HL Deb 31 January 1979 vol 398 cc133-7

2.44 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 what international action they propose to initiate to deal with the problems caused by the exodus of refugees from Vietnam.


My Lords, the Government fully support action being taken by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. We have decided to admit more Vietnamese refugees and have urged other Governments to do likewise. We have also made very clear to the Vietnamese our concern that they should ameliorate the situation which causes large numbers of their own population to flee the country at great risk to their lives.


My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his Answer. Perhaps I can specifically put to him the situation facing the Government of Thailand, which at present has an inflow in the region of 140,000 refugees from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. In terms of common humanity, I put it to my noble friend that it is desirable to take action to help the Government of Thailand; but, also, there seems to me to be an essential Western interest in terms of helping the Government of Thailand deal with this massive inflow of refugees from three countries which abut its borders. In that situation, can my noble friend tell me what action he contemplates taking with our colleagues in the European Community to deal with the matter and what other action the Government contemplate taking?


My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for his reference to Thailand. As he said, it is of humane concern and it is also a clear Western democratic interest that we should do everything we can to support the Government and the people of Thailand, particularly in this very grave imposition upon them from outside. The figures which my noble friend gave are absolutely right. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates there to be some 65,000 boat refugees in various countries of Indo-China, some of them in Thailand. But, as we have just heard, in addition there are about 134,000—it may well be 140,000 by now—refugees in Thailand who crossed overland from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The size of the problem will be apparent to the House, and also the enormity of the guilt of those who are responsible for this massive enforced exodus.

As to the steps we have taken to help these unfortunate people, I shall not detail them all, but so far we have accepted 1,400, of whom over 1,000 are Vietnamese. But a further 1,500 boat refugees from Vietnam will be admitted in the next few months, some of them specifically from Thailand. In addition, we have made very generous financial contributions to the funds of the United Nations Commission for Refugees. Indeed, I see that when my honourable friend the Under-Secretary of State, Mr. Luard, attended a meeting in Geneva last month, he was able to offer £1 million sterling towards the total of £12 million which was subscribed by all the countries represented there. I think that I can assure my noble friend and the House that we are, in fact, doing a good deal diplomatically, financially and, indeed, practically to assist the area. I might perhaps add that on 23rd January my right honourable friend the Secretary of State called in the Vietnamese Ambassador and spoke to him in very forthright terms about the responsibility of his Government for this situation.


My Lords, have any of the Communist countries contributed to this appalling problem which has been created by their comrades?


My Lords, I take it that the noble and learned Lord is not asking me whether they have contributed to the solution of the problem. I have no evidence on that point. There may well be evidence that the creation of this problem springs from the dreadful vagaries of totalitarian government in Vietnam and elsewhere.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that according to a Communist Party newspaper published on 17th December last, the Vietnamese Government intend to collectivise all the farms in the Mekong delta, with the result that 7 million peasants will be dispossessed and will, therefore, obviously swell the total number of refugees to a very considerable degree? Can he give an assurance that the British taxpayer will under no circumstances be called upon to help out the Vietnamese Government—whether by the provision of subsidised merchant shipping or otherwise—so long as this kind of behaviour continues?


My Lords, I doubt that this Government, or any other Government, will allow any of the British taxpayers' money to be made available in aid to the Vietnamese Government. Equally, I cannot give a guarantee that, even though the fault lies squarely with the Vietnamese authorities, we shall not, as usual, do our best to help the unfortunate people concerned. However, the question raises the fundamental difficulty that there have been movements of refugees which the International Commission, assisted by countries such as ours, has more or less been able to cope with, but this situation is something else again. This is the expulsion almost of a population, or of a segment of a nation. It is an exodus in almost Biblical terms, without, say, the morality of that authority. We are addressing ourselves to the fundamental question: How do we stop the policies at source?—because that is where this particular problem will be solved, if at all.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the problem is even larger than has been suggested?—because, although approximately 75,000 refugees have been resettled since I visited Thailand in 1977, the total now in that country is greater by many thousands than it was at that time. Furthermore, there are approximately 40,000 boat people now in Malaysia, another country which is struggling with a burden which it ought not to be called upon to bear. Will he accept that we on this side will support anything he can do to help resolve this problem, and look forward to any elaboration of his argu- ment that he will be able to give us on 14th February when we are to debate the matter?


My Lords, I freely and gladly accept the fact of consensus on this. It is a matter of humanitarian concern. I also recall that it was the noble Lord who raised the question of Cambodia some months ago when we had an excellent debate, in which he spoke rather presciently, I must say, about the present situation.


My Lords, may I put one final point to my noble friend, while thanking him for the full answer he gave to my supplementary question? I put to him the point about discussions within the European Community. Can he deal with that particular point? It seems to me to be desirable to discuss this matter with our colleagues in the European Community.


My Lords, I fear I telescoped my remarks when I referred to the interests of Western democracy, if I am within the recollection of the House. I had very much in mind what my noble friend said. We are in constant discussion with our friends and allies in the West about this and related problems, and indeed the Geneva meeting owed its relative success to the fact that we and like-minded countries from the EEC were able to give a lead and, more importantly, to make the contribution we did. I can assure the House and my noble friend that we shall be closely in touch with our neighbours in Western Europe in the future, as we have been in the past, on this matter.


My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the Hong Kong Government deserves the highest praise for its humane approach to this appalling problem? Does it not serve as an example to us in this country to receive even more of these unfortunate refugees, who risk their lives under the most dangerous conditions to escape from the veritable hell which now exists in Vietnam?


My Lords, I think I have given figures showing that we have doubled the intake into this country of refugees in this category. We are always ready to look at these very serious situations and see what more we can do. I welcome what my noble friend said about the attitude of the Hong Kong Government. We all know the persistent difficulties the Hong Kong Government faces in accommodating refugees year by year. Many more than have come even now from other countries do come in from the mainland to Hong Kong, where the services are constantly being strained beyond endurance and resources. I should be glad to send a copy of these exchanges to Sir Murray MacLehose to show that his attitude and that of the Government of Hong Kong is appreciated in this House.