HL Deb 22 May 1978 vol 392 cc799-819

7.33 p.m.

Lord AVEBURY rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what consideration they have given to the Note on the application of the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the status of refugees in the United Kingdom submitted by the representative in the United Kingdom of the United Nations High Commission Representation (UNHCR), and whether they will make a Statement. The Noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. The fact that the representative has submitted this memorandum to Her Majesty's Government indicates that the arrangements we have made for the reception and classification of refugees are not entirely satisfactory. But before going on to the criticisms, may I say that, as I think everybody would agree, (including the UNHCR) this country has a long and honourable tradition of granting asylum to refugees and of extending to them warm and generous hospitality once they have reached our shores. In the 19th century we received the heroes of the struggle for liberty in Europe such as Garibaldi and Kossuth; at the beginning of the 20th century, we took in the Jews escaping from the vicious anti-semitism of Czarist Russia, and in the 1930s we gave shelter to the thousands who fled from Nazi persecution in Germany.

As the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, reminded us in a radio talk last July, our generosity to these people has been more than repaid during the course of the years. He pointed out that no fewer than 53 Fellows of the Royal Society have been refugees or the children of refugees, while 15 have won Nobel Prizes. He reminded us, indeed, that Einstein himself was a refugee. I believe that we can expect a similar enrichment of our national life from those refugees who have come to us more recently from Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Uganda, Cyprus, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, South Africa and Ethiopia.

The UNHCR representative paid tribute to the part Britain has played in the international community's efforts on behalf of refugees, and he said that our record of treatment of people granted the status of refugees has been "quite outstanding". However, he also says that this fine record has been spoiled by the existence of legal and administrative obstacles facing a person claiming the status of a refugee, which he says are incompatible with our obligations under the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol.

The memorandum is concerned mainly with the problems faced by people who have been granted admission to the United Kingdom under some other provisions of the immigration rules. For example, they may be visitors or students and then apply to be recognised, once they are here, as refugees. However, before coming to those problems I must refer to some difficulties which arise overseas, at the application stage. A person who wants to come here from his country of origin is not, of course, a refugee within the meaning of the Convention, however severe the persecution he may have sustained or may reasonably fear that he is likely to sustain. Thus, someone for example, who is imprisoned without trial and may be brutally tortured, cannot normally expect to gain admission to the United Kingdom even if his own country is prepared to let him go. That is particularly important in the case of some South American countries, notably Argentina, where a discretion on the right of option exists, under which a person who is convicted of a political offence may be allowed to go into exile as an alternative to serving the whole of his prison sentence.

Hitherto we have been extremely reluctant to grant entry to any of these South American refugees who have applied to come to us directly from their countries of origin, although in one or two cases recently we have done so. I should like to ask the Government whether there is going to be any general change in their policy in that respect. But if the victim of persecution does succeed in crossing the frontier to a neighbouring State and makes a formal application there to come to Britain as a refugee, he has to pass what is called a test of personal acceptability which, in my view, is unsatisfactory because it takes a long time to apply, it is lacking in any sense of objectivity and is subject to no proper appeal procedures. Delays in processing applications from Argentina have caused particular concern, because from time to time the refugees from neighbouring States living there have been murdered, or abducted and taken illegally over the frontiers back to their own countries, where they may be severely ill-treated or even murdered. That happens during the time they are awaiting visas—a process which can last for several months.

Also, perhaps I might mention that in Lesotho, Swaziland and Botswana there are many thousands of refugees from South Africa, who constitute a severe burden on those small countries which have to maintain them while they are seeking asylum in a third country. I believe that, in collaboration with the Governments of those countries, we could seek means of speeding up the resettlement of those refugees who cannot remain in their own territories, in places such as the United Kingdom or elsewhere where they may be seeking to continue their education.

Appeals from overseas against refusal to admit someone as a refugee are bound to fail, as the honourable lady, Dr. Shirley Summerskill, admitted to me in a letter dated 3rd November last year. She pointed out that the immigration rules apply only to a person who presents himself at the port of entry; thus, if an application from overseas is refused, then the adjudicator or the appeals tribunal would have no grounds for reversing the decision. But, as I said, the main points of criticism in the UNHCR's Note concern the arrangements for designating a person as a refugee, once he has arrived within the boundaries of the United Kingdom, when he may have every right to that status.

It is not our normal practice in this country to incorporate instruments, such as the Convention, into our domestic law, as other countries often do. All we have instead is a provision of last resort in the rules for control after entry, and in the rules for control on entry, to the effect that a person who does not qualify to remain here, or to enter, under any other heading may claim that if returned to his country of origin he would face persecution by reason of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a social group or political opinion.

The UNHCR's Note makes the very important point that, since refugees are treated as just another kind of immigrant, that is how they are seen both by officials and by the public at large. Over the last 10 years, while there has been a very marked tightening up of the controls over immigration in general, there has been no change in the legal status of the refugee. That has meant that an increasing number of cases are coming to the attention of the UNHCR, and the voluntary agencies, of people being denied the rights supposed to be conferred on them by the Convention and the protocol, while, at the same time, those people have no remedies before the immigration appellate authorities or before the courts.

I wrote to the noble Lord, Lord Harris, on 18th July last, drawing his attention to the fact that in 146 appeals which had been determined since the beginning of 1974, from persons claiming to be refugees, only one was successful and that concerned a person who did not in fact come within the terms of the Convention. At about the same time, I asked a Question to establish the number of persons seeking to enter or remain in the United Kingdom as refugees. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, said that he was attracted by the idea of identifying refugees as a separate category in the immigration figures, but that it could not be done without great expense. He defended the last resort character of the rules, which I mentioned, on the grounds that if somebody had a good case for entering the United Kingdom, or remaining, under some other heading, then the need for a claim to asylum did not arise. He also did not think that it would be desirable to create a separate category of "Convention refugees", because he said that this would act against the interests of people who do not strictly qualify under the Convention, but who may be quite generously treated as the rules at present stand.

I think that this argument can be refuted fairly simply, because what we could do is to leave alone the existing permissive rules on political asylum—for example, paragraph 30 of the rules on control after entry for Commonwealth citizens—and then add in a new paragraph which states that where a person establishes that he comes within the provisions of Article 1 of the Convention, he shall be permitted to remain indefinitely and without conditions. I think that this would have the consequence—as some people might see it, the undesirable consequence—that the adjudicators and tribunals, who are at present dealing with illegal immigration and overstaying, would have the job of deciding who is a refugee; a job for which some people might say they were not particularly well equipped. But the UNHCR representative shows in his Note that in some European countries the representative himself is involved in the process.

One answer here might be to ask him to sit on any tribunal which considered refugee cases, either in person or through a panel of experts which he would appoint. I submit that that solution might be implemented as an interim measure while further consideration was given to the main proposal in the memorandum that totally separate machinery should be established for determining who is entitled to the status of refugee. I think that in the longer term we ought, surely, to think about harmonisation of the law on refugees throughout the Community, because Annex III of the Note shows that the procedures vary widely, though in all four of the countries which were examined there are formal steps which an individual can take to secure recognition.

Some of those who are treated generously in this country are admitted outside the rules, by the discretion of the Home Secretary. In this category, of course, were the stateless people from Uganda, as well as all those Africans who have, more recently fled from the tyranny of Amin. Those people are certainly Convention refugees but like most, if not all, Commonwealth citizens, they have been denied that status, and, by consistently refusing to treat anybody from a Commonwealth country as a refugee, we are, according to the memorandum in breach of Article 3 of the Convention, which requires that it be applied without discrimination as to country of origin. I should like to know whether the noble Lord can explain why this practice has grown up of refusing to classify as a refugee anybody from a Commonwealth country.

The other category of persons who are denied their rights under the Convention are those admitted, or allowed to remain, under some other heading of the rules, as I mentioned at the beginning. Once somebody arrives as a student or dependant, for example, it is practically impossible for his status ever to be changed. If he is both a student and a refugee then, invariably, he is admitted as the former, and this can be an extremely important distinction—which the noble Lord, Lord Harris, did not quite seem to appreciate when he wrote to me about it—because many and may be all universities charge recognised refugees the domestic rate for fees, which is of course much lower than the rate for overseas students.

However, as he points out, the most vital reason for a person wishing to be classified as a refugee is the strength of protection which it gives to the individual concerned against the risk of expulsion. That must obviously mean a great deal to any person who has had to leave his own country, and whose immediate and uppermost need is to have a feeling of security. As the memorandum states, this risk of being kicked out is not a remote or a theoretical one. Some examples are given, with one of which I was personally concerned, w here certain people were under threat of being expelled, and I am sure that many other examples on lines very similar to those set out in the memorandum could have been produced.

Another very significant advantage of being classified as a refugee is that it entitles a person, as is pointed out, to the possession of a Convention travel document, which makes international travel very much easier than the certificate of identity which is issued to stateless persons who are not refugees. I shall not go into the whole catalogue of advantages, but it is far better for a person who is a refugee to have that status, then to have, for example, the status of dependant or student.

The UNHCR has as its governing body a committee of 31 members, which includes the United Kingdom, and in 1977 this executive committee unanimously urged Governments to establish formal procedures for the determination of refugee status. We have taken no steps that I know of to comply with this resolution, although the noble Lord, Lord Harris, said to me in a letter which he wrote on 2nd September last, that the Home Office would have a look at the rules. He said: I do not think there is any question of their preventing us complying with our obligation under the … Convention, and I should have expected the UNHCR to agree with that as a general proposition. We see from this Note that the UNHCR would not agree with that as a general proposition; or, at any rate, they would say that, while the rules do not prevent us from complying with our obligations, they certainly do not place any requirement on us that we should properly satisfy them as is suggested. It is now clear to me that we have been urging others to do the things that we have failed to carry out ourselves.

I suggested to the Home Secretary, in a letter of 13th October last, that he should take the initiative in promoting a discussion on the way in which the rules apply, and on the changes needed in this system for determining who is, and who is not, a refugee. I proposed that a small working party should be established consisting of Home Office officials and of representatives of the agencies concerned with refugees, and I offered to give any assistance in this process that was within my power. This has now become a matter of great urgency, since we voted for a resolution in the General Assembly while we were in breach of many of its provisions. I think that it should be a matter of honour that we put ourselves in compliance with that Resolution as quickly as we can.

I am sure that the noble Lord will realise that if an anodyne reply is given to my Unstarred Question this evening, it will certainly not be the end of the matter. The Parliamentary Human Rights group is interested and is hoping that the UNHCR's representative will come to address it at its next meeting on the subject. Arising from that, questions on Government policy will no doubt be asked in another place. The High Commissioner himself is expected to pay a visit to this country in a week's time, and I imagine that he will be very interested to see what the noble Lord has to say at the conclusion of this debate. I have every confidence that the arguments put forward in this powerful memorandum will already have convinced the Government and that it will now only be necessary for them to work out the details of its implementation.

7.51 p.m.


My Lords, your Lordships will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for having introduced this very interesting Unstarred Question on a subject which so clearly needs the attention of your Lordships and in particular the Government to resolve. I take as my starting point the situation with regard to the 1951 Convention. I believe that a study of this document is fundamental to the note which we have received, so helpfully circulated by Mr. Heidler and of which the Government have their own copy. Even to look at Article 1 of the Convention, which gives the definition of a refugee, is illuminating, if one has not previously realised the very considerable complications which arise from terms of definition. However, the 1951 Convention was not the end of it. This country was also a signatory to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, to the 1957 Refugee Seamen's Agreement, to the 1959 European Agreement on the Abolition of Visas for Refugees and to the 1967 Potocol which has the effect of extending the 1951 Convention.

Taking together those five instruments, may I go back in particular to the 25th July 1951, when the birth pangs of the 1951 Convention were taking place. I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to one very significant recommendation which was made by Mr. Hoare, the delegate of the United Kingdom at the conference. Mr. Hall submitted a resolution to the Convention, and if I may burden your Lordships with its annotation, it is A/Conf/2/107. It asks the signatories to the Convention to apply it in a manner which errs on the side of generosity. I think that possibly it would be beneficial if I read this resolution so that it is placed on the record, for it was the contribution of the United Kingdom to the Final Act.

If I may quote the exact words, the United Kingdom: …expresses the hope that this Convention will have value as an example exceeding its contractual scope and that all nations will be guided by it in granting, so far as possible, to persons present in their territory as refugees and who would not be covered by the terms of Paragraph A of Article 1 the treatment for which this Convention provides". Therefore, in that Final Act the United Kingdom said to its would be co-signatories, "Let us interpret this Convention, which we have had great difficulty in drawing up, in a generous and liberal manner". That resolution was passed, and I think that the Government should take note of it, because that was our view in 1951. This Convention is one of many international treaties and conventions entered into by this country. I deem it, as I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, deems it, to be a matter of national honour that we should give currency to it.

The right of asylum was dwelt upon by the noble Lord. I should like to make a short comment upon it at this point, because I believe that asylum is a matter which is sometimes misunderstood. The United Nations' High Commissioner's representative mentioned this morning that the right of asylum is the right by a sovereign State to grant asylum and not the right on the part of a refugee to receive it. In other words, it is the act of a sovereign State which can be either given or withheld.

Asylum itself is a matter of definition, and the definition of "asylum" which is given by the Oxford English Dictionary is that it is: a sanctuary or inviolable place of refuge". The granting of asylum, therefore, is a matter of discretion. Very often it occurs that a person is granted permission—this was the case mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury—to enter another country and that subsequently he applies for asylum. In all probability this will he denied to him; the grant of asylum fails because the application to enter this country was made on other grounds. In the case, which very frequently occurs, of refugee students seeking to enter a country for the purpose of, perhaps, a 12 months' visit, the application for asylum will almost certainly fail on these grounds. It is very important to recognise what a sacrosanct right this is and also, as again the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, mentioned, how important is the need for co-ordination of the European signatories to the Convention.

I was very interested to read Annexe V to the note which has been circulated, for it deals with the figures of those entering this country. The figures for the past three years have been given in depth, but in order to be brief I shall quote only those for last year. If the figures can be relied upon, it is interesting to note that Commonwealth immigrants amounted to 37,396, and foreign nationals to 31,917, making a total of 69,313 persons who were admitted to this country, of whom only 1,300 were believed to be refugees. In the present circumstances, the Home Office say that from their statistics they are unable to identify separately the refugees. Nevertheless, this figure of 1,300 is only approximate and has been arrived at with very great difficulty. However, it represents a minute proportion—that is, 1.9 per cent. of the total of those persons entering this country.

I believe that a very important comparison and differentiation has to be made between the status of an immigrant and the status of a refugee. In our earlier debate I believe that it was the noble Earl, Lord Lauderdale, who said that the British never draw a line without blurring it. That is particularly true of the situation of immigrants and refugees. Immigrants have one supreme advantage. In coming to this country—or, indeed, to another country from their own home territory—immigrants have the advantage of being able to return to it. In the case of a refugee, no such facility is afforded to him. Therefore, some very specific advantages are guaranteed under the Convention and I hope that it will not weary your Lordships I if state the four particular articles and the four particular advantages which differentiate it. These are not all, but they are four very significant ones and they are as follows: Article 27 deals with identity papers, Article 28 with the highly important travel documents for international travel and Articles 32 and 33 are perhaps the most significant. Article 32 deals with expulsion and Article 33 with the prohibition from expulsion. That is the Article which is known as the "Non refoulement" Article.

I think it can be said that there is the strongest possible case for asking the Government to look again at the categories which are afforded for separating refugees from immigrants. I believe that the fact that the United Kingdom has apparently taken no special steps to safeguard the particular category of refugees needs urgent amendment. I should like to say here that of course this country has a particularly fine record and I echo every word spoken by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, in regard to our historic refuge afforded to those persons fleeing from foreign territories under persecution. I believe that this fine record can be both enhanced and improved if the measures which have been suggested are put in hand.

There is one further important matter to be considered; namely, the arbitration procedure. I believe that the Home Office should consider the membership of the arbitration tribunals; I believe that they should consider the possibility of entering into discussion with the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner in the United Kingdom to see whether his representation on the body would not be beneficial. It is most interesting, in making a comparison with other countries in Europe, to see how they have treated it. In the case of Belgium, the whole task of managing the question of arbitration is handled by the United Nations High Commissioner, on licence, as it were. This has recently been reviewed. In the case of Italy, it is a 50 per cent. representation by the United Nations High Commissioner's representatives and the Government concerned. In Western Germany, the situation is somewhat different: it is wholly in the hands of the Federal Republic.

Here, once again, is a case where those European signatories to the convention might indeed look again in greater detail to see how best they may co-ordinate their views. Under the European Communities Act of 1972 there were special arrangements under which the European laws were co-ordinated; that is, under Section 2 of that Act, which of course reflects Article 177 of the Treaty of Rome. We are under a dual obligation here, and I believe it calls for the Government to examine the situation most carefully.

8.4 p.m.


My Lords, I shall be brief, but I am anxious to support the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, in his Question, and also my noble friend Lord Sandys in his remarks. Both of them are great experts; both have studied these matters in great detail, and I was enormously impressed by the amount of information which they were able to put forward for the Government to consider. My interest in refugees harks back a while. After I had been a delegate to the United Nations for some years, in 1959–60 I was invited to head the committee in this country which ran the United Kingdom Committee for World Refugee Year. I suddenly found myself absolutely involved in this and deeply interested and concerned about it. What was so amazing in that one World Refugee Year was the astonishing response which came throughout the whole United Kingdom to that appeal. I think I am right in saying that there was only one other country in Europe—and I think that was Holland—which raised more money for refugees per head of the population than we did. In one year this tiny country with only 50 million people raised £10½ million for refugees.

The great appeal at that time was to clear the camps in Europe, to help those countries particularly which had taken great numbers of refugees—we were still in the aftermath of the war disturbances. We distributed the money, with the advice of course of the United Nations' High Commissioner, to the European countries, to Israel with thousands of refugees and to UNRWA which was also engaged with refugees.

When I look back on that I realise what a great moment that was in our history that the British public should respond in that way. I am afraid I passed on to others the continuing interest and the committees arising out of the World Refugee Year; I am now only an observer rather than an active participant. I should like to pay a tribute to the Standing Conference on Refugees who are the continuing body arising from the World Refugee Year Committee, who have carried on and who have continued to meet—because alas! these things go on all the time—the challenges of the last 10 or 15 years.

The tragedy about the refugee situation is that, while one hopes and thinks that one great campaign or great movement will solve this terrible problem, year after year something else happens and there are more refugees. So, far from being something which ends, I fear it is something which continues all the time. That is what makes it so necessary for us to continue to take a keen interest in your Lordships' House, and tonight we have heard a great deal from the two experts on the present situation.

I have also read the memorandum which has been circulated to us and I was very much impressed by all that is in it. I was impressed by the account of the different ways in which countries treat this problem. I had intended to mention the four nations which are quoted—Germany, France, Belgium and Italy—but my noble friend Lord Sandys has already told your Lordships how they deal with their problems. I think we could learn something from that, but I do not want the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, to think that I am highly critical of what the Home Office and other Departments do now. I am not critical at all. I am sure that they have a great problem and they try to solve it in the best way they can. But I think we could learn from other countries, and as a result of our participation in the debates in the United Nations I think we might go a step further than we have gone so far. On the resolution passed in November, 1977, which we supported, we appear not to have taken very much action since then. In a way, what seems to be our weakness is that there is the Home Office, which is the Government Department responsible, and then come into the picture a great many other agencies and Government Departments. In the European position, as I understand it. there is more concentration in one group, whether it is a group, as in Belgium, which works with the United Nations High Commission and the Ministry of Justice, or as in Germany, where it is more or less an independent group, a high administrative body with a top official who is responsible to the Minister of the Interior and who controls the administrative courts. There are different ways involved, but the system seems to be concentrated more in one group. I think it would be a good idea if, to some extent, we could copy that idea, to see whether it is possible to set up an independent body to review the cases on the lines of other nations with the help of the UNHCR representative, who would be able to concentrate on getting these cases dealt with more swiftly. What I think is wanted is one Department, and a group in that Department, who have authority rather than involving widespread interest, which at the present moment is the way in which our refugee problems are dealt with.

I do not think this would necessarily lead to an increase in refugees. In fact the High Commission does not know of refugees who have been refused admission or expelled under the present Convention rules. But it would speed up the processes. It would save the Home Office immigration and nationality department much time and trouble; and, of course, it would save a lot of money because time is money, and naturally one is anxious not to spend more money than necessary. I understand from my study of these documents that if anybody who was considered to be unsuitable or to be a risk, was trying to get into this country the authority would be there, in this committee or council or whatever it is called, which would prevent them being allowed in. If we could adopt a more simple system we would save money and save time, and also much unhappiness.

In the modern world—and I am not talking of the World Refugee Year as I knew it nearly 20 years ago—one reads of the awful cases of people who are persecuted and detained without fair trial, and of other things. Indeed, only yesterday and the day before the appalling experiences in Zaire and other parts of Africa created at once a further number of refugees. This is a tragic problem. I think that we in Britain can feel that we really have made a great contribution towards alleviating suffering in this way, and we want to go on making a great contribution. I am sure we should ask the Home Office to see whether or not we cannot improve our contribution, and whether or not some more simplified scheme can be evolved. I am sure the noble Lord who is to reply will be very sympathetic. I hope very much that the Home Office will consider some reorganisation or some new schemes which would simplify our methods and make them more effective concerning the refugee problem.

8.14 p.m.


My Lords, in many respects this is rather a timely debate, and I am glad to be able to answer on behalf of the Government the matter referred to in the Question put by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. I think it is fair to say that the debate has ranged a wee bit wider than that. I would not pretend that I could deal with every point raised tonight, but I shall certainly do my best to do so.

My Lords, on 15th March last the United Kingdom representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees forwarded to my right honourable friend the Home Secretary a paper that he had promised to let him have when they met in January last. Copies were sent at the same time to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and to the Solicitor-General. Since then a further memorandum has been prepared by the legal adviser to the United Kingdom representative. I think perhaps I ought to say, as I am going to use the term "United Kingdom representative", that the United Kingdom representative is not a citizen of the United Kingdom but a representative appointed by the United Nations High Commissioner. I mention this for no other reason than to clearly indicate that this is not just a matter between a United Kingdom individual and the Government. It is something much more important, much wider; it is a matter between the Government and a representative of the United Nations, and therefore sets the whole thing on a much more important and, if I may say so, higher plane.

At the January meeting and in his memorandum the United Kingdom representative pays tribute to the United Kingdom record in the refugee field, and I am grateful to noble Lords who have taken part for subscribing to that. Looking at our record of admissions, and bearing in mind our economic, demographic and social constraints, the United Kingdom representative says that the United Kingdom is indeed playing its part in the international community's effort on behalf of refugees, and that the situation of the refugee once he has been granted asylum compares favourably with that in any other refugee receiving country.

Perhaps I may mention here that in their recent report the Select Committee on Race Relations and Immigration in another place said that they regarded the maintenance of the United Kingdom's historically long and proved record of generosity as one of the greatest importance and value. They pointed out that many people are admitted who do not come within the definition of a refugee in the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees. They recommended that the Government should make it clear that in the foreseeable future there would be no further major primary immigration—and I understand that this relates to such people as heads of households, as distinct from those who come as dependents of people already settled here. The Committee recommend that if events compelled an exception to be made on the grounds of political asylum, this should be done by the United Kingdom discharging its responsibilities within agreed international arrangements.

Clearly, when considering the memorandum received by the United Nations representative in the United Kingdom, we shall have to take the Select Committee's recommendations and views into account; but I think it right to make it clear that the United Kingdom can justly be proud of its record in the refugee field. The Government are engaged in amicable discussion with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees about our practice and procedure for recognising as Convention refugees those who fall within the terms of the 1951 Convention. There is a fund of goodwill and a wide measure of common ground between us which bodes well, I think, for the final outcome.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, made reference to Southern America. He will know that we took part, I think on a fairly substantial scale, so far as the Chileans were concerned. I agree and accept that it was a special exercise brought about at the request of the United Nations High Commissioner. I may be able to say something more about other South American countries before the end of my reply.

It is worth bearing in mind that we do accept as de facto refugees people who would not normally qualify as Convention refugees. Perhaps it is an impertinence on my part to interpret what I mean by "Convention refugees". They are people who have a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. We accept de facto refugees—that is, people from some of the Eastern European countries and others, for example—who have overstayed their period in this country and who have satisfied us that they would suffer very severe penalties if they were sent back. So, we meet the Convention refugee and we acknowledge a large number of others as de facto refugees.

May I come to the memorandum which I myself read in detail. The memorandum was submitted by the representative in the United Kingdom of the United Nations High Commission Representation. It discusses at some length the background of the Convention, its implementation in a number of other countries and the weaknesses, as he sees them, in the United Kingdom procedures for recognising people as Convention refugees. We find it an interesting document which we are considering in detail and with care. The memorandum has been in our hands for only two months and we have already had two exploratory meetings on it and a third meeting has been arranged. That is not too had, bearing in mind that we have had it for only two months. I do not think that I have ever known a Government Department to move so quickly.


My Lords, would the noble Lord not agree that, in accordance with the policy of open government which is adopted by so many other Departments, the Home Office might care to involve some of the voluntary agencies and some Members of your Lordships' House who have taken an interest in the refugee problem? I asked the Home Secretary whether there was any assistance that I could give him in consideration of these matters, and so far I have received no reply.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord and I give him an undertaking that I shall draw his remarks to the attention of my noble friend. I do not feel that I can say more than that, and I do not think that he would expect me to do so.

The recommendations fall into two parts. The first is that legislation should be passed incorporating into United Kingdom law all those provisions of the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol which are not provided for in the existing law". The Convention and the Protocol cover a wide range of subjects and I must say that the language of international agreements, which is designed to cover countries with widely differing legal and administra- tive systems, is rarely suitable for direct incorporation into United Kingdom law, even when a decision has been taken that some legal provision is necessary to enable us to comply with obligations which we have undertaken. Work at official level has, however begun in this connection, but, because of the complexity of the matter, I think it would be unrealistic of me to suggest that there will be a very early outcome.

The second part of the memorandum is the establishment of a formal procedure for the determination of refugee status by an independent body in accordance with recommendations made by the executive committee of the High Commissioner's programme of which the United Kingdom is a member. These, in brief, are that border officials should have clear instructions and should refer cases to higher authority; applicants should receive guidance as to procedure; there should be an identified authority to take the first decision; and applicant should have the necessary facilities for submitting his case; a successful applicant should be informed and issued with a document; an unsuccessful applicant should be able to appeal to another judicial or administrative authority as appropriate, and the applicant should he able to remain, pending determination of his case, unless his request was clearly abusive. The recommendations made by the executive committee are broadly in line, we think, with our own practice at present. Whether or not they are, we are most anxious not to be seen in default of our obligations under the Convention.

The first task here will be to identify whether, and if so, what changes are necessary in our recognition procedures. In this we have already made a useful start and have taken on board for consideration certain related points; but I think two general observations are relevant. First, in his memorandum the United Kingdom representative expresses the view that the adoption of the changes he proposes would not be likely to lead to any change in the number of refugees received in the United Kingdom, but rather to speed up the process of recognition. Secondly, my right honourable friend has made it clear that his concern is that cases should be considered on their merits and not hampered by inflexible procedures. The crucial importance of the second point is that in practice we allow many people to stay on here who may regard themselves as refugees, although they do not fall within the definition of a refugee for the purposes of the 1951 Convention.

We are approaching our discussions on the memorandum in a positive and constructive spirit. As I have said, there have already been two extended meetings at official level with the United Kingdom representative's legal adviser and more are planned. The issues are being examined in detail and we are most grateful for the helpful attitude that has been brought to these talks. When the process is complete, my right honourable friend will be able to decide on any changes that he considers should be made and how those changes should be made. This will not necessarily be a single operation. Some matters will, we think, be able to be treated separately, and in those cases we may well be able to initiate changes quite early. I think that we must face the fact that, while some of the changes may be possible without legislation, some might require legislation.

The short answer—because it has been a short answer—to the noble Lord's Question, is that we have received the Memorandum and we have only had it, as I have said, for two months. We have received a further paper from the office of the United Kingdom Representative, since then, and we are engaged in detailed discussions with his legal adviser over the points raised. There are many points to be dealt with and they are not easy ones, but largely thanks to the good feeling on both sides we think that not only has a satisfactory start been made, but it should prove to be quite fruitful.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked me a number of questions, one in relation to Commonwealth citizens. We are now considering whether to make it a general rule to regard Commonwealth citizens as not own nationals so as to bring them within the Convention. However, as they are British subjects we shall clearly have to have regard to international as well as domestic implications. We have granted a number of—


My Lords, will the noble Lord allow me to intervene? In many cases they are British subjects under our law but not under their own law. For example, an Australian citizen is not a British subject under Australian law.


I will bear in mind what the noble Lord has said but, as he probably knows, we have granted a number of Convention travel documents to Commonwealth citizens. With regard to change of status, I understand that there is no difficulty about a person who has come to this country changing his status to that of a refugee. He merely has to state his case and this will not in any way be prejudiced by his existing status. He can then apply for a Convention travel document and get it.

I think the noble Lord referred to applications from the Argentine. As I said, in response to an appeal by the High Commissioner, we did something about people from Chile, and in response to another appeal we have admitted a number of people said by the United Nations High Commission Office in the Argentine to be in special danger. The Home Secretary is reviewing his South American policy at the moment. As I said, we have admitted a number from the Argentine because we were given to understand that they had been in special danger.

Regarding the noble Lord's points about statistics they are at present under discussion and they are in the memorandum that we have been waiting for. The actual figures, and the conclusions that are suggested by them, are at present under discussion. I think it would be premature for the Government to accept all the claims and statements made by the United Kingdom representative while we are having preliminary discussions with his office. The Home Secretary's concern is to let in people who should come and not be caught in a straitjacket of formal procedure.

I think the EEC was referred to. It is not necessarily a matter of EEC harmonisation. We are taking part in Council of Europe discussions about refugee conventions and in separate and continuing United Nations discussions. Harmonisation of actual procedures between the Nine would be very difficult, and one has to face the fact that the practice varies considerably.

I think the only other thing which I have to deal with is the special category. The United Nations' representative particularly praised the position of people accepted as refugees, both Convention and de facto. This is because anyone once admitted on a permanent basis is treated as though he were native born. The issue of identity cards for refugees might be regarded as offensive and I think many people would take that view. But we are considering the issue of a document saying that we recognise a person as a Convention refugee. I do not think I can take it any further than that, except to say that the Government welcome the comments and observations that have been made which will obviously be useful in view of the discussions which have only recently started through the office and with the representative in the United Kingdom.