HL Deb 07 November 1978 vol 396 cc169-75

2.43 p.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 whether when the Prime Minister met President Kaunda he made representations concerning the 100,000 African children and young people who, according to reports in The Times of 16th October, have been abducted from Rhodesia and half of whom are currently in camps run by Mr. Nkomo and Mr. Mugabe in Zambia.


My Lords, this subject was not raised when the Prime Minister met President Kaunda at Kano. However, as I informed the House on 31st July, we are using our influence with the Botswana Government and the international agencies to try to ensure that those children who wish to do so may return home and that those who stay are properly looked after.


My Lords, is not that a little bit of a complacent reply? Is not the noble Lord aware that when these children are taken over the border they have their names changed so that it is extremely difficult for parents or for international bodies in Zambia, Mozambique, and other surrounding countries to trace them? This has now been going on for almost a year. The National Council of Women for Rhodesia, representing both white and black parents, wrote personally in the middle of the summer to Mr. Callaghan, and is this not a matter that now needs more urgent attention not only to try to restore these children to their anguished parents but to stop continuation of this practice—a practice which is common to Communism wherever that wretched creed endures?


My Lords, I fully agree that this is an urgent matter, and I entirely agree with the noble Lord when he refers to the anguish of parents. We have to bear in mind, of course, that apart from abductions as such—and undoubtedly there have been abductions—there have been voluntary movements, either for reasons of ideology or because of the conditions created in their home areas by the fact of war. Our best efforts are bent towards securing the return of those children and young people who wish to return, and also towards subvention through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' office and the International Red Cross in order to ensure that at least the basic needs of the children who do not wish to return are provided for. Our representatives in the countries neighbouring Rhodesia continue to maintain close contact with both the International Red Cross and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I give the noble Lord and the House generally the assurance that this matter is not one that Her Majesty's Government are in the least allowing to go by default.

Baroness ELLES

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord for the full reply that he has given on this matter, which I think is a non-Party matter. It is of very serious concern to the families affected by this problem. I wonder whether the Minister could go a little further and say not only whether the matter was raised at Kano with President Kaunda, but also whether it has been raised at any time with him during the discussions on various matters which Her Majesty's Government have obviously had over the last few months. Has the matter also been raised with Mr. Nkomo himself?—because obviously these are two personalities who are intimately involved in this matter one way or another.


My Lords, as to the exchanges at Kano, I am bound to say to the noble Baroness, and to the noble Lord who has raised this question more than once for the right motives, that we were asked to meet President Kaunda, and we responded to that rather urgent invitation to discuss in particular the two questions of economic and military assistance. We responded and I reported to the House pretty fully last week. I have no doubt that President Kaunda is well aware of our feelings about this particular matter. In addition, our representative in Lusaka is in touch not only with the Government of Zambia but also with the forces led by Mr. Nkomo, particularly in regard to the necessary registration of these children so that the parents will know where they are and can communicate even with those who are not ready to return of their own volition. I myself am quite satisfied that every possible diplomatic and other means has been, and is being, taken to do everything that is within our power. This has been done through the agencies and through our diplomatic representation not only in Lusaka but also in neighbouring countries, including Mozambique and Botswana, to ensure that everything possible is done for these children.

I fully share the views expressed by the noble Baroness and the noble Lord about this sickening technique of abducting children from their parents. Of course, in some cases they move voluntarily. To some extent, we are familiar with this kind of thing in our own country, but there are a large number of children and young people who have been actually abducted. I should be failing in my duty if I did not join with the noble Baroness and the noble Lord in expressing deep concern, to say no more, about this practice. We are bending all our efforts to retrieve the position on the lines I have described.


My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, although there have undoubtedly been many abductions, which we all deplore, the reports as to the proportion between abductions and voluntary departures from the country of Rhodesia are very contradictory? Does he agree that, according to the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees, some of the children and women in the camps at Mkushi and Chikumbi, neither of which are guerrilla camps, have lost their lives as a result of the recent raids on Zambia by the illegal régime?


My Lords, it may well be that lives have been lost as a result of action on either side in the present armed conflict. On the first two points that my noble friend mentioned, whatever the proportion as between forcible abduction and voluntary movement, any abduction of children and young persons is to be profoundly deplored. As to the organisation of camps for the rehabilitation of these young persons, it is undoubtedly true that, as in the case which my noble friend has in mind, some useful work has been done. We have made a practical contribution, financially and otherwise, towards the programmes of such centres. In that respect, we must, on the one hand, act with humanity to help these unfortunate children and young persons and their parents as far as we can. On the other hand, we must see that whatever subvention we make available to whatever recipient is used prescriptively, as we have been assured, for education, welfare and other analogous purposes.


My Lords, does the Minister remember that some while back there occurred an abduction of Greek children by the Bulgarian Government and that there was a world outcry about it? Is he aware that the matter should be more fully advertised than it is within the media and the BBC and not dealt with just through diplomatic channels and the United Nations?


My Lords, the noble Baroness invites me to span two continents within the ambit of Question Time; none of us, I think, is sufficiently agile to be able to follow the footwork of my noble friend. However, I agree with the intention of her supplementary question. We profoundly deplore this kind of action wherever it occurs. The Question was addressed to the situation in Rhodesia and Botswana more than in any other country, but wherever this happens—and I repeat the phrase that I used—it is a sickening technique and one that all Parties in this House and in this country would profoundly deplore. We all want to do everything we can to retrieve the situation.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that, in the letter from the National Council of Women of Rhodesia dated 8th July, they state: We have proof too that, immediately on crossing a border, the names of these children are changed, so that it is impossible for them to be traced, and neither the International Red Cross nor any other agency has been able to establish any communication between parents and children? It is that technique which makes it so difficult for the international bodies to which the noble Lord referred to register—that was the term he used—children whose names have been changed. Will he therefore follow the matter up with every conceivable pressure and every bit of publicity which can expose this dreadful and anguishing state of affairs?


We are already doing that, my Lords. As I said, our representative in Lusaka is in touch with Mr. Nkomo's organisation with precisely that end in view. I am not unaware of the difficulties of which the noble Lord has properly reminded us. However, we see the possibility of a proper register being prepared. We are pressing for it through our diplomatic representative and I would hope that Mr. Nkomo would respond and that his officers would co-operate with other authorities in preparing such a register, bearing in mind the best interests of these children and indeed of their parents, many of whom have no idea where their children are.


My Lords, would the Minister agree that, in considering the fate of children, the decision as to whether to cross into another country or to return from it is not really one that should be left to the children themselves but, rather, the wishes of the parents should be paramount?


My Lords, I am afraid that there is an appreciable amount of intimidation involved here to staffs of schools and via staffs of schools, so it is very difficultindeed, as my noble friend Lord Hatch reminded us, to decide what are the proportions of those who have been suborned, persuaded into movement, and those who have been downright abducted. We are trying to find out. It is not easy, but the matter about which my noble friend has just reminded me is very much in the mind of Her Majesty's Government.

The Earl of ONSLOW

My Lords, may I ask the Minister to answer this question: If the principle is accepted that any settlement in Rhodesia must be acceptable to the people of Rhodesia as a whole, how is that to be implemented if certain parties to the civil war and the bloodbath which is now going on in Rhodesia are prepared to sink to the level of abducting 100,000 children?


My Lords, the noble Earl is far too good an historian not to realise that the lessons of history indicate that even those whom he and I and others might from time to time regard as having sunk to certain levels become necessary and even useful in later stages for a proper solution. It would be a grave mistake to shut out in the present or the future consultation with anybody and everybody, whatever we regard as being their particular past and their particular record.