dollars this year for some of those outside the camps in Europe. In other words, he is asking for 6 million dollars for this year and for next year.

Last year, contributions from the United Nations to the High Commissioner's Fund, which is known as U.N.R.E.F., was running at the rate of 3,300,000 dollars from regular contributions, plus another half a million of special contributions; so there is a pretty wide gap between what was needed last year and what he is asking for as an urgent necessity this year. As someone has said, I think not untruly, The history of U.N.W.R.A. is a clinical study in frustration. Far too few Governments contribute far too little. And, up to date, they are not showing any great alacrity in meeting this special demand for these two years.

So I come to the question: What have the Government of our country done? May I, without appearing to be not minding my own business, try to say a word upon that subject? I believe that we are all glad to know that our Government have been far less "sticky" than some about receiving refugees, although possibly not very markedly sympathetic to receiving family units. In addition to many considerable contributions to U.N.R.W.A. for Palestine refugees, they have, since 1956, been giving £100,000 a year to the High Commissioner's Fund for Refugees. That is the highest regular contribution from any country except the United States of America—at least, it was until last year, when the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany topped our contribution. Nevertheless, these contributions are still far short of what is required.

The question I would respectfully and urgently put to Her Majesty's Government is this. Is it too much to ask them to consider not only giving United Nations a stronger lead in general but, in particular, this year and next, when the High Commissioner is asking very especially for a large sum for Hong Kong, a Crown Colony, stepping up our regular contribution from £100,000 to £250,000, and perhaps, in addition, making a special contribution this year and next of the same amount—namely, £1 million over the two years?

There is one other reason, beyond the general claim of humanity and the need to do anything we can to reduce the amount of political unsettlement in the world, why our Government should give a strong lead in this matter. As a result of an initiative which started in this country there is to be opened on June 1 next a World Refugee Year. The United Nations Assembly at its last meeting gave full support and approval to this project. Churches of all kinds throughout the world have promised to give their full support. The aim of the World Refugee Year is to get Governments to step up their financial contribution and ease some of their immigration restrictions, and also to create a stronger public opinion to encourage Governments to take action of that kind.

It was disappointing to read not long ago that the Secretary-General of the United Nations, who had been instructed by his Assembly to "assist in promoting the World Refugee Year," had decided that his representative should wait and see what initiative various Governments took on their own. So I would ask: Could not our Government, who have already shown their special interest in the Refugee Year by contributing £100,000 annually, possibly exercise some initiative in New York to get the office there to try to persuade the fifty-nine nations who voted in favour of the World Refugee Year project to validate their votes? I will not say more on this subject of the World Refugee Year, because the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, is Chairman of the Executive Committee in this country and, therefore, can speak with an inside knowledge of all that has been planned and is hoped for.

In conclusion, I would make this point. The refugee problem is so deeply embedded in the wrong-headed thinking of the contemporary world that it will take more than one year to solve it, although a special effort in one Refugee Year may enable us to go a long step forward. Is it too much to hope that Members of this House will give it their support, in their different localities, and will also find my Motion one of which they can approve? Those of us who are not involved in the political arena realise that many of the choices which responsible politicians have to make in the field of foreign policy are between a greater and a lesser evil. But here is one very important issue in the field of foreign policy—this solving of the refugee problem—which would be a positive and certain good, both as to its means and as to its end, and one which would be in line with the very best in our British political tradition. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.16 p.m


My Lords, this House has earned a very high reputation for discussing vital questions of humanity and social problems, and it is in keeping with that tradition that the Motion moved by the right reverend Prelate is before us this afternoon. I am sure that every one of us will be grateful to him both for having put down this Motion and for the manner in which he has presented it to us. He has told us that the refugee problem is the largest single human problem of our time. It is not only a large problem numerically, it is a large problem from the point of view of the difficulties which confront its solution. He has dealt with the financial aspects of the problem—and I put them least of all—and the difficulties with which we are confronted in dealing with the final problem of resettlement.

The right reverend Prelate has divided the problem into three parts. I want to confine my remarks to one of the three parts to which he referred—namely, the problem of the Arabs. This problem is, of course, familiar to every one of your Lordships, but I hope the House will forgive me if I go through its history and give some of the facts connected with it. The Arab problem really began early in 1948. At that time it appeared probable that a State of Israel would be set up. The Arab States objected very strongly, and were threatening to take up arms and go to war if and when the State was created. In fact, the State of Israel was set up in May, 1948, and on that very day was attacked by the armed forces of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq; and there were also contingents from Saudi-Arabia and the Yemen.

The avowed intention of the Arab States was stated by the Secretary-General of the Arab League. He said—to use his own words: This will be a war of extermination. It will be a momentous massacre to be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades. That was the intention. But before the actual attack the Arab population in Palestine were warned that it would be desirable, in their own interests, that they should for a short time leave Palestine and go into the Arab territories; and they would be in a position to come back, they were told, within a few days with the victorious armies to share the spoils of the abandoned Jewish properties. As your Lordships know, this never happened. Some 500,000 or 600,000 Arabs did in fact leave Palestine; about 100,000 remained; and the 500,000 or 600,000 who left were the foundation of the Arab refugee problem. I need say nothing about the 100,000 or so who remained in Palestine. They have settled and become integrated into the Israel State, and no problem arises in connection with them.

The problem is about the 600,000 or so who left Palestine. These 600,000 have now become, according to various estimates, 900,000 or 1 million. They have grown by natural accretion, 25,000 or 30,000 new births every year, so that in the twelve years in which this Arab problem has been with us there has been an addition of something between 300,000 and 400,000 births. To-day the people under the age of twelve constitute a very large proportion of the total refugees.

This problem has been one which the United Nations Assembly have considered almost every year. They have set up a Special Agency to deal with it: the United Nations Work and Relief Agency. The function of this Agency was twofold: first, to give relief to the refugees; and, secondly, to try to work out the permanent solution. So far as relief is concerned, it has functioned fairly well, and as the right reverend Prelate has said—and this applies particularly to the Arab refugees—those who are in receipt of relief are, generally speaking, better off than the population in whose area they are. The vast majority of the refugees are in Jordan and they represent more than half the existing population. There are relatively small numbers in Lebanon and Syria, but in Gaza they represent practically the whole of the population. There are very few native Egyptians in Gaza. The refugees represent—I think this was the figure given—260 per cent. of the native population. Jordan has given the refugees Jordanian citizenship, but I am afraid that that is all she has been able to give them. The refugees in Gaza are Egyptian, but as to the others they neither have got citizenship nor have they been able to get any other kind of help.

I think that no praise is too high for the work of U.N.W.R.A. They have not only fed and clothed the refugees and housed them; they have provided schools and have done their best to provide training. The education is of a fairly high standard. The refugees are very willing and eager to take work if they can possibly get it, but of course there is no possibility of their getting work either in Jordan or in other countries to any substantial extent. So gradually there has accumulated among this 1 million or so people a feeling of anger, hatred and bitterness, not only against Israel but against the world at large. They feel, in spite of the efforts of U.N.W.R.A., that they are neglected and forgotten and they are entirely without hope. That is the problem.

What about a solution? There are three possible solutions—three possible solutions for every refugee problem. The first is repatriation. Is there any hope that these 1 million or so refugees will ever be accommodated in Israel? In the view of the United Nations Organisation and others who are best able to judge, repatriation has never yet been found to be a satisfactory solution, and in this particular case that is even more so. Let me put some of the difficulties which would confront any attempt at repatriation on any substantial scale. First, the State of Israel has itself had to accept 450,000 Jews who were refugees from the Arab States, having been virtually driven out of Egypt, Yemen and the other adjoining Arab States. They have had to resettle them, and they are in process of resettling many other refugees from other countries, to-day particularly from behind the Iron Curtain. This year Israel is accepting 100,000 refugees from Roumania, and one can never be certain that there may not be very large numbers coming from other countries behind the Iron Curtain, particularly from the Soviet Union. Also. Israel has opened her doors to Jewish refugees from any part of the world, and she is going to have all her resources taxed in finding accommodation and enabling resettlement to take place for all those who will naturally come to her State. She has also accepted about 50,000 Arab refugees, mostly in order to reunite families, some of whom were left behind, and to enable them to get their men and womenfolk together.

Furthermore, even if it were possible for Israel to accept additional Arab refugees at the present time it would be a very dangerous thing for her to accept people who have become so embittered and who are full of hatred and who would undoubtedly not make good citizens. They would become virtually a fifth column inside Israel, and until this legacy of grievances and bitterness has been alleviated, and until there can be a general settlement of the whole of the difficulties between' Israel and the Arab States, it would be extremely foolhardy, even if she were in a position to accept some refugees, for her to do so. We can only hope that the atmosphere will change in due course so that she can make some contribution of that kind.

The second method of dealing with the refugee problem is immigration. Here, unfortunately, there are very limited possibilities. At the best, the possibilities of emigration are restricted. Countries are very unwilling to take in refugees. We ourselves have taken a fair number; but in conditions of unemployment it is very difficult for a country to accept the additional burden of able-bodied persons, mostly unskilled, for whom work cannot be provided. In the case of the Arab refugees, the difficulties are even greater because of language, tradition, habits, and so on. It is equally as great a burden for any country to accept the sick, the disabled, and children. Emigration, therefore, is not really a satisfactory or a possible solution, and certainly is not one which will provide an answer to the million or so Arab refugees.

The third possible solution is by integration, and that, given good will, is by far the easiest and, in fact, the only one. By faith, by language, by race, and in social outlook, the Arab refugees are indistinguishable from the natives of the countries in which they are at present living. There is ample room for them and land available in Syria and Iraq, and there is ample work, too. There is a great deal to be done by way of irrigation of new areas, and by the creation of new farms and of village communities with agricultural and industrial activities. If money is required, I have no doubt that the necessary money could be found. I have no authority to speak for any particular country, but I have no doubt that Israel herself would be prepared to make a substantial contribution to a solution. Indeed, I understand that she has offered to do so unconditionally—not conditional, that is, upon the settlement of the general question. So I believe that, if it were possible to get integration, that would be a solution to this particular problem. It has been done on a much bigger scale so far as other refugees are concerned. In the case of the Moslems fleeing from India and of the Indians fleeing from Pakistan, millions of people have been resettled in those respective countries. Then there is the case of the Chinese in Hong Kong, the Koreans, and many others.

What is stopping a settlement? I think there can be no doubt that a settlement is being prevented on purely political grounds. The Arab States have persistently refused to make a peace treaty with Israel and have refused to recognise Israel; and they feel that, if the Arab refugee problem were disposed of, there would be nothing to stand in the way of their giving such recognition. It is undoubtedly the fact, as the right reverend Prelate has said, that the refugees are being used as political pawns in this battle between the Arab States and Israel. It is only politics which is standing in the way of a settlement. Many proposals have been put forward by U.N.R.W.A., by the United States of America, and by the United Nations, as to the comprehensive development of Jordan, which would have provided for the irrigation of some 225,000 acres, and would have benefited all the nations within the Jordanian area. It would have been an immense boon to have had this large area irrigated. However, they have been rejected by the Arab League, with the result that a billion cubic metres of water—precious water, in that area—continue to be wasted and to roll down into the Dead Sea.

I have said that it is not a question of money. I have no doubt that the necessary money would be found. It is being found today for the relief of the refugees; and it would be a very sound business proposition (if one likes to put it that way) to get the refugees settled and earning their own living once and for all. In fact, the mandate for money for U.N.R.W.A. comes to an end in June, 1960, and it will be for the United Nations to decide what, if anything, is to take its place. So the problem is becoming urgent, and something must be done, because it is unthinkable that a million or so people should be left to rot without any help at all.

Year after year the United Nations General Assembly has passed resolutions calling upon the Governments in the area in which the refugees are to make determined efforts to seek and carry out projects capable of supporting a substantial number of refugees. Nothing has happened. I believe that the individual members of the United Nations would be prepared to assist generously towards a settlement scheme for integration to be agreed upon: and I hope and believe that we as a nation would play our part in endeavouring to use our influence, such as it is, upon the Arab States to induce them to take this problem seriously and to deal with it in a humanitarian manner. We are entitled to feel some pride in the fact that we have been largely responsible for the inception of the World Refugee Year for solving the refugee problem generally. May I hope that we will do all we can, and will exert all our influence, towards securing a solution of this, the most intractable refugee problem of all, and so help to put an end to the potential danger which subsists by the very existence of these million refugees? They are always a potential danger, and there is always the possibility of their bringing about a state of conflict in that area. Apart from that, I hope that from a humanitarian point of view we shall use our influence to help bring happiness, contentment, and a sense of human purpose and human dignity to a million or more of our fellow human beings. I hope that, as a result of this debate, both this country and others may look at this problem more seriously and will take every possible step to ensure that something is done.


My Lords, in facing your Lordships this afternoon—


My Lords, I thought we were going to have a statement, though I do not want to interrupt the speaker.