HL Deb 24 July 1979 vol 401 cc1815-21

3.12 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask Her Majesty's Government the Question of which I have given Private Notice, namely:

"To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will make a statement regarding the conclusions of the Geneva Conference on the Indo-Chinese refugees."


My Lords, with the leave of the House, as my noble friend the Foreign Secretary is in Brussels today, I shall reply to the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Brockway.

My Lords, in response to the proposal that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made to him on 31st May, and with the support of many other Governments, the United Nations Secretary-General called an international meeting in Geneva on 20th and 21st July to discuss the problem of refugees and displaced persons in South-East Asia. Sixty-five countries were represented. My noble friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary and my honourable friend the Minister of State (Mr. Blaker) attended the meeting together with the Governor of Hong Kong. Each Government stated their views. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Dr. Waldheim summed up.

As my noble friend said in his speech, and Dr. Waldheim confirmed, this meeting was unprecedented. It was also important and could have even more important results. In concentrating international attention on the plight of the refugees and on the urgent need to help them and the countries in which they have sought refuge, the conference was humanitarian. But it was widely agreed that the problem could not be solved unless attention was also given to its root causes and that these have been the inhumane policies of Vietnam.

The conference resulted in a massive increase in offers of resettlement places, from 125,000 to 260,000, and in new pledges of additional financial support for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' activities amounting to 190 million United States dollars. The Vietnamese Government indicated that they would suspend for a time the export of boat people, the first time that this Government have acknowledged even implicitly that they control this wicked traffic, and will discuss measures for the safe and orderly departure of those of their citizens who wish to leave. The conference also demonstrated the strength of international concern about Cambodia, the need for a political settlement in that strife-torn country and the even more urgent need for food aid to its starving people.

There was also widespread affirmation of several vital humanitarian principles repeated in Dr. Waldheim's summing-up: the basic right of individuals to stay in their own country or leave as a matter of free will; that when they leave they must have orderly arrangements for departure; a safe journey and an assured destination; that the principle of first asylum must be respected by the countries to which the refugees now flee; and that the international community must work together for their resettlement. In their respect for human values these are vital principles.

None of this would have happened if there had not been a conference. And the conference would not have taken place if Britain had not proposed it. We commend Dr. Waldheim and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for bringing it about in a matter of weeks.

We hope that the world community now has at least a breathing space while it sets about the urgent task of clearing the refugee camps in South-East Asia and so giving new lives to the boat people and land refugees. This is the first priority as Dr. Waldheim repeated in his summing-up. The world community is clearly ready to grasp its responsibilities for bringing order into the human misery which marks the refugee situation in South-East Asia. The world now looks to Vietnam to show the same responsibility as a member of the community of nations.

Copies of my noble friend's speech, and of the final statements by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Dr. Waldheim are being placed in the Library of the House.

3.16 p.m.


My Lords, I thank the Minister for that very full Statement. Is he aware that, despite political differences, we would wish to express appreciation of the Prime Minister in initiating this conference which has had such valuable results? Is it not the case that Dr. Waldheim, the United Nations Secretary-General in effect saved this conference when it was in danger of political controversy, and has not the status of the United Nations been greatly enhanced by the service which he and the Commissioner for Refugees gave to the conference? Is the noble Lord aware that we desire to express our tribute to the island of the Philippines and to Indonesia for providing transit accommodation to the refugees, and particularly to Hong Kong which has in a humanitarian way received the refugees at a cost of £13 million a year? Will the Government be making some contribution to Hong Kong to meet that cost?


My Lords, may we associate ourselves with the tribute which has been paid by the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, to those responsible for setting this conference on foot, and particularly to the noble Lord, the Foreign Secretary, who played such a significant and important role in ensuring that the outcome is as successful as it has been? Would the noble Lord consider publishing a table showing commitments already undertaken by various nations prior to the conference, and those now entered into as a result of the proceedings, both in terms of the number of refugees that they are prepared to take and the financial contributions towards defraying the cost of resettlement?

Would the noble Lord confirm that the net emigration over immigration in the United Kingdom over the past eight years has averaged 37,500 and therefore to put the 10,000 refugees that we have agreed to accept in context, they represent fewer than one quarter of the outflow from this country in a typical year. Therefore there is no danger that the acceptance by the United Kingdom of this number of refugees will make the slightest difference to the domestic composition of the population. In view of the success of this Conference, would Her Majesty's Government take the initiative in convening similar exercises where refugee problems arise in other parts of the world, particularly in the Horn of Africa, to which attention was drawn by Professor Richard Greenfield in a recent letter to the Guardian.


My Lords, I am obliged to both noble Lords for what they have said. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, somewhat oversimplifies the problems in accepting a large number of refugees in this country from the Far East or from anywhere else. We have offered, as the noble Lord will know, and as my noble friend confirmed in Geneva, to accept 10,000 additional refugees, and the process of accepting those is now going ahead. The noble Lord, Lord Brockway, referred to the special position of Hong Kong in this matter. Hong Kong will certainly benefit from the Geneva Conference in two ways: the reduction in outflow from Vietnam and from the speedier resettlement of no fewer than 66,000 refugees who now find themselves there. As the Governor emphasised in his speech, there is a clear need for Hong Kong to be given more resettlement places. This has been fully recognised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and others concerned.

Baroness VICKERS

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether, in view of the fact that one of the saddest aspects of this problem is the divided families, and especially the orphaned children, any machinery is being set up to try to trace relations?


My Lords, the re-uniting of divided families was one of the earliest matters to which the Vietnamese Government agreed with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—I think it was as far back as May.


My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether he is aware that we on this side of the House join wholeheartedly with my noble friend Lord Brockway in his expression of appreciation of the Prime Minister's initiative and indeed of the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary's actions and statements in Geneva? No doubt the noble Lord will recall that as far back as last November the preceding Government made a similar attempt in Geneva, led by Mr. Evan Luard, who was then Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, to get a solution of this human problem in its very early stages. We can only hope that the results of last week's conference will indeed prove fruitful.

It is in no sense of cavilling that I raise the question that is indeed implicit in the second paragraph of the Statement, where it is stated that: the conference was humanitarian". It was an attempt to solve the humanitarian problems, the terrible suffering and the loss of life, by drowning and in other ways, of hundreds and thousands of refugees in this area. Certainly the conference was "humanitarian" but, if I may quote again: it was widely agreed that the problem could not be solved unless attention was also given to its root causes and that these have been the inhumane policies of Vietnam". While in no way minimising the results of this conference, which everybody in every party in this country and indeed throughout the civilised world hopes will lead to a solution of the problem, one is bound to say that one hopes. I would ask the Minister whether he is aware that there is considerable concern lest what we are doing on the humanitarian front, measured in terms of money and services—and we warmly welcome what was said about these in the Statement—may be regarded by the totalitarian Government of Vietnam as underwriting the continuation of their inhumane policies: in other words, "We produce the refugees and you rescue them and pay for them"? That, unfortunately, is the way in which many may think. I would ask the Minister to give attention to this, as indeed I know he will, and also to the import of the second paragraph—and none will do so more than the Secretary of State, who is well aware of the dichotomy involved in this policy.

May I ask him also to accept our appreciation of the fact that the terrible suffering in Cambodia has not gone unremarked and unattended? Finally, may I ask him to give us, either today or as soon as due consideration has been given to the matter at ministerial and official level here and elsewhere, an assurance that attention has been given to the follow-up machinery? Here we have nations which are responsible for this situation coming a long way to agreeing with the West as to the courses and the means of redress; but it is necessary that the United Nations, with Britain in the van, should see to it that these decisions, substantial as they are, are in fact practically pursued.


My Lords, will the noble Lord answer all the questions together or individually?—because I want to repeat to him a question which I put several weeks ago even before the conference took place. I agree entirely with the humanitarian aspects of the problem—entirely, without any reservation at all—but I asked a question and I want an answer to it, because it is a political issue also. Were the Soviet Government and the Chinese People's Government present at the conference? If so, what guarantee did they give that they will reorientate their political attitudes in order to prevent this disaster from recurring?


My Lords, may I first thank the noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, for the helpful things that he said. He asked about curing the disease as well as the symptoms. I think the conference was very effective in treating the symptoms of the disease but, with regard to the disease itself, the United Nations Secretary-General was authorised by the Vietnamese Government in his final speech to make certain undertakings, the effect of which, if carried through as we hope they will be, will be effectively to control and restrict the outflow of refugees from Vietnam. It was a solemn and formal undertaking given to the United Nations Secretary-General, and we hope they will honour it.

The noble Lord also referred to the follow-up action. We welcomed Dr. Waldheim's undertaking to present a comprehensive report on the refugee situation in South-East Asia and on the implementation of the action planned for the next General Assembly. This will allow the international community to review the situation, and in particular the way in which Vietnam has fulfilled its undertaking to the Secretary-General, in about three or four months' time.

If I may now reply, more effectively, I hope, to the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell: yes, both Russia and China were at the conference. We thought that the Chinese contribution was rather more helpful than the Russian one, but, all the same, both were welcome.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord what the Americans are doing about this? Has he observed that refugee problems arise when an invader is expelled, leaving behind supporters who are neither protected nor wanted in their home country? Also in this case the Americans, who both recruited and abandoned these people, seem to be doing nothing about them. Would not President Carter's predilection for human rights be perhaps better exercised by recognising his and the American responsibility towards them?


My Lords, I am not sure that that is entirely fair. There was, of course, a long and tragic war in which America certainly took part in the latter stages, but the war had been going on for many, many years before the Americans even became involved. Despite that, however, the Americans have accepted, according to my figures, 225,000 refugees.


My Lords, may I ask a simple question? While thanking the Government for the excellent services in respect of this conference, may I ask what steps are being taken at present to see to it that those who are considering the Helsinki Agreement shall at the next meeting have the fullest possible information about the decisions of this particular conference? Will an attempt be made to make them realise that there are certain sections of it against which some of them are committing grievous errors, and to try to get them to understand what civilised people really want?


My Lords, the Helsinki Agreement related to affairs in Europe and not the Far East.

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