HL Deb 14 February 1979 vol 398 cc1352-87

7.52 p.m.

Lord ELTON rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will take note of the tragic predicament of over 200,000 refugees from Indo-China still in search of permanent refuge, of the causes of this pathetic and still continuing exodus and of the implications which these have for British foreign policy. The noble Lord said: My Lords, my Question concerns the refugees from Indo-China. Fourteen months ago I asked your Lordships to consider the same matter. The situation then was tragic and now it is worse, and worse by a great deal. In South East Asia there are at present about 205,000 refugees from Indo-China alone, of whom incidentally over 100,000 are children. It is as though the entire population of Hounslow, or the whole population of Aberdeen and a tenth of the population of Dundee had been stripped of every possession and scattered along the coastline of Europe from Denmark to Portugal. Two hundred and five thousand is a very large number, but it does not include the 13,000 refugees in the tiny colony of Hong Kong. It does not include the 150,000 who fled from Cambodia into Vietnam before that country invaded their homeland. Of course, the terms of my Question exclude the huge numbers who fled from Burmah into Bangladesh.

In sizing up the scale of this tragedy, we must remember that the figures I have given are for the numbers of people who have succeeded in escaping from Indo-China since 1975 and who have as yet failed to find a permanent home. I have left out two other groups: first, those who have already been taken in by third countries. It does not include 130,000 taken in by the United States immediately after their retreat from Indo-China; nor the 142, 314, I think, who escaped later and who, by last December, had found permanent places of refuge.

If we add up all the people who have succeeded in getting out of Indo-China since 1975, we get a figure of roughly 490,000; that is more than the population of the cities of Edinburgh, Bradford or Bristol. If we add to those the number who have actually made it to Indonesia, Japan, Macau, the Philippines and even, incredibly, to Australia as their first call, as well as the 16 other countries their own small boats have taken them to, the total rises to over half a million—503,000. That is more than the population of the City of Manchester, and is a very formidable vote indeed by the people living in the lands now occupied by the Vietnamese or controlled by their politicians against the régime under which they have had to live.

Yet even that is not the whole story. I have not counted—and no one ever will count—how many thousands have perished in little boats unfit for sea and swamped by the monsoons; how many have been deliberately drowned—and I regret that that happens because I have eyewitness accounts of it—by robbers posing as friends until they overturn their boats in midstream of the River Mekong; how many have died at the bestial hands of pirates in the Gulf of Siam; and how many were shot down by patrols of the Khmer Rouge army or blown to pieces in the minefields and boobytraps with which they scattered their path to freedom. They would fill the cemeteries of Leeds over and over again.

But today we must concern ourselves with the living. The number of refugees in temporary camps is now greater than it was when I visited them in 1970 and told your Lordships of what I found. In Thailand alone there are over 140,000. I wonder whether that figure seems real, or is it merely a vague idea? I can tell your Lordships how to make it real. I shall tell you how to grasp the threat and the burden that this is for Thailand. Imagine such numbers arriving here. Imagine over 200,000 refugees pouring into this country in the space of under four years, and only 60,000 of them getting moved on. The outcry that it would cause is unimaginable.

However, the population of Thailand is smaller than ours and it is infinitely poorer. About 12 million of them have an average income of less than £50 per year, yet they bear more than half the cost of maintaining this crowd of refugees—some £4.5 million in the period 1st March to 31st December last year alone. In some ways the Thai people shame us with their generosity. By the end of last year over 70,000 boat people had landed in Malaysia. Despite a successful resettlement programme abroad, over 49,500 were still in camps, and still they came.

The Malays are a kindly people. Despite having an often unreferred to 90,000 refugees from elsewhere temporarily, they were foremost in taking in, educating and settling, the Moslems among those who first escaped Thailand by land. They actually went out and collected 1,400 of them, but they now have 60,000 refugees of their own. Their coastline is saturated and their despairing villagers pelt the pathetic arrivals with ineffectual showers of stones as they wade through the surf.

I should like to quote Tan Sri Ghazali bin Shafie, the Home Affairs Minister of the Government of Malaysia recently in Geneva. He said: As you may know Malaysia today is busily engaged in a programme of social engineering aimed at the twin objectives of the eradication of poverty and the restructuring of society. It is difficult enough already as it is, when with the world economic situation we have to sell cheaper and buy dearer than before, when we have to struggle with the problem of unemployment, when we have to uplift the living standard of our people whose expectations are high, when we have to maintain law and order, when we have to preserve our security and stability, when we have to integrate the various communities into a single Malaysian nation"—

and he did not say, of course, that the population of Malysia is part-Malay and part-Chinese— with a common and shared valuation system out of diverse cultures and creeds, these…by themselves are challenges of immense magnitude if they are to be actualised within the time frame of one generation which we promised ourselves. If the problem of the boat people is added to this then our vision of a united, democratic and a just society that will be Malaysia will become an impossible dream".

Next door, in Singapore, the problem is minimised by strict regulation. There is an arbitrary ceiling of 1,000 refugees in camp at any one time, and the thousand and first has his boat repaired and is asked to move on. I shall not comment further on that because I am not familiar with the situation—I did not see it.

We then come to another small State, Hong Kong, about which the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, will be speaking later. I will tell your Lordships by way of preamble that 6,460 refugees had arrived before the "Huey Fong" and the "Tung An" had dropped anchor. There were 8,000 awaiting settlement when "Skyluck" arrived with perhaps 3,000 on board. We do not yet know. There were over 5,000 arrivals in 1978, and there have been as many again this year. If you know Hong Kong you will realise that 13,000 unheralded arrivals in addition to the normal influx is a serious matter. The city is already as full of people as a hive of bees, and into that hive moves a continuous stream. Hong Kong had absorbed 100,000 arrivals from mainland China last year alone. That flood alone places a huge strain on the education, health, housing, and other social services of the Colony. Many other communities would regard that alone as an intolerable situation, but they bear it without complaint. To add a new source of immigration, and one with no very obvious limit, causes alarm even among that stoic people. They have done well to accept it. They are right to look for assistance.

In a forceful leader last Friday the South China Morning Post expressed a point of view which may come as a surprise to many in this country. The writer is referring to a belief that we here expect that, thanks to British representations, the Vietnamese may limit the exodus from their country to 1,000 a month. I dare say that the noble Lord will have something to say about this when he replies. I quote: while officially the Hanoi Government may invent some purchasable exit permit for such a number, the unofficial exodus is likely to continue indefinitely, as it has done with China. For in neither country are officials capable of controlling the exodus. Nor do they show much interest in doing so".

I think this is what your Lordships need to take on board: As for the woeful record of overseas countries in receiving refugees from Vietnam for resettlement, it must be strongly doubted that the Skyluck's arrival or indeed that of any other vessel, will make any appreciable difference. For there is no reason to doubt that Hong Kong's benevolent attitude will be as cynically exploited by the prosperous Western (and Asian) countries who could relieve us of a large part of this problem as by those who have saddled us and other parts of Southeast Asia with it".

I shall return to this view and what I think our reply should be at the end of my speech.

If, my Lords, that is still a little distant pray be patient. It is a very heavy tale I must tell, and I cannot hurry with it. Let us look at the origins of this astonishing phenomenon. What possible reason can there be for half a million people to flee from one pleasant, beautiful, and fertile corner of the world? Why should 100,000 families abandon their homes and the whole of their property and fling themselves on the mercy of total strangers? In Cambodia we saw a kind of madness in which one part of the nation gained the upper hand and was caught up in killing the other, and freely admitting to one million corpses as the price their fellow countrymen had to pay for not sharing their political views. A grim total, amounting to one in every six people who had survived the war in that country. In Vietnam I believe the disease to be the same, but it takes a colder and more calculating form and I think it takes longer to work itself out.

Last Saturday I visited some refugees who arrived three weeks ago from Vietnam. They were boat people. One of the minority of this vast tide who are boat people. Let me tell your Lordships a typical story. A tailor and his wife had eight children and a shop in Saigon. When Saigon fell and the Communists took power the police came and they boarded up the shop and removed the stock, and the next day they put the family, the tailor and his wife and his eight children, on a lorry and they drove 96 miles into the forest. When they let the tailboard down they said, "This is a new economic zone". It looked like any other part of the forest. They were given spades, and they were told to get on with it. They had to build themselves shelters out of bamboos and leaves. They had to clear the forest, and they had to grow their own food. They had been allowed to take some luggage with them, and therefore they had some wealth. With this they had to purchase their food to sustain them until the crop came to maturity and could be gathered.

It was at the point as she remembered the next thing that the mother of the children began to weep as she told the story. It was 21 kilometres on foot to the nearest place they could buy food, and they had to till the ground as well. Eventually, and it was something of a triumph—even for a farmer it would have been a triumph—the crop matured and they gathered it. For this they were thankful. Then they did the arithmetic and saw that it was not enough to sustain them until the next crop, and the money would not hold out. At that point they began to look for a way out; they found others and they went to the coast and bought a boat. One hundred and twenty of them bought a boat, some 12 ft. longer and 4 ft. wider than a boat on which I took six children on a rather crowded trip down the Avon River two years ago in the summer. One hundred and twenty of them boarded that vessel in the dark giving the equivalent of £100 per head bribe to the coastguards to let them go, and they went off into the night in confusion and haste. The full horror dawned on this poor woman as the dawn rose and she realised that her husband was not on the boat. She is now in a hostel in this country in a state of understandable shock.

What had happened to that family? The truth of the matter is that the Communist Government of Vietnam had turned it out deliberately into the wilderness to starve. Why? They had committed the two sins of having been capitalists in a very small way in a Communist country and, please note, of being Chinese in the country of Vietnam. There is in that country a desperate shortage of food and a grave economic crisis, and of course it is convenient to a Government to reduce the population and to focus discontent on a readily defined sector of the population. The business sector is easily identified as it is primarily Chinese in origin.

This therefore is in fact a racist decision. Whether somebody had read Mein Kampf I do not know, but the Communist answer is extraordinarily like an answer we saw put into effect in Europe in the 1930s. These people are being sent out of the country, and it is now I believe almost certain that the going rate for a safe conduct on to a ship as opposed to a boat is somewhere around 2,000 dollars US currency, or the equivalent. That is the product of the Communist philosophy in that corner of the world, and by its fruits shall we know it.

Let us not forget the role that Vietnam has in the balance of power in the area. Let us not forget the similarities there are between that and the role of Cuba in Africa. It is a grave and dangerous precedent, the African precedent. If it is followed to the letter and without hindrance it will go badly indeed with the Free World. It will open the door to tyranny so wide that we shall feel the draught in Europe. We must not think—to return to the refugees—that once a refugee reaches a camp his problem is solved. A camp is a temporary structure with inadequate amenities, dangerous to health, and corrosive to morale. Above all, it is a place one wants to get out of. The burden of refugees on most countries of first asylum is intolerable. The problem therefore is to settle them somewhere else. We have seen that since 1975 142,000 have been settled. Different countries have different standards of admission. I would refer you to the Press releases from Geneva rather than detain you with the differences, because it is taking too long, except to say that I notice that the Swiss, to their eternal credit, accept as a priority those with least claim to go anywhere else.

Those who are left behind are very often the least skilled and the least acceptable to other countries. Therefore, the present unwilling host countries rightly fear that they will be left with the unfit and unadaptable, and they urge a pool system whereby countries will state their quotas in advance and take whoever is next in the queue regardless of qualifications. There must obviously be limitations. There must be modifications to that as to at least language and relatives already settled, but preferences should be minimal. I was glad to see that this was favoured at Geneva. It will not in any way alter our policy. I understand that we have already accepted disadvantaged people.

In the camps there is a crisis of morale and it gives a great sense of security and purpose to a refugee if he is able to embark on the process of qualifying himself in some way to be a more acceptable person in a new country. In last week's debate on children, the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, made it clear that in these circumstances self-help is best for self-respect and security. In one case it is done by the refugees themselves; they become more effective as these volunteers gain experience. However, this puts an extraordinary strain on their loyalty to their fellow-sufferers, for if they have spent a year or more in training their fellows to qualify and they see their fellows going and they themselves have an opportunity to go to another country, obviously to give up that opportunity is asking a great deal of their charity and courage.

I have in mind two outstanding men, both of whom I have met, at present at work in Thailand; Mr. Tith Sarun and Mr. Hay Peng Sy. They both come from Cambodia and it seems to me that, where there are people of their calibre willing to do this work, means should be found of guaranteeing them entry to this country and residence here without their having to come to the United Kingdom to claim it. They can then continue work of very great value secure in the knowledge that their own eventual settlement is guaranteed, and I hope Her Majesty's Government can arrange for this to be done. It would give a real help at no cost whatever to ourselves.

The work of the voluntary agencies in the field is very valuable indeed and too varied for me to list tonight. I pause only to applaud the decision of Her Majesty's Government to support with their own funds on a pound-for-pound basis the work of those agencies where it is approved in the field. But there is an aspect of the problem that is beyond the voluntary agencies and which may be beyond ourselves on our own. I have already spoken of the acute poverty of some of the Thai people. Your Lordships can see that, where there are, I think, 11 million people living on the equivalent of less than £50 a year on one side of the camp wire toiling every day that God sends to produce a square meal most days of most weeks for their families, for them to see other people on the other side of the wire getting a handout which keeps them in health without doing a hand's turn is a politically and socially dangerous situation. In my view, that situation should be changed.

I note that our financial aid to Thailand in 1977—the last year for which we have figures—was £741,000, not a large figure, and it was devoted to replanting rubber trees. I would like to see a feasibility study of a plan to open out new areas for the cultivation of food crops; to connect them to existing areas by road and to market centres as well; to make additional allocations of land to the existing population as well as new allocations on a smaller scale to such refugees as may become semi-permanent members of that community, but that number should be kept to the absolute minimum.

Assistance with the provision of water and irrigation and the introduction of a basic medical service would enable a more prosperous community to grow up exactly where, in political terms, it is most needed; that is, where there exists both extreme poverty and a neighbouring Communist State bent on subversion. In this respect our overseas development policy seems to me to be the most effective arm of our foreign policy and the one that can be most positively strengthened by co-operation with our partners in Europe.

Let us beware of the alternative and popular method of development. Have we not just seen in Persia, in the most dramatic way, what happens when a rural and agricultural population is transferred by artificial pressures into an urban and industrial way of life? Is that not the strongest possible evidence that agricultural rather than industrial development should be the prime target of our aid? The world needs food urgently. What the peasant population needs most urgently is enough land to occupy their labour and a decent harvest year by year. Roads and water will supply both needs at once when the soil is located; the problem then is to see that any sizeable increase in the yield of the crops does not bring about a sizeable fall in the prices at which it is sold, in which case they will be running faster and faster to stay in the same place.

Here we touch on the whole question of single commodity agreements versus a common fund. In view of the fact that the whole of the Third World unanimously wants a common fund, I think we should satisfy ourselves as to its management and application again, and then seriously reconsider whether we cannot agree to do it in some form or another. As to the increase in productive capacity in rural employment, I do not think we have sufficiently considered the link between agricultural advance, rural stability and earning power in the ASEAN group and our own industrial and commercial interests.

There are, I believe, 250 million people in ASEAN. Their incomes are rising by, I think, over 4 per cent. GNP per annum. This is a huge market and one which we and Europe cannot afford to neglect. Thailand is threatened and, if we do not look out, that threat will threaten the whole of ASEAN. I do not want to prolong or broaden the debate; we have had a long day already, but I cannot resist pointing out one point in that context. I understand from the Press that we have recently lost an outlet for a good deal of our armaments manufacture. If the Thais make a reasonable proposition to us, I would remind the Government that a man carrying a sword is less likely to be attacked than a man carrying a stick, and I do not think we should be unreasonable in replying to any request they make.

This is an urgent matter; the economic matter is urgent, too. I will truncate what I have to say further but not to the exclusion of a plea that we may now consider again the numbers of refugees who may come into this country. One of the voluntary agencies at least have said off the record that they think they could place 5,000 themselves if they had the financial resources to do it, to support their reception centres. I would remind your Lordships that when the first publicity came to us about the boat people and their crisis, one of the first offers of housing came from Birmingham. If anything was calculated to scotch the fear that there may be a racial problem here, that was it. A policy which settles small groups large enough to give them security together, small enough to avoid a ghetto mentality, seems to be the least we can do.

There is another aspect of this to which I think the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, may refer. But, in case he does not, I would refer to the suggestion now widely applauded in the Far East that, since the pressure on the countries of first asylum is becoming intolerable and dangerous and there is no prospect of catching up with the backlog of refugees for a number of years, the United Nations or an agency acting for it should obtain an island of its own and that the present refugee camps could become staging posts to that camp.

That has obvious dangers. If the journey out is made too comfortable and attractive, the problem is enormously increased. Your Lordships may not quite have grasped the implications of what I said about the ethnic factor in Vietnam. There are between 1½ million and 2½ million Chinese in Vietnam and they are now poised, like the tidal wave which broke over Portland yesterday, over the tiny economies of Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. There is a real chance that this may come and we must use diplomatic pressures to resist that, and they must balance the attractions of the island to which I referred. However, whereas a week ago I was against the idea, I now believe the alternative may be worse.

Noble Lords have been very patient and have listened to a long and sad story. There is so much sorrow in the world, let us do a little to reduce it. Our foreign policy in South-East Asia should be founded on economic good sense and informed by compassion. That means that we must recognise and favour the growing economic ties between Europe and ASEAN. We must contribute to raising the standard of living of ASEAN's poorest people, and to some of the destitute and dispossessed we must offer our friendship and a home at the time of the greatest crisis of their lives.

8.20 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of ROCHESTER

My Lords, I know that it would be the wish of many noble Lords that I should begin my speech by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for having raised this urgent and tragic subject in your Lordships' House tonight. We are extremely grateful to him for his very well-informed and deeply moving speech, as we were for his contribution to the debate last week on the International Year of the Child. Few of us can rival his knowledge or his recent experience of visiting the countries concerned, but none of us can fail to be moved by the desperate situation which he has described to us so vividly tonight. As the noble Lord has made clear, the magnitude of the problem is now such that it is quite beyond the best efforts of the voluntary agencies to deal with it unaided, but it is about their contribution that I shall speak briefly.

In the last 40 years refugee service has been a major commitment of all branches of the Christian Church, not least of those Churches associated together in the World Council of Churches, which in turn work very closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Regufees, as does the Roman Catholic relief organisation. In this country Christian Aid, which is the Churches' own agency for relief work, has recently made an emergency grant to support the Malaysian Red Crescent's work among Vietnamese refugees in that country. This grant, made in response to an appeal by the League of Red Cross Societies, will, it is hoped, assist the recruitment of technical personnel for the medical and general welfare programme.

It will also help to finance a tracing programme in Malaysia set up by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is aimed at reuniting families who have become separated in the course of leaving Vietnam and arriving on the East Coast of Malaysia. This may seem a very small thing to set against the whole horrific situation, but it is by such personal ministry to individuals, deprived not only of their home but of their family ties as well, that some small measure of self-confidence can be restored to desperately unhappy people.

In Thailand the Church of Christ in Thailand, a presbyterian body, has been grappling for several years with a steadily escalating refugee problem. It has received help through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, especially in the supply of food for seriously under- nourished people. But it remains the task of the voluntary agencies to organise and to pay for a substantial proportion of other commodities, such as clothing, tent mats, blankets, and medical facilities. Refugee service, undertaken in the name of the Christian churches, also aims at providing elementary education for children, as well as some rudimentary vocational training for young people.

In Hong Kong the Christian Council, of which the Anglican Bishop is the chairman this year, has a long history of service to refugees. It is at the moment looking after more than 8,000 Indo-China refugees in transit camps at the same time as it is helping to care for the thousands of refugees who enter Hong Kong every year from China itself. Again, the services offered include training in languages and vocational skills to prepare refugees for resettlement elsewhere. On the occasion of the Chinese New Year at the end of January the Churches in Hong Kong gave family gift packets of fruit and sweets to Indo-Chinese refugees in the Kai Tak camp as a gesture of sharing in the joy of the New Year celebrations. That is a tiny symbolic act, but one which transcends all differences of nationality, language, and belief.

As I have said, the role of the voluntary agencies cannot but be a limited one now that the number of people involved has assumed such huge proportions. However, I am sure that your Lordships will agree that the maintenance of the kind of personal ministry, of pastoral care, and, where possible, of practical help to adjust to a new life should be the special responsibility of the voluntry agencies in the areas concerned, and that it is the duty of those in other parts of the world, however hard pressed they may feel themselves to be, to continue to assist this work, so much of which is done in their name.

But we must face the fact, my Lords, that the crying need is not for relief, but for resettlement, as the noble Lord has made so clear to us tonight. A letter just received from the Bishop of Hong Kong says: Our concern is that the nations which can should take concerted action as soon as possible so as to prevent a 'running sore' appearing in South East Asia". We all hope that Her Majesty's Government will continue to play their part in promoting such concerted action.

8.26 p.m.


My Lords, if I may echo the right reverend Prelate, I would say that I am sure that the entire House is grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for drawing our attention so powerfully, so comprehensively, and indeed so passionately, to this important and tragic problem, the full magnitude of which has been far too little appreciated in the West generally, and in this country in particular. The noble Lord's Question draws attention to the predicament of the 200,000 refugees and asks about the causes of the exodus and its implications for British foreign policy.

I shall take the causes first. I am sorely tempted to run through the history of the past 30 to 35 years in order to demonstrate how very wrong the "fun revolutionaries" were; how wrong the ill-informed students of Berkeley, of Nanterre, of the LSE, and of West Berlin (of all unlikely places) were to cast aspersions upon American motives. They were perfectly entitled to criticise American strategy and American tactics, as did many of us who, in broad terms, supported America. (What a tragedy it was that the Americans had nobody of the calibre of General Templar, with his sensitivity to local conditions.) But they were not right to criticise and impugn American motives, inspired as they were by the highest ideals of the Kennedy era.

However, your Lordships will hardly welcome a lengthy analysis at this late hour. Therefore, suffice to say that over a generation ago, when Ho Chi Minh came to power in the North, over 2 million Vietnamese—most of them Roman Catholics, but not entirely so—fled South. In contrast, virtually none fled in the other direction. Whatever one's assessment of the merits of both contending sides, the proof of the pudding is surely in the eating. To cut a long story short, I should say that the uneasy truce evolved into a war, initiated not by the Americans, but by the North Vietnamese Communist Party, as a Labour Member of Parliament then representing an Essex constituency, and now a junior Minister, made clear to the House of Commons at the time.

When Russian-built tanks rumbled into Saigon in April 1975 it was perfectly obvious to me (and to many others) that history was going to repeat itself, the only questions being: when would the exodus take place, and exactly what form would it take? Of course, there were a great many naive optimists in this country and elsewhere who thought that a new era of peace and concord was about to begin. To be fair, they were in good company. What was known as the Third Force in South Vietnam, mainly but not entirely Buddhist, who disliked the Thieu Government and the Communists equally, thought that they would be able to reach a modus vivendi with the conquerors. But, alas!, my Lords, Stalinists do not change their spots, and the members of the Third Force became sadly disillusioned people, and have joined the exodus in large numbers.

The predicament of these peoples, referred to in the first part of the noble Lord's Question, or of a small segment of them, was something I was able to see almost exactly two years ago, when my wife and I visited, on two occasions, the refugee camp in Songkhla, Southern Thailand, on the Eastern part of the isthmus, fairly near the Malaysian border. The camp consisted almost entirely of boat people who had made the perilous journey across the Gulf of Siam. I use the word "made" in both senses of the word, because many of them had made it, many of them had not. I have also used the description "refugee camp", but I think one really ought to call a spade a spade and refer to it as an internment camp, because that is in fact what it is. I suppose most refugee camps fall into this category, with the possible exception of those in the Near East.

I imply no criticism of the Thais at all in this matter. I agree entirely with what the noble Lord, Lord Elton, mentioned about the poverty of Thailand. I think it is all too easy to forget that the quadrupling of the oil price at the end of 1973 hit the poor countries of Asia, of Africa and of Latin America almost as badly as, if not worse than, it hit the industrialised West. In addition, the Thais have to cope, with not only the influx from Vietnam and from Cambodia, which is fairly recognisable and to some extent can be contained, but the influx from Laos. The people of Laos are ethnically and linguistically not very different from the peoples of North-Eastern Thailand, and in consequence they can slip across the border very easily without being spotted and merge into the population. The North-Eastern part of Thailand is an arid, infertile and consequently very poor part of that country, and therefore the problems of their entry are quite considerable.

My Lords, to revert to the internment camp or refugee camp (call it what you will) at Songkhla, at the time I arrived there were just over 1,000 people crammed into a space about three-quarters of the size of this Chamber. It was what was laughingly called the dry season. There never really is a dry season in that part of Thailand, the rubber-producing and tin-mining area, so it was only relatively dry. Accordingly, it was reasonably dry underfoot, but I hate to think what it would have been like in the really rainy season. The huts were constructed of corrugated iron, bamboo and woven reeds, and would have been quite inadequate to keep out a really heavy rainfall. It was good to see that the inhabitants were adequately fed—in quantity if not necessarily in quality—and were adequately clothed. The older people, the adults, had worn but clean clothing; the younger children were decked out in bright new T-shirts emblazoned with the sort of slogans that one sees in the Kings Road or in Kensington High Street. The UN, I think, had provided the food; and magnificent work was being done by a Scandinavian couple. I later heard that they were Swedish missionaries, and if indeed they were Swedish that certainly partly atones for the "radical chic" support of Sweden for the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese, and its disgraceful refusal to admit any of the victims of Communism within the last few years.

But the real problem, apart from the despair and the worry of the people about the safety of their relations—whether they had drowned or whether they were suffering in Vietnam in re-education camps, or whatever—was the question of space. It was not so bad for the babes in arms, of whom there were a few, or the older people, who possessed that valuable Buddhist stoicism, whether or not they were in fact Buddhists: many of them were in fact Roman Catholic. Many of the older people, some of whom spoke French or English, said to us, "It is worth undergoing any hardships because we are free; that is the important thing". The really poignant thing was seeing the plight of the children of school age and of the teenagers, who had no space whatsoever—healthy young people—in which to kick a football, to roll a hoop or even fly a kite, which is a popular pastime in that part of the world. It was really tragic to see young lives being wasted away like this month after month, year after year, with nowhere for them to expend their energies.

In addition, there was the problem of the locals gawking at the refugees. The locals were not totally hostile, but they were certainly not friendly, either. I am not sure that it was a question of envy, as the noble Lord, Lord Elton, implied was the case in the camp that he visited, because Songkhla is a fishing port and there is enough to eat; but ethnically and culturally the Southern Thais are very different from the Vietnamese. They are very much darker and their form of Buddhism is quite different from the Vietnamese form of Buddhism; and, as I said earlier, many of the Vietnamese are Roman Catholics, anyway. They would stand round the wire all day, gazing and pointing at the people inside, staring at them like monkeys in a zoo, and for a dignified people this must have been a most upsetting experience. I had of course read about refugee camps in various parts of the world, and had seen them on television, but until one actually visits one in person one cannot conceive of the atmosphere of despair that pervades them.

My Lords, what about the implications for our foreign policy?


My Lords, if the noble Lord would be kind enough to allow me to interrupt, I wanted to put a gloss on what he said about conditions at Songkhla, which I have not visited. I wish to do nothing to detract from the impression he has given, but it is the case that since I was in Aranya Prathet just over a year ago the Thai Government have undertaken the education of children inside the camps; and, in fact, the policy which was introduced on 2nd November 1977, of not allowing anybody outside the camp for any purpose, has been relaxed. I think we should not underestimate what the Thais are doing; and they do in fact pay for just over half the cost of every refugee every day, every year they are there.


My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord for that intervention. I am very glad to hear what he has said, which was, of course, complete news to me. While I was there the children were being educated by their own parents or relations, but, of course, I did not know about their being allowed out, which makes all the difference in the world. I was quite ignorant, too, I am afraid to say, of the fact that the Thais are paying half the cost of the food themselves, which is extremely commendable. The whole world owes a great debt of gratitude to Thailand for this, I think.

My Lords, what about the implications for our foreign policy? I think I should deal with our home policy first. Almost two years ago I asked whether this country would admit a few more Thai refugees, at least to match the Latin American refugees in number. I regret to say that I was met with almost deafening silence from all quarters. However, the position has now been relaxed, and to his great credit the Home Secretary has agreed to let in a considerable number (by our standards) of these people. Naturally, we are an overcrowded island; and it is vital, I think, not to make the mistake that Governments did in the 'fifties and' sixties of contemptuously ignoring public opinion, as they did over the mass New Commonwealth immigration. We must keep in step with public opinion, and I am sure the Home Secretary is playing his cards extremely well here. I think he is going along hand-in-hand with public opinion on this. I think that if the numbers are kept to reasonable proportions, there will be no difficulty in that respect. Apart from this, the admission of a few thousand of these people will set an example, I hope, to other countries which are less overcrowded than our own—and now, of course, we come into the realms of foreign policy. France is doing extremely well in this respect. It is true that they have long-standing connections with Indo-China; nonetheless, this does not detract from their admirable record: I think that some 50,000 or more refugees have settled in France.

What about our other EEC partners? Is it not possible that they could be doing more? Australia is doing well, I think, despite combined opposition from the Communists and the National Front in Australia. It is not the first time that the extreme Right and the extreme Left have joined together for nefarious purposes; but Australia is doing extremely well in relation to her population—as is the United States, for fairly obvious reasons. What about South America? Very few refugees have settled there, as far as I know; and one would hope there might possibly be an outlet there. Israel has accepted a few; there is possibly an element of public relations in this, but none the less the gesture is to be welcomed. It might be expected that Taiwan would accept a substantial number of the ethnic Chinese refugees. But if Taiwan is to be treated as an international outcast—and I touched on this yesterday—I fear that we can hardly expect co-operation from this quarter. However many countries step up their quotas, this could only scratch the surface of the problem. The vital thing is to stop this continuing exodus.

My Lords, the omens are not good. The Daily Telegraph, in a report by Denis Warner on 27th December last—a report quoting from a Communist Party newspaper—reported that there were plans to take over the property of seven million farmers in the Mekong Delta who would lose their homes and the title to their lands. Such people will either fight or flee. They will probably flee because the Mekong Delta is not good guerrilla territory. I believe that every form of financial and other pressure must be brought to bear on Vietnam to relax their relentless pressure on their own people—including the withholding of the merchant ships which are financed with taxpayers' money and which still are going to be delivered to Vietnam according to an announcement yesterday in the other place—because, given the most conservative estimate, one out of every two of the boat people drown or die of hunger, thirst or exposure, are attacked by pirates or eaten by sharks before they reach land; so that we are not just talking about people driven from their land of birth (which is bad enough) but about mass murder, in effect about genocide. We must subordinate all other considerations, and certainly commercial ones, to the necessity, in conjunction with all other friendly nations, of putting a stop to it.

8.42 p.m.

Baroness VICKERS

My Lords, I feel diffident in speaking in this debate for we have had such experts when I myself have not been there recently. The idea was that, having dealt with refugees both in Europe and Indonesia, perhaps it might be helpful if I were to give a little of my experience. I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Elton, on his most moving speech and on the great deal of trouble that he has taken in visiting these camps—when he has a very busy life in this country—and showing his compassion for these people.

We have a great many voluntary organisations in this country which are doing the best they can. There is the Standing Conference of British Organisations for Aid to Refugees. I should like to speak briefly on the question of Save the Children. They have been working there since 1976 and are still there. They are doing a valuable job with their medical work in connection with mother-and-child health. They already have five camps there. One camp has 38,000 people in it, mostly children. I thought that when I had to deal with a camp of 10,000 people in Indonesia that that was a great task, but the task there must be beyond anybody's abilities to do much. It must be very upsetting for them. However, they have medical teams and are training Thai doctors to help. There are quite a lot of expatriates working there. Unfortunately, the numbers are coming in even more quickly, I understand, at the present time. I have no breakdown by nationality of the inmates, but mostly they are from either Laos or Cambodia, although some are from Vietnam. In August 1978 there were 114,887 people in these camps. Now the figure has risen to over 140,000.

I should like to thank the Government, through the noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, for the grant that they make. I gather that the organisation, themselves, are spending about £75,000 per annum on the work, but the Government are also granting about £37,000. For this they are grateful. The problem of these camps is that more are coming in than are going out. This is a great problem for the Thai Government who are doing a magnificent job at the present time in helping where they can.

The Disasters Emergency Committee which met on 5th February last to discuss the problem sent a cable to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in which they expressed great concern in regard to this matter and asked for immediate action. I wonder what contact the Government have with the Governments concerned to see whether there is a possibility of allowing the British Red Cross or, better still, the International Red Cross, to go in to see what the conditions are. I understand (and I may not be right) that they cannot go in unless the Governments concerned invite them. I was very pleased that the Government of Indonesia invited me and the International Red Cross to visit the camps. With the permission of the Government we went round the various camps—and, of course, the people are in camps and are kept there. They were mostly Asians, but there was quite a number of Dutch, also.

The Government said, in effect: "If you can get them to sign an agreement that they will be faithful to our Government we will let them out gradually. If they will not sign, we will see that they will get out in an orderly way". Some 75,000 opted to leave. We did not bring them out too quickly; we wanted to plan the thing; and this was allowed. Is there any chance that, in talking to the Governments concerned, we might get some action taken on these lines. It would be beneficial to everybody. First, they would get rid of the people who were not keen to stay, and, secondly, they would be able to get supplies for those who do want to stay there and to look after them better in the future. I tried to persuade most of them to stay. I felt and still feel that for these people the climate in many countries to which they go now is not suitable for them and probably will not be beneficial to their health. Tuberculosis, we know, is rife in some of these countries. I should have thought that the thing to do would be to try to get some agreement—this may be quite impossible; I am merely putting the suggestion forward—with the Governments concerned.

There are a number of countries that we know of like Guyana which are very under-populated and which already have a mixed population. What approach has been made to some of these countries? I merely give that one as an example. Mr. Jones went there with all his "crew". They are under-populated and they need more people in their country. These refugees are hard-working and I am sure that they would fit in well. In Trinidad and Tobago—and I am not suggesting they take any—the Chinese, the Indians and the African stock all get on very well together. I should like to know from the Minister concerned whether anything has been thought of in this way.


My Lords, I do not think that these people would like to go from one Marxist frying pan into another Marxist fire.

Baroness VICKERS

My Lords, they will probably get on very well together. I do not think it is fair to say that Guyana is a Marxist country. They have quite a stable Government. The noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, may correct me if I am wrong, but I would not say that it is a Marxist country. Neither would I say Belize or these others were Marxist. After all, these people will be so grateful that I do not think they are going to start political trouble when they go to other countries. They will be grateful for their chance to earn their living and live, I hope, happily and peacefully, creating a new life for themselves. I do not think this is a political matter in any way and I am very sorry that the noble Lord raised that point.

There are other organisations, like the Ockenden Venture, who would be perfectly willing to set up children's homes in the countries concerned, if they could get permission. This is something else that I should like the noble Lord to think about. I am anxious that as many people as possible should settle in their own country; it is much the happiest way for them. Perhaps we could do something and have Government-to-Government talks if this is possible or, through the International Red Cross, find some way in which these people can live happily among their relations rather than in the dreadful conditions to which the noble Lord, Lord Elton, referred, with the tragic loss of lives particularly among the boat people when they are trying to escape. I am putting this forward as an idea. It works in Indonesia. People have said very rude things and unfortunate things about Indonesia, too. I do not know whether the noble Lord is interested in Indonesia; it also has been criticised. It works very well; things have settled down happily. I hope this point may be given consideration.

8.52 p.m.


My Lords, I feel that we are all very grateful indeed to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for having initiated this debate, one which is long overdue. In my view, it is far more important than the debate which preceded it. We are discussing this evening not merely a matter of deprivation but the sheer saving of human lives, and very valuable human lives at that. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, speaks from a direct involvement with this terrible problem, having seen at first hand the sufferings of the refugees. I can only speak from my personal impressions of having visited South Vietnam on three occasions prior to its fall into the hands of the Viet Cong.

The tragedy that has followed in the wake of this so-called "liberation" is painfully known to all of us: the battered old hulks, laden with their grizzly cargoes of desperate refugees, seeking asylum anywhere on dry land so long as it is not in Vietnam. It is a bitter tribute to the agonies that these people have had to endure. What is not known to us and may never be known, as the noble Lord, Lord Elton, pointed out, is the number of the countless thousands of refugees who have been drowned in the desperate efforts to escape from their former homeland, now converted into a living hell, or the fate of even more countless thousands uprooted from their urban homes and dumped into bare, rural areas without adequate subsistence and little hope of survival. It is a degree of rural deprivation and sheer inhumanity that is almost beyond the power of words to describe.

I remember very vividly seeing a propaganda film by the Viet Cong shown in Vienna two years ago when they showed with a sense of triumph and achievement lorries rounding the streets of Saigon with people being forced into them: the old, the young, the crippled and the maimed. They were dumped in open bare land, given spades in their hands and expected to survive. The same film showed a classroom in a primary school where the desks were occupied by former Vietnam staff generals being indoctrinated in the ideals of communism: another so called triumph for this liberation of the land by the Viet Cong.

Perhaps it is not widely known—and it ought to be more widely known—that Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, was formerly a city of more than 2 million inhabitants, one of the finest, most beautiful cities in the Far East, even after the ravages of more than 20 years of war had left their scars. The most industrious part of this vast city of 2 million inhabitants was its Chinese quarter. These Chinese were not communists, rather the reverse. They were mostly small traders or honest labourers wishing only to be left with their families to run their small businesses or pursue their occupations in peace. South Vietnam in those days, despite the war, was a beautiful, fertile country, one of the great rice growing areas of the world.

The Vietnamese had a great culture of their own, with an art and literature dating back for centuries, a culture of which any country might be proud. Now millions of inhabitants long to escape, seeking a refuge anywhere beyond its shores. Here I must pay tribute to what has been done in this country to give refuge to these unfortunate people. But in admitting something like 3,000 of these refugees—double the number that we have accepted only recently—I feel that we have not done nearly enough. Will my noble friend, when he comes to reply, inform the House how many refugees from Indo-China have been received by France? I recall vividly stopping at Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris when planeloads of these refugees had already arrived: the look of relief on their faces, some of them having had to wait between 12 and 14 hours until the voluntary services came to take them away to reception centres, the women and children huddled together but with a happy expression on their faces at having left Vietnam.

How many of these refugees from Indo-China have been received by Australia, and even by Hong Kong with its total population of only 4 million people crowded into a tiny, over-populated area? Of course, I cannot expect my noble friend to give us all these figures right now off the cuff; but perhaps later it may be of interest to others than myself to know what figures of refugees from Indo-China have been received into other countries. Why I am so desperately anxious for far more refugees from Indo-China being admitted into this country is not only on urgent, humanitarian grounds, but because they are a most diligent, honest, hard working people who will more than repay any helping hand that we can hold out to them.

I have often wondered why so many people from the Philippines are employed in this country on domestic work, especially in our hard-pressed hospitals. Their plight is not so urgent or so desperate as that of the Vietnamese. They are refugees from poverty, not from physical or political persecution. Surely we have our priorities of compassion a little out of context. Can my noble friend quote the number of Philippine nationals who have been granted permits to work in this country? How many are in the hotel and catering trades, in domestic work or working as hospital ancillaries? On every hand we see advertisements for Filipino staff seeking domestic work in this country. There are even employment agencies catering specifically for Filipino immigrants. Their work varies a great deal in efficiency, and many have proved to be indifferent workers, who may have found it difficult to adjust themselves to working conditions in this country.

The situation is totally different with the refugees from Indo-China. They are desperate to find work in this country, as in any other country. They will prove themselves a steady, hard-working labour force, especially if recruited to work in our hospitals, where I am sure they would never go on strike. Can we not admit into our population of over 50 million at least 10,000 of these unfortunate people? It would be a bold, merciful, humanitarian gesture, even if it only touched the tip of the iceberg. Especially, it would be a gesture on the part of our Labour Government, and one which would pay handsome dividends. It would be a gesture that I am sure we would never regret. On the contrary, they would return our confidence by loyal, diligent and hardworking service and they would prove a great asset to our community.

Therefore, I would appeal to my noble friend, whose heart is as warm as his head is cool—and no greater tribute could possibly be paid to him—to respond whole heartedly to the pleas we are making to him today from all sides of the House. If we cannot admit these refugees from Indo-China into six figures, which is rather too much to expect perhaps, can we not hold out a helping hand to numbers of them running at least into five figures?

9.3 p.m.


My Lords, I had not originally intended to speak in this extremely important and topical debate, not because of any lack of interest in the subject but rather because of a fear, which others have been kind enough to tell me is illfounded, that in instancing the position of Hong Kong in this context I was in danger of over-exposure on one particular subject. On the other hand, as previously advised, I have lived in Hong Kong and in relative terms, therefore, I have a certain firsthand knowledge of Hong Kong and its problems, not the least of which is its constant one of attempting to get not so much a quart, but rather a gallon, of population into a pint pot. Then this morning I was given the final push over the brink of participation on receiving information that the noble Lord, Lord Rhodes, was not able to speak today, being snowed up in the depths of Lancashire. In no way would, or could, I presume to substitute for the noble Lord, but I did speak with him this morning and he has asked me to say how disappointed he is that he cannot be here today and is therefore unable to illustrate, inter alia, Hong Kong's position in the context of this very important debate, on which I, too, would like to add my thanks and congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for bringing it to our attention.

A comment that was made in another place on 15th December last, compared the density of population of Earls Court to that of Hong Kong, as being in the ratio of 7 to 1. I am aware that the honourable Member concerned has been advised that, comparing like with like, his statistics were perhaps miseading. My purpose in raising this point is not at all to draw attention to that honourable Member's slip of the tongue, put rather to advise your Lordships that he ratio should have been not 7 to 1 but at least 1 to 8: in other words, Hong Kong has substantial areas where the population is over 800 to the acre, and in many parts of the older urban areas the density is as high as 2,000 to the acre. Hong Kong, as has been said by other noble Lords, is close to bursting at the seams and certainly, in this context, the United Kingdom Parliament in its broadest sense has, at the very least, a moral obligation to mitigate any exaggeration of that problem.

The problem of refugees is far from new. Even Moses had his problems with Pharaoh, but at least he had somewhere to go and he had control, directly or indirectly, of marine energy to help him get there! Today's refugees have no less need of both, but I suggest that the world has got complacent, perhaps to an extent through over-exposure of the always pitiful trails of people carrying all that they have, or all that they can, across the face of our television screens. The problem of refugees is surely now an international one, and if this debate achieves nothing else it will continue to bring that problem to people's attention.

Today, the Indo-Chinese refugees are a focus of attention, and here I would mention two particular facets. The first is the question of numbers. Just under a year ago, twin moves—the one physical and the other financial—by the Vietnamese authorities started an exodus wave, particularly of ethnic Chinese, from that country. In the period April 1978 to January 1979, it is very roughly estimated that at least 400,000 ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese have fled from Vietnam. Noble Lords will, I am sure, appreciate the difficulties of obtaining accurate statistics, but to reinforce the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, the breakdown of that 400,000 is perhaps 150,000 to China; 140,000 to Thailand; 60,000 to Malaysia; 20,000 to Hong Kong; and in excess of 30,000 to the other South-East Asian countries. Four hundred thousand is already a very large number but, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Elton, said, it is but the tip of a vast iceberg.

In an article in the Far Eastern Economic Review of 22nd December last year, it was reported that: Few of the Chinese who have fled so far come with more than one or two members of their immediate families, and almost all who were interviewed indicated that they expected their family members still in Vietnam to try to join them". As we have heard, it is estimated that there are between 1½ million and 2½ million ethnic Chinese in Vietnam. Add to that the many ethnic Vietnamese who also wish to leave, and the potential numbers of refugees from Vietnam could be on a scale that almost defies today's imagination.

I mentioned two facets. The first was sheer numbers. The second, which, if true, is disgraceful in the extreme, is the alleged connivance, and perhaps even active involvement, of the Vietnamese authorities in accepting—that is, charging—between 2,000 and 3,000 United States dollars payable in gold per head to allow refugees to leave Vietnam. I would emphasise that such allegations, although widely reported by authoritative journalists, have yet to be proved and should therefore be treated with corresponding caution. The noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, in reply to a supplementary question on 31st January from the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, referred to, the enormity of the guilt of those who are responsible for this massive enforced exodus".—[Official Report, col. 134.] If the Press reports to which I have refered are proven, how much greater is the enormity of that guilt?

On the same occasion, the noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, referred to the excellent, but increasingly difficult, task being performed in this context by the Hong Kong Government. I should like to re-emphasise the praise given to Hong Kong for both its approach and its action. The appalling dilemma, certainly for Hong Kong, is that it just cannot continue. As well as the arrival in Hong Kong in the last six weeks of some 10,000 refugees from Vietnam, a further 13,000 refugees from China have arrived over the same period. If that kind of rate continues Hong Kong will, by the end of this year, have taken in, whether permanently or temporarily, an extra 200,000 refugees in 12 months.

To put that figure into certainly one kind of perspective, the United Kingdom, with a population rather more than 10 times Hong Kong's, would be faced with a refugee influx of 2 million in 12 months. I am not suggesting that the United Kingdom has any such obligation. I am suggesting that the United Kingdom Government have a very strong obligation, both to emphasise the problem of Vietnamese refugees on the international stage, not least by continued representations in the strongest terms to the Vietnamese Government, and, more particularly, to honour their obligations to Hong Kong in doing their utmost, in discussions with other Governments and the United Nations, in relieving Hong Kong of its increasing burden.

The noble Lord, Lord Elton, mentioned the possibility of what might be called an interim island. Such an island would certainly be a precedent—and I, too, have the same or very similar doubts to those expressed by the noble Lord—and it would be a risky precedent. But, it must be asked, would it be any more risky than an escalation of the present ad hoc situation? I can really do no better than end by quoting from the same editorial as that instanced by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, that of the South China Morning Post of 9th February, which read in part: Unless we"— that is, Hong Kong— are careful, humanitarianism for these new comers can breed social problems in the future. The Vietnamese influx, in time, will only exacerbate the problems created by the current Chinese influx. So while expressing our utmost sympathy, let us not allow such sympathy to blind us to the reality of the consequences of accepting increasing numbers of people, quite apart from the more obvious fact that by opening up our territory with its very limited resources we can only progressively dilute the quality of life that our people have struggled so hard to achieve in recent years".

9.14 p.m.


My Lords, the House will indeed be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for giving it the opportunity to debate this important and poignant Question and for the powerful and informed speech with which he opened the discussion. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled various countries in South-East Asia since the events of 1975, suffering great hardship, losing their possessions and, indeed, losing life itself in many cases. The British Government, the British people and Parliament have expressed in practical terms, as well as otherwise, their profound sympathy for these refugees, and tonight we have again emphasised our profound concern about the continuation of this terrible situation in that part ot the world.

We also deeply sympathise with those territories in South-East Asia which are having to shoulder immense burdens in coping with the influx of these refugees. The rapid and increasing exodus from Vietnam in particular has placed an intolerable strain upon some countries in this region. The Government fully support the action being taken by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to try to find solutions to this most difficult and complex problem, and we warmly applaud the success he has already achieved in resettling tens of thousands of refugees from Indo-China.

Unfortunately, however, as the noble Lord quite rightly pointed out, the number of those still requiring resettlement grows larger every day. I believe that this was a point which was emphasised by the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers. It is, indeed, estimated that nearly 70,000 boat people, as they are called, still require to be resettled. Most are in Malaysia, but large numbers are also in Hong Kong and other territories in the region. Apart from these, there are nearly 140,000 refugees in camps in Thailand. The High Commissioner needs the assistance of the whole international community, not just the assistance of a few countries, in trying to help these unfortunate people. I shall, of course, respond to the request of my noble friend Lord Segal for figures as to the contribution made to resettlement by various countries. My noble friend asked some detailed questions and, as he suggested, these are for reply, perhaps in the next few days.

The British Government are playing their part and have encouraged other countries to do likewise. Since 1975, some 1,400 refugees from Indo-China have been accepted for settlement in the United Kingdom. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary announced in another place on 17th January his decision—to which the noble Lord, Lord Monson, I was glad to hear, paid tribute—to admit to the United Kingdom a further 1,500 Vietnamese refugees over the next 12 to 15 months. I am urged to do better. We shall certainly continue to study the matter to see how much more we can do.

I would remind the House, of course, that we have certain obligations of entrance to others in various parts of the world who live in the former Empire and who have claims upon us. They number something like 70,000 a year. These are not refugees, but they have claims upon this country and upon our resources. I believe that more than one noble Lord has emphasised that in extending the hand of humanity to the refugees we must be careful to do so in such a way that we do not neglect to meet other rightful claims upon our hospitality from other quarters.


My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord would allow me to ask him a question on this point? May I ask him whether the refugee quota is subtracted from the overall quota of people coming to this country for settlement? Secondly, may I ask him whether he would respond to the request of countries of first asylum that we might announce rather longer ahead the quotas which we would accept? I regret that I omitted from my speech a whole passage of thanks to the Government for what they have done in various spheres. I join with the noble Lord in this. Would it not be possible, by extending forwards the programme and having a steady flow, to assist the unwilling hosts that these people are staying with now to plan the eventual exodus?


My Lords, on the second point, I certainly think that can be studied with sympathy. It seems to be a point of practical interest to us all. On the first point of whether the so-called quota is subtracted from the total entry I have not the information to hand at the moment but it is a point of importance and I will see that the noble Lord and the House are given the right information on that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, and my noble friend Lord Segal, made a number of other suggestions which I have noted very carefully. It would perhaps take too much time this evening for me to discuss them at any length, but I will certainly ask my right honourable friends to consider what has been suggested. One aspect of the problem which is sometimes overlooked is the immense cost of maintaining and caring for the refugees while they are awaiting durable solutions to their problems. Britain is a leading financial contributor to international refugee programmes. During 1978 we pledged nearly £7 million to the High Commissioner for Refugees for various refugee programmes throughout the world. Of this, over £2 million was earmarked for his programmes in South-East Asia. Most of the High Commissioner's funds for the South-East Asia programme have been expended on Thailand, which is at present coping with a greater number of refugees than most other countries in the region.

Funds have also been made available by the Government, as we have heard, to British voluntary agencies working among refugees in Thailand. The Government recognise that many voluntary agencies, international and British, secular and Christian—or should I say secular and religious? I do not know whether there is an appropriate distinction in this matter—will recognise that all these are active in supplementing the work in Thailand of the High Commission itself. This year grants, usually up to 50 per cent. of project cost, have been made, or are likely to be made, for projects promoted in that part of the world by the National Council of the YMCA, the YWCA, Project Vietnam Orphans, Save the Children Fund and the British Red Cross. The noble Baroness raised the question of access by voluntary organisations, agencies, to refugee camps. I have no record of complaints received from voluntary agencies on this score but in the light of the remarks made by the noble Baroness I will certainly look into the matter.

Most of the projects to which I have referred are direct supplements to the basic help given to refugees by the High Commissioner and they provide primary and secondary education, vocational training and health care. It is outside the mandate of the High Commissioner to assist the local population where these voluntary agencies operate, but I am sure that in helping the refugees as such, the voluntary agencies certainly do not pass by on the other side of the road if there are cases among the indigenous population in which they can help. It is sometimes a real problem, which we must recognise, that refugees in camps of this kind, though by no means living in comfort, nevertheless can be better off than the local population in their vicinity. So there is this virtue in voluntary agencies, that they are resilient, they are flexible in their operation as well as their approach. Their humanity is not over-bound by strict rule.

The noble Lord, Lord Geddes, I was glad to hear, drew particular attention to the position of Hong Kong. Hong Kong, which is already overcrowded, is bearing a particularly heavy burden in coping not only with the steady stream of Vietnamese who arrive in their own junks, or even rescued at sea and brought there by merchant vessels, but also with the daily flow of immigrants from China, all told about 100,000 last year.

The Colony's population has grown from about half a million in 1945 to nearly 5 million today, a tenfold increase. It is greatly to the credit of the Government of Hong Kong, and perhaps particularly to the credit of the present Governor of Hong Kong, that the tremendous task of providing for this rapidly increasing indigenous population has proceeded so successfully while at the same time coping with this massive influx of refugees of opportunity as well as others who have come into the Colony over the past 20 or 30 years. Since 1975 the Hong Kong Government have arranged for 4,800 former residents of Vietnam to come to Hong Kong to join close relatives there. A further 5,700, who have made their own way to the Colony, have been allowed to settle even though they had no special claim on Hong Kong. In addition, there are now over 10,000 people who have been granted temporary shelter in the Colony and who are awaiting resettlement elsewhere.

The Hong Kong Government's policy towards such refugees has been to allow all those who make their way to Hong Kong in their own boats to land temporarily until they can be resettled in other countries. Hong Kong has also provided temporary shelter for any refugees picked up at sea by vessels whose first scheduled port of call is Hong Kong. The arrival of the "Huey Fong" just before Christmas created a very serious problem for the Hong Kong Government. Hong Kong was not the ship's first port of call, and while still 1,000 miles away from Hong Kong and about the same distance from Taiwan the master was warned that he would not be allowed to enter Hong Kong and should proceed to his original destination, which was in Taiwan. He ignored this message and efforts to persuade him to sail for Taiwan failed. This is the background to the "Huey Fong" incident. The Hong Kong Government's decision to allow the passengers of the "Huey Fong" to disembark in the Colony was taken, therefore, for humanitarian reasons.

There is, however, a limit to the numbers Hong Kong can absorb, and there is real and very understandable concern among the people of Hong Kong that other vessels might be encouraged to adopt the same action as the "Huey Fong". Indeed, their fears have been borne out, and another vessel, the "Skyluck", with some 3,000 people aboard, has now entered Hong Kong waters. I agree with my noble friend Lord Segal when he said that the exodus of refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia is a grim testament to the conditions in those three countries since Communist and totalitarian regimes seized power in Indo-China in 1975. In South Vietnam, in Laos and in Cambodia we have seen not only a drastic fall in the standards of living for many people but also the imposition of systems which violate basic human rights. I do not need to recount the terrible violations which have occurred in Cambodia. I am glad to say that this Government took the lead in bringing those events in Cambodia to the attention of the United Nations by raising them at the Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Since then the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia has imposed yet more burdens on the long-suffering Cambodian people—one dictatorship imposed upon another. Noble Lords will have seen the international condemnation that the Vietnamese action has caused.

The situation in Vietnam and Laos continues to give profound cause for concern. Many Vietnamese and Laotians are still detained without trial in so-called "re-education" camps. There have been reports of the forced movement of people in Vietnam to new economic zones and of many restrictions on personal, political, religious and other freedoms. The awful risks to life which many thousands of boat refugees who flee from Vietnam are prepared to run show clearly that it is not poverty alone from which they are fleeing. Moreover, it is most disturbing that there are credible reports—I must say this in response to my noble friend Lord Geddes —that Vietnamese agencies have been organising and profiting from the departure of these refugees. These reports relate that refugees, on payment of gold, board large ships or small boats and, deprived of all their possessions, leave on hazardous voyages to neighbouring countries which have no wish to receive them. It is appalling that any Government or country could permit, let alone encourage, such a traffic in human lives.

The Government are particularly concerned at the reports of an organised scheme whereby large ships are chartered, through the connivance of Vietnamese officials and unscrupulous entrepreneurs, to pick up thousands of refugees directly from Vietnam and then sail unbidden to neighbouring countries. Noble Lords will have read the articles in the Observer of 11th February and the Daily Telegraph of 10th February about this cynical arrangement. I believe that those articles give a good and true impression of what is going on. It is scarcely possible to believe that organised departures on such a scale could be taking place without the full knowledge of the Governments concerned.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs recently summoned the Vietnamese Ambassador to express his concern about such reports and to say that these practices should be stopped. The Government's concern was reiterated by a senior official of my office to the Ambassador again, on 13th February. Indeed, my right honourable friend had previously told the Ambassador of the concern felt by the Government and the British people as a whole—including many who were not unsympathetic to the Vietnamese during the Indo-China war—about the overall human rights situation in Vietnam. I regret to say that there is no evidence that the Vietnamese Government have significantly altered their policies. As I have said, a further vessel, the "Skyluck" has now arrived in Hong Kong with another 3,000 refugees. Other vessels may be on the way. The consequences of this are under consideration, and they must inevitably affect a wider relationship with Vietnam. Obviously there has to be some order in dealing with this massive flow of refugees from Vietnam. The Vietnamese Government have said that they will co-operate with the High Commissioner for Refugees in taking measures to allow those Vietnamese who wish to do so to leave Vietnam in an orderly fashion. It remains to be seen whether that statement represents a genuine change of heart and, if so, how it will work out in practice.

We in this House tonight, in this debate, and myself, speaking on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, have once more made absolutely clear how we regard this situation, which is not new but which has evolved in terrifying proportions in the last year or so in South-East Asia. I emphasise that it is not susceptible of solution by one country alone. It is an international problem which must be tackled internationally. Conscience is indivisible, and it is the conscience of the world which is gradually being aroused by these practices of mass persecution and mass expulsion, because that is what they amount to.

I am grateful to noble Lords for their contributions to this important debate, and I greatly hope that this debate will help to persuade those who are responsible and those who can make the biggest contribution to a solution of this problem to listen to the voice of humanity and reason, as it has been so clearly raised in this House tonight.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down I should like to ask him whether he has taken on board what I regard as an important proposal; that is, that the Government should look at the means of economic aid to rural development in Thailand as a means of supporting that country, as a strategic as well as an economic concept.


My Lords, yes, indeed. When the Thai Prime Minister called on our Prime Minister a week ago last Saturday—and I was privileged to be present at the meeting—he raised this matter. We undertook to look into it to see how much more we could do. My right honourable friend the Minister for Overseas Development is in fact actively examining the possibilities. I think I may say that the upshot may well be favourable.