HL Deb 22 May 1975 vol 360 cc1407-9

11.24 a.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they propose to take to offer sanctuary to refugees from South Vietnam, over and above those few who have some previous connection or tie with the United Kingdom.


My Lords, my right honourable friend has decided to give priority to those refugees who had a connection or tie with the United Kingdom. He announced his policy in these terms in a reply given in another place on 8th May. Upwards of 100,000 refugees have left Vietnam and we do not yet know how many of them have a connection or tie with the United Kingdom, or will wish to come here. We have indicated that, as in the Chilean situation, we are prepared to play a reasonable part, with other countries, in alleviating the distress to refugees, but we have to take into account our existing obligations to United Kingdom passport holders overseas and to the dependants of Commonwealth citizens already settled in this country.


My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, although it is a somewhat unsatisfactory one. Is he aware that there are a great many people in this country who think that a great deal more ought to be done to assist these uphappy victims of totalitarian aggression, particularly in view of the Western World's moral commitment to help those in South-East Asia who were encouraged to declare themselves openly on the side of the West and against Communist imperialism at considerable risk to themselves and their families? Is he further aware that a high proportion of the refugees at present sitting on leaking ships in Singapore Harbour, or in Army bases in Thailand, have threatened to commit suicide rather than be forced to return to South Vietnam? Could he, therefore, undertake to try to persuade his right honourable friend the Home Secretary to think again?


My Lords, the staff of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees are at the moment trying to assess the dimensions of this problem. So far as the refugees in Hong Kong are concerned, the present indications are that quite a substantial number of them wish to go to the United States, Canada, Australia or France.


My Lords, would it not be true to say, though many of us do not believe that charity only begins at home, that nevertheless we have responsibilities to, and money to be spent on, immigrants who are already here in this country and their children, particularly the young school-leavers?


My Lords, may I raise one general point? I think the feeling in regard to these unfortunate refugees is that they should be accepted on humanitarian grounds. May I ask whether I am right in understanding that this is to be limited to those with a tie with the United Kingdom? Where application for entry is made by a person wishing to ask for political asylum, is it normal to link that with a tie with this country? It is very difficult in this case, is it not, to distinguish between those who are at a loss for a home and have humanitarian grounds for being accepted, and those who are, in effect, political refugees? It would be helpful if the Government could outline their position on that.


My Lords, of course I accept the point made by my noble friend Lady Gaitskell, if I may deal with that first. Dealing with the noble Lord's point, I think cases of political asylum are looked at individually on their merits. One could not conceivably apply the rules of political asylum to the many thousands of people involved in this case.


My Lords, since this country has already had a direct commitment in this matter, having sent a paediatric unit out to Saigon, which did magnificent work there and which many of us feel was closed down prematurely, do we not still have a remaining moral obligation to continue this good work on our own soil?


My Lords, I have indicated that the Government are certainly prepared to accept some obligation in this matter. But, clearly, a very large number of other countries must be involved in this problem, and that is the way in which we are approaching it.


My Lords, has the noble Lord any information to give the House about the children in Surrey concerning whom there was a well published article in the Guardian last week? I think some of us would be interested to know what the situation is.


My Lords, I will certainly look into this matter which the noble and learned Lord has raised. As he rightly says, there has been comment in the Press on this point. I will go into the matter.


My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that, while we all wish to fulfil our obligations to these people, removing them from their own environment and putting them into a wholly different one is not necessarily the best way to help them?


Yes, my Lords.