HL Deb 06 March 1991 vol 526 cc1436-65

6.4 p.m.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos rose to call attention to the international problem of refugees; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

I appreciate the opportunity to open this debate on the refugee problem, although I must explain that I do so because my noble friend Lady Ewart-Biggs is indisposed. My noble friend, who drafted the Motion, has for many years been deeply concerned about the difficulties facing refugees as they seek asylum in this country and elsewhere. We all regret that she is unable to make her speech here today. I am glad to say, however, that she hopes to be back in the House very soon.

We have all, in and outside Parliament, been preoccupied over the past few months with the conflict in the Gulf, but none of us would wish to overlook or neglect other matters of importance. My noble friend has chosen an opportune moment to raise the subject, for the following reasons. First, I understand that the number of asylum seekers has risen sharply in recent years. Perhaps the Minister will be able to confirm that when he speaks. Perhaps he will also give the House the latest figures—not only for this country but also for our partners in the European Community.

Secondly, last November the Government set up a committee to examine the position. That action was taken by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, who was then Home Secretary. I understand that the options to be discussed by the committee are the setting up of refugee camps in this country, extending requirements for visas, posting more immigration officers overseas, more deportations, tighter guidelines before someone is allowed exceptional leave to remain and other related measures.

Those are all matters of acute sensitivity, as we know from many of the cases brought to our notice. We shall study the details of the report with very great care when it appears. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Reay, will tell the House whether or not that report is to be made public so that it can be the subject of scrutiny and debate in due course.

We recognise that the problem of refugees generally raises complex and difficult issues. As I have said, the number of asylum seekers has increased substantially and is likely to rise even further. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the refugees come mainly from countries in political turmoil such as Ethiopia, Ghana, Somalia, Uganda, Zaire, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Sri Lanka. Today there are about 16 million recognised refugees in the world.

The Government have argued that many of the new arrivals are not genuine refugees. They have sought to argue that they are economic migrants who come here looking for work but pretend to be refugees. Mr. Peter Lloyd, the Minister responsible for immigration, is on the record as saying: Only a small proportion of asylum applications are found to be fleeing from persecution". That assertion needs to be examined very carefully. The point has been made that asylum seekers come in the main from areas troubled by war and civil unrest and not necessarily from the poorest countries.

We must not forget that Britain is one of 107 countries which have signed the United Nations Convention on Refugees and that under that agreement Britain is obliged to allow people with such a well-founded fear to live here.

It is, of course, necessary to distinguish between genuine refugees and others but we must not overlook the consequences of making a slapdash decision. The definition of refugees is set out plainly in the 1951 United Nations convention as people who have left their countries because they have: a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion". We are committed to observing and respecting that definition and we must take care not to avoid it by classifying genuine refugees as economic migrants. Officials must take the greatest care in their examination of the cases before them because a mistake could cost a life.

I am not happy about our current procedures, which need examination and overhaul. What, for example, happens to asylum seekers when they arrive in this country? First, they are examined by immigration officers. Some are held in custody, either in a detention centre or in prison. Others are allowed to enter the country while their application for refugee status is considered. I believe that that normally takes as long as 13 months. These unhappy people have to find somewhere to live and have to learn English. I understand that their plight is worsening from month to month because of the lack of funds. It is a sad state of affairs. I hope that the interdepartmental committee set up by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, will look in detail into all aspects of this problem.

I am sure that the members of the committee and the noble Lord who is to reply will have read the report published by Amnesty International on 1st November last year. I was greatly impressed by that report and its thorough analysis of the problem as it exists in this country and the treatment of asylum seekers generally. Its conclusion is that this country's refugee determination process contains critical shortcomings—that is the word used by the report —which create a very real risk of individuals being expelled to countries where they may face imprisonment, torture or death.

The report alleges that in recent years, and especially in the last four years, the Government have increased the restrictive measures relating to their asylum policy and practice. These include restrictions on access to legal advice and representation, limitations on the rights of Members of Parliament to intervene in individual cases, arbitrary detention of many asylum seekers while their claim is being considered and several other illiberal measures.

Amnesty International further claim that those shortcomings in fact have led directly to individuals becoming victims of gross violations of human rights. There are many examples. One can be found at paragraph 3(2) (c) on page 15 of its report. It describes a case that many of us recall; that of a group of five asylum seekers who were expelled in February 1988 by the Home Office to Sri Lanka, where they were subjected to severe torture and ill treatment. The report reveals a gravely unsatisfactory state of affairs and both Houses of Parliament must take it very seriously, not least because the current procedures limit the ability of Members of Parliament to deal properly with the cases that are brought to their notice. Tampering with Members' rights is an infringement of our Constitution. If governments begin to limit their rights to pursue refugees' cases, they may end up some day by limiting their rights to investigate their constituents' problems. This is a development that we must watch very carefully indeed.

I am constrained by time from dealing with all the matters raised in the report, but I must refer to one or two of the most important points. For example, the charge is made that a major weakness of the process is that inadequate specialist training is given to officials involved in the examination and determination of claims for asylum and that that is contrary to international standards laid down in the UNHCR handbook, to which we as a country are committed. I hope that the interdepartmental committee set up by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, will look very carefully at that allegation and at the arguments and cases cited in the report.

Finally, the report deals with implications of the harmonisation of asylum policy in the European Community. I must point out that it would be unfair to create the impression that this country is alone in its adoption of stricter measures. The truth is that several other governments have introduced similar measures in recent years. But the concern of Amnesty International is that, unless care is taken, the Single European Act could further restrict the position of asylum seekers and further dilute the legal obligation of Community countries to observe international standards. That may not happen but the fear is being expressed and we should take account of it. However, there is a greater expert than I on the Bench by my side who will wind up the debate and be able to deal with the Community aspect of the matter; namely, my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis.

Amnesty International has now recommended a new code of practice which it presented to the Government over two years ago. I hope that the noble Lord can give us a reaction to these proposals or at least give us some assurance that they are being dealt with by the interdepartmental committee.

On this side of the House we are deeply concerned by the disquieting developments of the past few years. I should like to state the policies that a Labour Government would implement. First, we would repeal the illiberal carriers' liability Act and allow asylum applications to be made overseas. We would establish an independent tribunal to decide the merits of individual applications because we have concluded that leaving them to the discretion of the Home Secretary has not proved satisfactory. We shall certainly take steps to ensure that applications are dealt with more expeditiously. I believe that an average of three months would be reasonable and attainable. We would also give asylum seekers the right to appeal before deportation or removal from this country. We would seek to act in the spirit which has animated Britain's attitude to refugees for over two centuries. That is something of which we can all feel rightly proud.

We must of course work within the Community and the United Nations to ensure that international attitudes and standards are improved. The United Nations agency to which I referred (the UNHCR) has a huge task to perform. It does splendid work in all the circumstances. However, it has its own problems, especially the fact that its budget has not grown at the same rate as the increase in the number of refugees around the world. That means a cutback in the essential services which it exists to provide. International co-operation to tackle the refugee problem is essential. We appeal for strong and generous support from the Government for the United Nations agency.

Asylum seekers and victims of persecution arrive in this country traumatised and disoriented. Many of them are without money, certainly without possessions, family or friends. We must surely do our best for them. When we consider them, we cannot avoid thinking with shame and frustration of the great sin —the great evil—which seems to pervade the world and which has struck us so formidably in the Gulf crisis; namely, the money that is wasted on armaments of destruction when millions are dying from disease and starvation. Perhaps the Gulf conflict on the one hand and the plight of refugees on the other will inspire governments to get their priorities right. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

6.17 p.m.

Viscount Brentford

My Lords, it is a great privilege for me to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos. We are grateful to him for initiating this debate in the absence of the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs. We very much hope that she will shortly be able to return to her place. The noble Lord dealt largely with the position in this country. That is not a line which I want to pursue with your Lordships. I do, however, want to pick up on two of the elements which he quite rightly and so clearly put forward.

The refugee problem internationally is very varied. The noble Lord informed us that at the present time there were some 16 million refugees. One must remember that each one of those 16 million refugees is an individual person. We need to bear that in mind. The refugee problem varies from country to country. The refugees find themselves in varying circumstances. At present there are Somali refugees living in the Intercontinental Hotel in Nairobi. I believe that their circumstances must be rather more comfortable than those who are living under canvas in refugee camps, which is where most refugees are.

Most of the refugee problems in the world seem to us to be insoluble. Some have been in existence for decades and we are no nearer to solving them now than we were at their beginning. In particular I should like to bring before noble Lords—and I should like to ask the views of my noble friend the Minister—a problem which, albeit small, is now, I believe, capable of solution. I refer to the Ugandan refugees in Kenya. There are about 10,000 registered Ugandan refugees in Kenya, and perhaps another 6,000. If there are 16,000 (if I have my decimal point in the right place) that is 0.1 per cent. of the total problem —a very small percentage.

Now that Uganda is stable in almost all parts of the country, it is practicable for refugees from Uganda to return there. However, noble Lords will be surprised to hear that there are problems. First, it costs money to move the refugees from Nairobi back to Uganda. Secondly, there is the problem of fear. Among the refugees there are former soldiers. I am told—I am not 100 per cent. sure of this —that there has never been an amnesty for soldiers from Uganda who have deserted and fled the country. They are fearful of what will happen to them when they return.

A third problem is that of convenience. Many refugees now have children at school in Kenya. It would be disruptive for them to have to return. There is also the position of those widows who have a settled life in a refugee camp. It will be difficult for them to return to their family areas in Uganda. However, I believe that those are problems which should be, and are capable of being, tackled.

What is needed first is money. I estimate that about £100 per adult is required for a sequence of events. Transport is needed to the Ugandan border. Transport is also needed to a rehabilitation centre, to which I shall refer again in a moment. There are then the costs of clearance and of travel back to their home area. Obviously if that is nearer the border the cost is cheaper and if further away it is more expensive. I have been given an estimate of £100 to cover that cost. We are talking therefore of about £1 million, bearing in mind that with families it will involve less than £100 per head as the children will incur less cost. I believe that the Government or the ODA could contribute to that. If we had the momentum, money from the charities involved could contribute to this relatively small sum—even though we may consider that £1 million is a substantial sum.

I return to the subject of the rehabilitation centre. It will require work rather than simply money. I believe that it is possible to approach the Church of Uganda for the loan of some land on which a rehabilitation centre, a couple of tents and some equipment could be set up near Mabale. The centre could provide clearance and help for the adjustment needed for those returning to the home area. It could deal with the problem of fear and the emotion and trauma involved in returning home.

Another problem is the relationship between Kenya and Uganda. The Foreign Office could act as a broker. It could approach both governments because our relationships with each of them is good. I should like to see our Government acting as broker, working in conjunction with the charities and the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches of Uganda. They could do a great deal to assist rehabilitation.

Will the Minister be prepared to consider that prospect? If we can help to arrange for the return of all the Ugandan refugees in Kenya it will be a serious contribution to the resolution of the worldwide refugee problem. There are many larger problems. Noble Lords will speak of different problems about which they have knowledge. The refugee issue is not only a money problem; it is pre-eminently a people problem. I believe that government, charities and Churches in this country have a great role to play in easing the problem. I hope that as a result of our debate today progress can be made.

6.26 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon

My Lords, I share with other noble Lords regret that the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, was unable to introduce the debate. I am glad to hear that she will shortly be back in her place. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, for introducing the debate in such a clear and masterly fashion.

I wish to echo the point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, that refugees are not problems; they are people. Our response to refugees has to be governed by that truth. For those of us who live in stable societies, whose lives have not been torn apart by loss of home, land, livelihood, wealth or family, it is difficult to know how it feels to suffer those scourges. These are people bound to us by common humanity. When I meet them I am often humbled by their resilience, their will to survive and their capacity to make a life out of very limited resources.

The greater number come from the developing world. Their plight is caused by war, famine, political disorder or political repression. It is a truism to say that the immense difficulties of those who are or will be refugees can be overcome only as settled, stable and developed societies are built in the place of those which are at present marked by strife, violence, underdevelopment and disorder.

In the meantime, ways have to be found of coping. It is clear that much of the coping is done by countries bordering the refugees' country of origin. We have just heard the examples from the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, of Uganda and Kenya. For instance, more than one-third of the world's refugees come from Afghanistan. I believe that there are over 5 million. Of those, Pakistan has taken nearly 3.5 million and Iran nearly 2.5 million. The figures are out of all proportion to the numbers which Europe has taken.

I give another example. Cambodian refugees now number about 300,000. They continue to increase by about 3,000 a month. They are housed in camps over the border in Thailand. I mention only two of many situations worldwide. Their greatest requirement is resources to enable them to survive and then to make again a reasonable, worthwhile and fulfilling life in their new country or country of origin. But resources are not being provided in sufficient quantities. The chief organ is the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. That high commission has been suffering severe constraints because of budgetary crises. The harsh effects of those constraints have left their greatest mark in Africa, where many refugees living in refugee camps suffer from malnutrition. The United Nations High Commission has found a growing unwillingness on the part of richer nations to meet the cost of assisting refugees. Britain is one of the largest donors. The Overseas Development Agency has also shown a commitment to providing help.

However, there is no room for complacency. Refugees in developing countries—because that is largely where most of them still are—need help and assistance if they are to stand a chance of ever rebuilding their lives. Britain, together with other industrialised and prosperous nations, surely has a duty to do as much as it can to ensure that 1991 is not marked by a failure to help that most vulnerable group.

It is becoming fashionable to distinguish between political and economic refugees—those, on the one hand, who flee a country because their racial, national, political, religious or social affiliations place them in jeopardy and those, on the other hand, who are driven by a desire to improve their economic situation. The immigration policies of the new Europe, as they seem to be emerging, look as though they are designed to keep at bay the economic migrant—hence the title "Fortress Europe"—and to allow entry into that "Fortress Europe" only to those who are fleeing because they have no protection in their own country.

I believe that there are questions which should be asked on this matter. How wide is the new Europe to be? Is it to include Eastern European countries such as Romania and parts of Russia and, if so, will there not inevitably be economic migration within that? For example, is there not already migration from Africa through Italy, France and Spain?

Even supposing a "Fortress Europe' policy were possible, is it defensible? I believe it to be defensible only if it is accompanied by strong efforts to promote development in and to share wealth with the poorer nations. The present international scene of wealth and poverty is not only immoral—and I believe that that must be stressed strongly —but it is also unstable and dangerous. It reminds me of cities such as Sao Paulo in Brazil or Seoul in Korea, where the wealthy live in fortress-like houses or apartment blocks watched over by security guards. That is a state which is happy neither for them nor for those whom they keep at bay. That is a state which is certainly both unstable and dangerous. As is often the case, morality and long-term self interest converge to point to a way forward where such divisions and imbalances in our world are overcome.

If the reply to that is, "Why should someone not enjoy the wealth which is the fruit of his labour regardless of others around him?" then the parable of Dives and Lazarus is a reminder of the words of Jesus in the New Testament that such enjoyment is short lived to be followed by an eternity reflecting on its folly.

However, that is a diversion from my main theme shared with other speakers; that is, that responsibility for refugees must be shared internationally. If part of that responsibility is discharged by the provision of resources for refugees who remain elsewhere in the world, another part of it lies in our attitude and response to those who seek asylum in our own country. Here, I echo much of what the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, has already said.

The responsibility to offer asylum to those who have a well-founded fear of persecution, for the reasons given by the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, is accepted by this nation and this Government. As has already been said, the number of those seeking asylum is rising sharply. My figures demonstrate that in 1988 it was about 5,000 and in 1990, last year, it had risen to 12,000. I share the disappointment already expressed at the Government's response to that rise. That response appears to be to make the claim that some of those are economic migrants who have no well-founded fear of persecution and that they should therefore be returned to their country of origin.

Is that borne out by the facts? The vast majority of those seeking asylum come from countries already named—Sri Lanka, Uganda, Ethiopia, Somalia, Turkey and Iraq. Those countries are not particularly characterised by poverty but they are characterised, above all, by civil war or deep political turmoil and repression. Those seeking asylum come here from their countries in spite of the enormous difficulties facing them, not least difficulties raised by the Immigration (Carriers Liability) Act. They come from countries where they belong. They need to be highly motivated to surmount the difficulties put in their path and they arrive in a different land.

Is it not a proper response to the facts to say that the cause of their coming is not increasing greed or that they suddenly want to share the good life which they believe that this country offers? Rather, it is an increasing need which has arisen because in the countries from which they come they are at risk. As we know all too well, the number of such countries is on the increase.

There are intimations that the Government intend to cut down the proportion of those who remain in this country, particularly under the category of those given exceptional leave to remain. Some 25 per cent. of asylum seekers are given refugee status and others are allowed to remain under the category of exceptional leave.

The claim is made that some of those given asylum under that category are economic migrants. However, that is rebutted by the British Refugee Council, whose experience is that many of them are genuine refugees. Is it not likely, as has already been said, that if that policy is followed, it will mean an increase in the number of those returned to their own countries to find that their fears of persecution are only too well grounded? I plead with the Government to be humane in their policy here. Refugees are people and not problems or statistics. They need a clear and humanitarian policy of asylum and a firm commitment to development aid in the developing world.

6.37 p.m.

Lord Rea

My Lords, I start by saying how much I agree with the eloquent analysis of the refugee problem by the right reverend Prelate, couched as it was in both moral and practical economic terms. I hope that the Minister will reply to the points made.

When it was suggested that I might speak in this debate I felt that it was a subject for experts and that I had little to contribute. In fact, refugees have been very much part of my life. I have been a refugee. In June 1940 at the age of 12 my brother and I were shipped to the United States via Canada to avoid the Nazi invasion and occupation which many feared. Possibly my mother felt that I would be part of the liberating force of free Brits which would return at some time. My time in the USA, living comfortably in the midst of a friendly family, was very different from that of a Kurd arriving in Britain in 1990. I was able to use my refugee status to obtain free tickets to see the Boston Braves—my favourite baseball team.

Before that, I had met German Jewish refugees who had been victims of Nazi persecution and Spanish republican refugees fleeing from Franco, as my mother was very much involved in the anti-Fascist movement of the 1930s. There is no doubt that this country and the USA, as my noble friend Lord Cledwyn pointed out, have gained enormously in creative, intellectual and artistic talent as a result of their liberal policy towards refugees. Since the war, we have continued to be host to persecuted people from many nations.

During my work as a doctor and through personal friends I have met political refugees from many countries—Chile, Uruguay, Guatemala, South Africa (both black and white), Burma, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, the USSR and quite a few from Czechoslovakia. As the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, pointed out, over the past 20 years our immigration policy has undoubtedly tightened up. That has been reflected in the great difficulties which seekers of asylum are now experiencing in being granted official refugee status.

The term "economic refugee", as two speakers have pointed out, has emerged as a category which disqualifies would-be immigrants from refugee status. Like those two speakers, I have never been happy with that term. It does not exist in official conventions or agreements which guide the work of official refugee organisations. I understand the concept but it may be difficult to predict whether those deemed economic rather than political refugees will not face harassment or worse on forcible repatriation.

If war, economic breakdown or famine have been sufficiently severe to drive people from their homes to risk an often hazardous journey to a strange land, should we ask them to return in any case? I should be most grateful if the noble Lord, Lord Reay, would tell us what instructions are given to immigration officials. My noble friend doubts whether they have had adequate training in interrogating applicants for asylum. How is a distinction made between economic and political refugees in borderline cases at the point of immigration?

Apart from meeting refugees in Europe, I have been privileged to visit Khao-i Dang and Site 8 camps on the Thai-Cambodian border on two separate occasions. These are run by UNHCR and UNBRO, the United Nations Border Relief Organisation. The first camp caters for so-called bona fide refugees, and there are 15,000 there, while the latter caters for displaced persons, of which there are 37,000 out of a total of 300,000 on that border.

Those visits have given me a flavour of the international dimensions of the problem, but those camps on that border are rather well run compared to some. I have not seen the prison-like conditions of the Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong, nor the vast encampments of people in places like Malawi, where there are nearly 1 million Mozambiqueans, or in Pakistan where there are nearly 3½ million Afghans.

The British Refugee Council, from which many speakers will have heard, in its excellent brief on the worldwide refugee situation, estimates that there are now 16 million refugees, as my noble friend pointed out. The UNHCR receives a budget of 345 million dollars, which amounts to 21.50 dollars per head. I am aware that other international agencies, such as the World Food Programme, the EC and many others are involved, and that in some areas refugees are able to grow a little of their own food and have even developed some income generating activities, but these are exceptions.

Inevitably, despite international aid, a major part of the cost, at least initially, of sustaining a refugee population falls on the host country and in nearly all cases that country is poor itself; for example, Malawi and the Sudan. So that if international aid fails, widespread malnutrition and associated diseases, inevitably first affecting women and children, can and do occur. The high mortality of children in refugee camps is well documented by WHO reports and many papers in scientific and medical journals.

To take this problem further, a symposium is to be held in two weeks' time in Oxford, entitled "Responding to the Nutritional Crisis among Refugees—The need for new approaches". I hope very much that the noble Lord will be able to confirm that the Overseas Development Administration and the Foreign Office will be sending observers at a high level to this seminar and that they will be reporting back to Ministers, because some extremely useful information will be given at that symposium. There are some extremely well versed and knowledgeable people who will speak there.

Also, I should like to ask the noble Lord how our contributions to UNHCR and other agencies who help refugees compare with those of other developed countries. I understand that the UNHCR budget had a shortfall of 51.2 million dollars last year. Is there no way of insisting that governments contribute their due amount through the United Nations? Does the World Bank play any part in topping-up the deficits of refugee agencies, which it could then collect from member governments at the next tranche of contributions from member states?

As the right reverend Prelate pointed out, most of the refugees in the third world are moving away from present civil wars or chaos resulting from past civil wars. As a particular example, in Cambodia, as he mentioned, the numbers have gone up a lot to 3,000 per month, which is more than 10 per cent. in the last year, as the guerrilla war in Cambodia expands. Non-governmental organisations working there fear that each of the resistance factions intends to move forcibly the people in camps under their control back into Cambodia to help them claim territory. I hope that Her Majesty's Government are aware of this danger and that they will use their position at the United Nations Security Council to prevent this forcible repatriation from taking place.

As an optimist, I hope that the end of the war in the Gulf, short, terrifying and costly though it was in human, environmental and financial terms, will be followed by a renewed burst of peacemaking efforts not only in the Middle East. This country has a major part to play in Cambodia facilitating the long awaited settlement, and surely the time has come to open up the gates for aid to Vietnam. They have been punished enough. Aid now will encourage the regime to moderate further.

I see that my time is beginning to come to an end, but I should like to suggest that, because we have played such a major part in the Gulf war, our standing with the United States may now be at a very high level and we might be in a position to urge them to join together with the Soviet Union in trying to end the continuing conflict in Afghanistan by ending the supply of arms to the warring factions from both sides.

The best long-term help for refugees is surely to end wars and forcible annexations of territory. But in the meantime we should contribute, and urge others to contribute, to programmes which uphold human dignity and life. It should be remembered that refugees are often the most enterprising members of communities. They are not prepared simply to sit and suffer in the grim circumstances of their own countries. They get on their bikes or, more appropriately perhaps, mules, camels and, most frequently of all, their feet, and their courage deserves to be recognised.

6.47 p.m.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I should like to join with those who have sent their good wishes to the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs. I am sure that we all hope to see her back very soon.

My first two points concern domestic aspects of the wider question of refugees in the world. Following last year's invasion of Kuwait, a decision was taken in the Home Office not to renew the visas of any Iraqi nationals now in Britain. If that decision stands, several thousand people will have to leave this country. Their prospects of returning to Iraq in its present state of turmoil are not good. Many of these people are opponents of the Ba'ath regime. They include Kurds and members of the democratic opposition, who may have to seek asylum in third countries if they cannot remain in Britain.

I understand that the Home Secretary is taking new advice following the ceasefire in Kuwait and the release of most of the allied prisoners of war. I am therefore confidently expecting a substantial easement in the present situation and one hopes that that will happen rather soon. The visa holders include long-term residents, short-term visitors and students. Non-renewal will cause severe personal hardship and is a more severe measure than those taken by our allies who joined with us in enforcing the UN resolutions.

A return to normal consideration of visas will contribute to long-term goodwill between Britain and the Arab and Moslem world. I accept that problems may arise over some students who are no longer being paid for by the Iraqi Government. All I ask is that their cases should be considered individually, since there may be other sources of funding especially for those in their final year. I look forward therefore to an early and helpful Government response.

I turn now to asylum seekers; that is, people seeking full refugee status in the United Kingdom. These are people who have a well-grounded fear of persecution, whether for political, religious, racial or other reasons. Her Majesty's Government have already made access to the United Kingdom more difficult than it used to be. Passports and visas are required and airlines are heavily fined if they bring in undocumented passengers. Despite this, the numbers arriving in this country tend to rise year by year, as was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn.

I believe that this reflects the denial of human rights by violent and brutal governments, and the number of wars, especially civil wars, now raging throughout the world. I am glad that the Home Office does at least inform the Foreign Office of the countries of origin of the asylum seekers who reach our shores. Increased co-operation between government departments and with the United Nations and voluntary agencies would be most welcome.

I would like to put some questions to Her Majesty's Government. Will they guarantee that asylum seekers who have suffered torture will not be subjected to detention on arrival in Britain? Will they seek to improve the training of interviewers and interpreters who examine the applications of asylum seekers? Will they ensure that bona fide applicants are given refugee status and are not fobbed off with "exceptional leave to remain", a point very well made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon? This lesser permission means that an applicant has no right to be reunited in this country with his next of kin. There is a subsidiary point which is the question of the full rate of social security for asylum seekers pending decision on whether or not, and how, they can stay in this country. It has been raised on several occasions in social security Bills, and I hope that the full force of the point is now beginning to get through to the Government.

My final point concerns the 20 million or so people threatened by famines in Africa. Famine has many causes; drought, climatic change, poverty, population pressure, etc. I wish to concentrate on the connection between wars, refugee movements, both internal and external, and food shortages, disease and death. For years now war has been endemic in the Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and the Ogaden, as well as in Mozambique and Angola. These are just the most obvious examples of places where there have been massive movements of population, usually triggered by fighting, and ending in disease and death. Poor societies struggling to survive have been crippled by forces outside their control.

The richer countries have much to answer for, because they have repeatedly encouraged war for strategic reasons and by supplying arms both to insurgents and to repressive regimes. Now that the cold war is officially over I trust that the situation can be improved. The United Nations and individual countries have responded magnificently to the seizure of Kuwait and the murderous assaults on the civilian populations of Israel and Saudi Arabia. International effort on a comparable scale is now needed to come to the rescue of the refugees and famine victims in Africa. This kind of action will, I think, help to reduce the flow of asylum seekers generally into Europe.

I am sure that Her Majesty's Government can and will give a lead to which others throughout the world will respond. In particular I ask that the surplus food stocks of Europe be used to maximum effect. This must not be to replace local agriculture but to avert famine from those who have no other resources. Transport may often be the key to effective help, and it needs planning now.

6.54 p.m.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, I sincerely hope that there will be a positive response to the many pleas that have been put forward here tonight and there might even be a change of emphasis and of direction in government policy in relation to the problem. I am not suggesting for a moment that it is an easy problem to solve. It is extremely difficult to operate the convention of 1951 and make distinctions between political and economic refugees.

I pay tribute to the work that has been done at the reception centres by some of the officials concerned in order to apply reasonably humanitarian policies within their remit. It is not easy. It has placed an immense burden on the local authorities, particularly in the poorer areas of London, which have to accept responsibility for administering some of the policies. They are funded by the Government, but nevertheless there ale immense pressures on them to operate a reasonable and humane policy with their limited resources.

I come to the problem of refugees with some experience in the field. At the end of the last war and during the war I was involved with the United Nations as an official in settling refugees and displaced persons. At that time it seemed an impossible task. We had something like 11 million people making their way from Eastern Europe into the new territories and redefined frontiers of Western Europe. There was a vast upset at that time. But we were able to deal with the problem. One of the reasons why we were able to do so reasonably was that there was a will at the end of that war to do something about resettling the displaced persons and refugees. People had become aware of the problems of the Jews who had to escape from Eastern Europe, and we worked together in the United Nations to achieve reasonable resettlement.

Resources have been mentioned. It was to the credit of this country at the end of the last war, bombed as we were and in many areas economically seriously affected, with our economy disturbed and distressed by the war, that in 1945 and 1946 this country gave 1 per cent. of its GNP for the restoration of the economies and to help people who were affected by the war. At the present time we are not giving 0.7 per cent., which is the United Nations' target, despite our relative affluence at this time.

I am sure that we felt better for it. As a nation we had moral standing as a result of that kind of policy and that kind of gesture which enhanced our position in the world. Therefore, as has been already asked tonight, is this not the time, now that the Gulf war is behind us, to make a similar commitment, with a similar national will, to deal with the kind of problem that is being discussed here tonight?

I have been given by Amnesty International a list of the trouble spots, and many of them have been mentioned. It is a serious problem concerning something like 14 million to 16 million people, as has been pointed out. This is not a statistic. We are talking about people—about human beings with the same desires and aspirations as us who are the children of God. These people now require and are crying out for our help.

What can we do? It is extremely difficult, as I say, to make a distinction between the economic refugee and the political refugee because the rules were drawn up in 1951 when most of our experience was based on refugees arriving from Eastern Europe, like Jewish refugees, who had been the subject of persecution during the war. But it occurs to me that one or two things can be done. One is immediate and domestic, and that is that the resources available to the Home Office for dealing with this matter should be increased.

I spent an hour yesterday with Mr. Peter Lloyd, the Minister responsible for refugees. I was impressed by his sincerity and desire to do something about the problem. He said that it is a matter of resources. The department does not have sufficient people to process the applications. As the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, said, 14 months will elapse before a permanent or temporary entry can be cleared. That creates tremendous tension and problems not only for the individual but also for the people dealing with the matter during that period. We must expedite the process. It is a question of resources. In the name of humanity the Government must put sufficient resources at the disposal of the Home Office to process the applications.

What can be done on the international front? Many refugees are fleeing from civil war within their own countries. Now that the status of the United Nations has been enhanced by the Gulf war, there should be a greater intervention by the nations which subscribe to the United Nations to bring civil war to an end wherever it is possible to bring their influence to bear.

Further, positive steps must be taken—we recently discussed the situation in Sri Lanka—to influence the situation in those countries where serious violations of human rights occur. We can influence by aid and policies that affect the economy. That may be difficult. Often the people who suffer from restrictions are the poorest people. Nevertheless, pressure can be brought to bear in a number of ways to ensure a greater respect for human rights.

Our contribution to aid must be stepped up. It is foolish to spend so much time, effort and money attempting to stem the flow of refugees rather than looking at the source of the problem. Why are people leaving their countries? I must say that our record in regard to the contribution of aid is miserable and does not match the high moral stance our country once enjoyed in dealing with these matters.

Therefore I suggest, first, that domestically the Government place more resources at the disposal of the Home Office for the purpose of processing the applications for asylum. Secondly, along with others they should attempt to create a new climate of will to do something. Let us put the wars behind us and think positively of how we can bring some humanity into international affairs. That would be a great gesture to assist the United Nations and international organisations in dealing with the refugee problem.

7.4 p.m.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, I join other Peers in wishing the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, a speedy return to your Lordships' House. We are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, for introducing this important and timely debate. I seek to speak on the plight of unaccompanied refugee children coming to this country and I shall confine myself to that topic.

On 29th January this year Miss Moser of the Refugee Council and chairman of the working group on unaccompanied refugee children spoke to a well attended meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Children. Mr. Taylor, the group director of the social services department for Hillingdon, submitted a helpful paper. He was competent to do so, in that Hillingdon includes London Airport in its area. As chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Children, I was asked to see the relevant Ministers concerning the present difficulties with regard to refugee children in this country. Instead of doing that I shall submit my questions to my noble friend the Minister.

There is much work to be done to improve the well-being of children in this country. That said, it must be faced that the condition of many children in other countries is deplorable. It is no wonder that such children seek asylum in our land. The numbers of refugee children coming to this country are growing and are likely to increase. In the last six months of 1990 six times as many children arrived in this country as had arrived during the preceding 10 years.

Unaccompanied refugee children fall into two categories. Under the quota system a number of children—many from Vietnam and Hong Kong—come to the United Kingdom with some degree of planning, prior knowledge and agreement and with the co-operation of voluntary organisations, in particular the Save the Children Fund. The situation is not entirely satisfactory. There are deficiencies in the planning and assessment of such children. Up to 2,000 children came to this country from Vietnam, often via Hong Kong. A small number of those children were unaccompanied. There should be better knowledge of the needs of individual children obtained, if possible, before they arrive in the United Kingdom, including a proper family history, information about friends, extended family and neighbours who are in this country.

The second group of children are those for whom no plans have been made. They come to the notice of the Refugee Council via the port of entry or refugee communities. They are aged up to 17 years and arrive due to serious conflicts in their own countries of origin, which include Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Angola, and Somalia. They have also included a number of Kurdish children.

Those children have usually experienced violence, hunger—indeed famine—and disruption of family life, often, though not always, through the death of a parent. Noble Lords may ask how they come to this country unaccompanied. It appears that their parents, relatives or friends find the money to buy a ticket. They obtain a ticket in the country of origin as a visitor. They arrive at the airport and ask a family to look after the child during the flight. When the child arrives at either London Airport or Gatwick the kind people who were looking after the child continue their journey and the child is left.

One small girl was left sitting in London Airport for two days. During that time all that she possessed was stolen. Another child was very kindly taken home by a woman. But she could not keep the child. It possessed a dirty scrap of paper on which was written, "Dollis Hill". The woman took the child to the police in Dollis Hill. They knew that in the area was a church hall where someone was looking after refugee children.

As may be imagined, those children need all the help that can be given. The difficulty is that most of the responsibility for looking after them falls on the directors of social services in Hillingdon, where London airport is based, and West Sussex, where Gatwick airport is based. Other local authorities offer help. Camden has opened a home for 20 children. These children need particular help. Very often they cannot speak English and they do not understand our way of life. They are disoriented and unhappy.

What should be done about them? The Refugee Council submitted to the Home Office and the Ministry of Health a paper entitled Better Child Care for Unaccompanied Refugee Children and Adolescents coming to the United Kingdom. First, I recommend that a conference should be held of the voluntary organisations in this country—of which we have many and they are splendid organisations—together with the statutory organisations and the Ministers concerned for the environment, the Home Office, and the health and immigration departments. A well-run conference would be of enormous value.

Secondly, we should set up a co-ordinating agency for refugee children to be funded by central government which will provide care for children and adolescents. That might be done by a voluntary organisation or a group of them. I am sure that the Save the Children Fund would wish to be involved. Such a co-ordinating agency should develop programmes and policies to meet the needs of refugee children.

Thirdly, inevitably there is the question of resources. A child who is unaccompanied and homeless has a statutory right to be accepted into care. In any case, the West Sussex and Hillingdon local authorities would wish to accept such children into care because they would not wish them to stay in any part of London like an airport, or at a Home Office centre. It has to be faced that local authorities, if asked to take children into care (statutorily, they have to do it) are faced with the cost of £35,000 per child per year. That adds £5 to the community charge for each resident in the area where the children are taken into care.

Fourthly, there should be a survey and inspection of all the present projects where there are refugee children. Such children need particular care and attention, especially where their education and health are concerned.

Finally, I make two further points. There were great difficulties in this country when the Romanian children needed to be cared for. A number of people fetched them from Romania to this country. I pay tribute to Mr. Peter Thurnham of the other place and also to Mrs. Virginia Bottomley, who together managed to work in such a way that a structure has been set up to deal with children coming to this country. If such a good piece of work can be done in such a short time, I suggest that it can also be done for the unaccompanied refugee children. We shall be going into the EC very shortly. The European countries have made provision for the care and reception of unaccompanied refugee children. We shall not be in the vanguard, but I hope that we shall take our part in this work.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, it is extremely difficult to begin to sum up this debate. Like everybody else, I am sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, cannot be with us today. I certainly wish her well. Her presence is always welcome in your Lordships' Chamber.

Like others, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, on taking up this brief and for dealing with it extremely well. What he said about asylum seekers in this country needs to be underlined. It has been mentioned on many sides of the House. It is a pity that the noble. Lord the Lord Privy Seal is unable to be in his place today because some of the problems that we face come from legislation that he saw through onto the statute book when he was in another place. I believe that he has some minor technical problems in Ribble Valley which prevent him from being with us.

Like others, I was extremely grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon for saying what I am sure is in all our hearts; namely, that these are people-problems and that there are deep moral problems that we should face. These are not technical matters but issues that go to the very heart of humanity. I also apologise for the absence of my noble friend Lord Mackie of Benshie who would have spoken in this debate. He left for Europe about an hour ago in order to attend the Council of Europe Migration and Refugee Committee where he will be doing very good work on the same subject.

It is very easy to be overwhelmed by the size of the problem that faces us. It seems intractable. As has been said already, we are talking about 16 million refugees in various parts of the world. Many noble Lords have mentioned definitions for refugees. I believe we are all agreed that we are talking about people who cannot rely on the protection of the state of which they are citizens. Therefore they have to be protected by the international community. Sadly, as has already been said, there are signs that the richer nations of the world are beginning to turn their backs on refugees and to find excuses for not allowing them to enter their countries. They are finding ways of defining refugees so that they are no longer acceptable to these countries. They are sent back to face heaven only knows what trials and tribulations.

We must be conscious of the fact that only a very small proportion of refugees come to the West and that the major burden of the refugee problem is borne by countries which are already poor. Most refugees remain in developing countries and usually close to their country of origin. It has already been mentioned that the UNHCR budget is being squeezed. That is deplorable. I shall come back to that subject later.

It must be said that this country has a good record in comparison with many others in relation to its support for the UNHCR. Within its limited resources the ODA has been doing an extremely good job. I wish to pay tribute to the right honourable Lynda Chalker for the work she has done in that post. Many of us in this House who speak on the subject of transport would have been delighted to see her in the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Transport, although I know that her officials would much prefer that she stays where she is. I daresay that the refugees of the world would agree with them.

There is an enormous mountain to climb. We have heard some statistics and I shall produce a few more, bearing in mind that each single statistic is a person involving feelings, aspirations and fears. The noble Lord, Lord Ennals, has a particular interest in South-East Asia. I am sorry that he cannot be with us today. There are about 200,000 Indo-Chinese still awaiting durable solutions in UNHCR camps. In the past 15 years about 2 million people have sought asylum in neighbouring countries in that part of the world. A comprehensive plan of action was produced at the International Conference on Indo-Chinese Refugees held in 1989. The procedures for establishing who is and who is not to be described as a refugee are now in place in all first countries of asylum. The UNHCR is playing a useful monitoring role, but it has been unable to increase staff levels to the levels that it would wish in order to do the job as well as it would like. It is not able properly to monitor those who are returning voluntarily, or supposedly voluntarily. In Hong Kong, where we have a special responsibility, the fate of unaccompanied children is causing considerable concern. The noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, has rightly pointed to the situation in this country. One can imagine the situation in somewhere like Hong Kong where these people are faced with problems of interpretation. Without legal support and without the support of an organisation like the British Refugee Council their fate could be even worse.

At this point I should like to pay tribute to the British Refugee Council. As noble Lords will know, I am fortunate to be chairman of the Middle East Committee, and the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis is now the chairman of the Refugee Council. It is doing a wonderful job in this country, not least in briefing noble Lords so well for this debate.

I return to what I was saying about Hong Kong and Vietnamese refugees. The Government have granted £1 million to NGOs in Haiphong and Quan Minh, but what is necessary is that the structural problems of poverty in Vietnam itself should be dealt with. This is where the political arguments come into play. We have sadly been unprepared to help Vietnam to restore itself to being a prosperous country. People have mentioned refugees in Thailand coming from Cambodia, but around 100,000 refugees in Thailand have come from Burma. In some ways the recipient countries cannot be blamed for the less than perfect human rights granted to these people. Indeed the position there is very insecure because the Thai Government have passed legislation fining those who help what they describe as illegal Burmese refugees. I have to say that those who are liable to fines include foreign NGO workers who are trying to help these refugees.

Afghanistan was mentioned by the right reverend Prelate and Sri Lanka was touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe. In Sri Lanka there are around 1.1 million internally displaced people: 180,000 have fled to India and 120,000 have fled to Europe. Africa has been mentioned. In Liberia around 700,000 refugees have been created by the civil war. As one goes round the world one is driven to the conclusion that man's inhumanity to man knows no bounds.

As chairman of the Middle East Committee of the Refugee Council my particular interest is in that area. The results of the Gulf war are something that we should not forget. Around 200,000 foreign residents from Iraq and Kuwait have fled as a result of the war. There are very considerable problems in the occupied territories because of the loss of remittances from the Gulf. The continued closure of schools and universities in that unhappy area is certainly not helping to bring about peace in that troubled land.

In Turkey there is the major problem of Kurdish refugees. Around 25,000 remain in camps to which they fled following the chemical weapons bombing in 1988. As a result of the war the Turkish Government have imposed an emergency curfew. Can the Minister say whether that curfew has yet been removed? The Turkish Government have not accepted them as refugees so their status is very uncertain because they are being refused access by UNHCR. Access to these camps has also been denied to the ambassadors of the European Community countries and to representatives of industrialised countries. Can the Government give any reassurance that they are putting pressure on the Turkish Government to try to improve the lot of those unfortunate people?

Time is running out but I should like to say this. At the end of the day these problems will not be solved by palliatives. They will be solved, as someone has already said, by getting rid of civil war and the strife which causes the refugee problems. In the meantime it is our duty as human beings and members of the world community to do everything in our power to assist these people through the United Nations agencies and in other ways.

We shall get a great deal of money in the begging bowl which we and the Americans have taken round the world. Vast sums of money will come to us for all the good things we have done in winning this war, a war which I have certainly supported from beginning to end, a necessary evil if you like. A great deal of money will flow into our coffers. Could not a small amount of it be diverted to the United Nations relief organisations? Would that be too much to ask at this time?

7.25 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I am indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, for having declared my interest in this debate for me. I am delighted that he should have paid tribute to the Refugee Council and I am delighted that he is a colleague of mine there.

This has been a remarkable debate. The whole House, as has been said on a number of occasions, is indebted to my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition for having initiated it. For me it has been an extremely moving debate, marked by testimony given by people with considerable expertise and, above all, with deep interest in resolving the difficulties confronted all too often by refugees, by those who are seeking asylum.

In opening the debate my noble friend made a very eloquent, probing and important speech. He raised a number of questions. One of the most important goes to the very heart of the debate about refugees, whether it is in national or international terms. I refer to the need for getting rid of the secrecy which tends to shroud these matters and to which I shall return in a European dimension in a moment or two.

If I may say so, the Government would do well to ponder hard and long—but not too long—on the suggestions made by the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull. They were ideas that need to be acted on or at least clearly responded to. I welcome what she had to say. The noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, was quite right, as were a number of other noble Lords, in seeking to put the situation in its true perspective. There are 16 million recognised refugees—there are many more than that really—in the world today. Most live in refugee camps in developing countries. Only a very small proportion come to the West—the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon made that point and an even tinier proportion come to this country. It is those very poor countries in the world which are usually adjoining a serious problem that gives rise to refugees which have to shoulder the main burdens. They find themselves in situations where it is extraordinarily difficult for them to do that.

The Government express great concern about the increase in the number of asylum seekers who will be coming to this country. Regrettably, perhaps predictably, they are proposing to be even more restrictive in their approach. I seriously regret that. On 7th February the Home Secretary told another place that the number of applications, which used to be about 4,000 a year, went up to an estimated 30,000 in 1990. He then went on to say that while we must obviously ensure that we provide a refuge for those who are fleeing from a well-founded fear of persecution, many of the people applying for political asylum are nothing more than economic migrants who prefer to live in Western Europe or our country rather than their own. He said that this was not what the refugee convention was intended to do. That introduced a pejorative and damaging note into the debate about refugees, and one is entitled to resent it.

For the most part there is nothing sinister about the motivations of those who come seeking political asylum. Of course there will be exceptions, but I suggest on the basis of the evidence that has been given to me by the Refugee Council that they are a small minority. People are escaping to Western Europe because of violations of human rights, because of warfare, because of civil wars, because they are fleeing from repression. It is sometimes very difficult to draw a line between somebody who is a genuine refugee and somebody who is a so-called economic refugee.

There are environmental refugees in the world today on a huge scale. They face conditions of soil erosion and deforestation and natural and technical disasters. Where are we to draw the line in the contemporary situation to take account of that too? They too are driven from their homelands. According to the United Nations environment programme there are around 500 million environmental refugees at the present time. What is required from the wealthier countries of the world—I echo what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff—is a much clearer, much more humanitarian and much more transparent policy of asylum for refugees. That goes hand in hand with more imaginative policies towards the developing world to deal with questions of debt, technology exchange and true partnership. We need to give much more help to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, a point made by my the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff. I need not elaborate on it, but I agree with everything he had to say.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon rightly said that refugees are not just statistics or problems, they are human beings. Often they are children alone in the world crying out for decent treatment and for help, as the noble Baroness, Lady Faithful], rightly stated. Too often refugees, whether children or adults, are treated as pawns in the arena of world politics. We have to recognise that fact.

I come to the role of the European Community, albeit somewhat briefly. Will the Europe of 1992 be open for trade and closed to refugees—closed to compassionate ideas? The worrying signs and unhappy omens are there to be seen. Policies which affect refugees are dealt with in what is known as the Trevi Group and the ad hoc group on immigration. Encompassed in their deliberations are matters affecting illegal immigration, so often confused and wrongly confused with the issues of refugees, drugs and terrorists. That in itself encourages an unfortunate treatment of the refugee problem.

The problem is compounded, as has been rightly said, by the secrecy surrounding the activities of these groups. There is no consultation or openness. No one knows what goes on there. The Commission itself is relegated to being almost a bystander in these matters. We know that developing within what is known as the Dublin Convention is a one chance only rule for asylum seekers across the whole European Community. That is very dangerous indeed because we know that support will not be given by this Government—the junior Minister said this in a Written Answer of 21st February—to the setting up of a European appeal court to give a right of appeal against a refusal to grant asylum. That is deplorable.

In the few moments I have left I turn to the domestic scene. I shall add one or two observations to those that have already been made. Reference was made to the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Act 1987, an odious Act. It is odious because it takes no account of the obvious difficulties that confront people fleeing from persecution in obtaining documents which can be validated. Airline staff become immigration officers, untrained to boot. But now we hear that the Government are proposing to increase the fine from £1,000 to £2,000 per person and to extend the requirements for visas. Will the Minister say whether that is true?

The Government are also seeking to reduce the number of asylum seekers being given permission to remain. What they are going to do as far as we can see is to cut down the number of those who are given exceptional leave to remain. That represents a major risk. The Government assert that those in that classification have no claim under the Geneva Convention. Many of them are genuine refugees with a well-founded fear of persecution. They may be compelled to go back to the perils from which they have fled. We know that mistakes have been made —serious mistakes—regarding the Tamils and the Kurds. The courts have found against the Government—rather late in the day, because those people were wrongly forced to go back. I hope that the Minister will apologise for what occurred on those occasions.

There is also the question of the resettlement of refugees. The local authorities and voluntary agencies must be given more help, particularly those local authorities which assume willingly the responsibility for dealing with them, as against some local authorities which perhaps characteristically refuse to do so, notably Wandsworth and Westminster. We need a national response to the refugee issue. We need more help for the local authorities and the voluntary agencies, which are strapped for money. I hope that the report of the Cabinet sub-committee review, when it comes to be available, will be published—a request made by my noble friend earlier in the debate.

I should like to have said something about Hong Kong. I am deeply concerned about some of the things going on there. However, I do not have the time. I hope that the Minister will be able to say that, particularly towards children, a more compassionate attitude will be taken. Translation methods should be perfected regarding these people. We need to ensure that the indignity which is heaped on refugees there and in this country is eradicated from the political agenda.

I conclude on this note. There are so many refugee problems in the world about which one could have spoken. Some have been selected very movingly during the course of the debate. I hope and pray that the Government as a whole—Mrs. Chalker has been rightly picked out by the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, for commendation—will evince a much more understanding and realistic view on our own position in the world regarding refugees than has been the case in the past. It is an obligation that rests on the shoulders of the Government.

7.37 p.m.

Lord Reay

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition for stepping in at short notice to introduce the debate. I am sorry that it should have been necessary for him to do so and I sincerely hope that we shall see the noble Baroness back in her place in the very near future.

I thank noble Lords for their extremely well informed and wide-ranging contributions to this debate on the international problem of refugees. There is much more that can be said about refugees than we have time to cover today, and more about our policy towards refugees than I can attempt to say in the time I have available. But I should like to set out briefly the main lines of our policy.

The 1951 United Nations convention relating to the status of refugees, and its 1967 protocol, provide the main international framework for the recognition and treatment of refugees. Indeed these instruments give the accepted definition of a refugee as a person outside his or her country of nationality who has a: well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country". The United Kingdom has ratified both these international instruments. The 1951 United Nations convention and its 1967 protocol form the basis of the United Kingdom's policy on refugees. We uphold the rule of international law, both at home and abroad, as laid out in these instruments.

It might be useful to illustrate the international refugee problem by looking at applications for asylum in this country. In 1988 we received only about 5,000 asylum applications. The Home Office estimates that in 1990 the tally will reach about 30,000 when it is completed. Other Western countries report a similar picture. The surge cannot be attributed solely to the opening of borders, welcome as that is, in Central and Eastern Europe: the great majority of applicants in this country are from Africa and Asia. The refugee problem is global. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that there are perhaps 16 million refugees worldwide. That is a staggering figure by anyone's standards.

The definition of a refugee contained in the 1951 UN convention does not by any means cover all people who choose to leave their country. UNHCR estimates that there are also perhaps about 80 million migrants throughout the world, excluding refugees. They represent about 2 per cent. of the world's population. Their numbers are more likely to rise than to fall. It is important to consider the root causes of migration. There are many factors which can push a person towards leaving his country; for example, war, poverty, large-scale natural disasters, ecological degradation, population pressures and, not least, human rights violations. Only the last of these can give rise to refugees. Equally there are the so-called "pull-factors" which tempt a person to leave his own country, to seek a new life in another. It is not pejorative to say that; it is a fact. We are fortunate to live in a free and democratic country. We have the opportunity to gain an education and a career. In short, we have the opportunity to better ourselves.

The right reverend Prelate said that it was fashionable to distinguish between political refugees and economic migrants. That distinction lies at the heart of the UN convention. The definition contained in the 1951 convention does not cover people whose primary motivation for leaving their country is a search for a better economic life. One of the challenges the international community faces is to preserve the institution of political asylum in the interests of true refugees. It is important for that reason not to allow the misuse of the asylum process. However, at the same time, we must not lose sight of the problems faced by other migrants who may often be in need of our humanitarian concern.

A most notable example of this concern has been shown by the Hong Kong authorities who at great cost, and at a time of considerable uncertainty, have provided a safe haven for some 185,000 Vietnamese asylum seekers since 1975. The cornerstone of our policy is that genuine refugees should enjoy protection, but that migrants should return to their country of origin to migrate through legitimate channels if they wish. Screening was introduced in 1988 in collaboration with UNHCR to give effect to this policy. So far 34 per cent. of asylum seekers have been screened; of these only 20 per cent. have been determined to be refugees. Hong Kong has about 13,000 people who have been determined not to be refugees. The Hong Kong Government and the UNHCR will continue to work closely together to achieve the orderly return of those people as soon as possible. Only in this way can the rights of genuine refugees be protected.

The international refugee problem is, as I said, a global one. We should not be under any illusions. Our ability to influence events, even with greater efforts and the best international co-operation, is strictly limited. The main aim of our policy is to support, both politically and financially, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The High Commissioner has a mandate from the UN Secretary-General to protect and assist refugees and to search for durable solutions to refugee problems. For example, we are chairing a UNHCR working group in Geneva of interested countries looking at the long-term solution to refugee problems and the protection of refugees. We fully support that objective. We welcome the appointment of the new UN High Commissioner Mrs. Sadako Ogata who took up her appointment on 18th February. We are regularly one of UNHCR's highest donors. In 1990 we contributed about £19.3 million—about 29 per cent. of the contributions came from government sources —and the ICRC contributed some £5 million. We support the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. In 1990 we contributed about £5.5 million. We also fully support the International Committee of the Red Cross which provides assistance to refugees, often in sensitive political areas where other relief agencies cannot work. We also contributed about £5 million to ICRC appeals.

Refugees and other displaced people often need urgent humanitarian assistance. We currently devote about £60 million to providing such assistance, most of which goes to refugees. A typical example of this need followed Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on 2nd August which displaced large numbers of foreign nationals who needed urgent assistance. We responded quickly providing some £11 million through the international relief organisations such as the International Red Cross and the International Organisition for Migration. Some of that money was channelled through the European Community. The international relief agencies provided emergency life sustaining assistance to the refugees trapped on Iraq's border with Jordan. But our contribution also went towards providing a long-term solution by assisting over 160,000 people to return to their own countries. Other resources were then mobilised, for example, from the World Bank, to help the refugees re-settle in their own countries.

Perhaps I may now turn to the domestic implications of large-scale applications for asylum. It is the arrival of asylum seekers and the determination of their claims for protection under the 1951 convention which makes refugee matters most obviously impinge on the domestic scene in this country. I referred earlier to the sharp rise in the number of asylum applications we have received in recent years in this country. That is part of a general upward trend in Western countries over the last decade. There were well over 400,000 applications in Europe last year. Each case is considered individually against the criteria of the convention. If an asylum seeker is found to have, a well-founded fear of persecution", and there is no other country to which he should reasonably look for protection, he is granted asylum in the United Kingdom.

Most asylum seekers in Europe are not refugees. A significant proportion are trying to use asylum channels to circumvent normal immigration controls. The motives of many more are mixed. The problem cannot, therefore, be addressed solely in a refugee context: it is intertwined with the broader migratory pressures in the world to which I have alluded. The Government have an obligation to maintain their policy of firm and fair control of immigration to this country. Their asylum policy and procedures must balance and reconcile those different obligations.

The rapid increase in the number of asylum seekers to the present unprecedented levels have placed our arrangements for the determination of their claims under considerable strain. It already takes about 14½ months to decide an asylum application, and the backlog of over 35,000 cases in the asylum division is growing.

The Government are conducting an urgent review of all their arrangements for asylum seekers. The staffing and structure of the asylum division are being addressed in that review, together with arrangements for receiving asylum seekers and for maintaining them while their cases are considered.

In the long term the solution to many refugee problems will only come with the realisation of what is the fundamental aim of British foreign policy: the creation of a stable and prosperous world order where nations can live in peace and security and where business and trade can create wealth and prosperity. We seek to avert conflict and to promote regional security. There is no better example of this than our contribution to the coalition effort to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. His invasion devastated Kuwait, created fear and misery for every Kuwaiti, and destroyed the livelihood of thousands of foreign nationals who were forced to flee the country leaving their jobs and possessions behind them.

Another major objective of our foreign policy is to encourage what can perhaps best be referred to as "good government". That means encouraging governments to make the best use of available resources for the long term good of their people. Good government calls for the remedies of law to be made available to the ordinary citizen; for an end to corruption and to the self-serving greed of elites; for an end to excessive military spending; and for the creation of a just and impartial electoral system. We can best achieve those aims by making progress in these areas a criterion for our aid.

I shall now try to deal with some of the points which were raised during the debate. The noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition asked what publication the review would receive. No decision has yet been taken on how to promulgate the results of the review. He said how unhappy he was with the procedures, and that they needed examination and overhaul. Those procedures are being reviewed at present, as are MPs' rights of representation. The aspects of policy, which he stated are Labour Party policy, also fall within the scope of the present review.

My noble friend Lord Brentford asked about Ugandan refugees in Kenya. They well exemplify the complexity of the long-standing refugee problem. I cannot comment in detail. Our policy is to encourage voluntary repatriation, to use the ODA, if appropriate, and to enlist the help of voluntary agencies. Our approach is multilateral through, for example, UNHCR and in company with other donors. We do not see it as being a problem for us alone.

The right reverend Prelate drew attention to Afghan refugees. It is 11 years since Russia invaded Afghanistan and imposed a communist regime acceptable to the Soviet Union which led to one-third of the Afghan population leaving the country. There are still some 3.5 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, mainly in camps near the border. Another 2 million are in Iran. The majority are unlikely to return until the fighting is over and security is improved.

We have given £70 million towards Afghan refugee relief and resettlement programmes since 1980, including over £17 million in the past two years. Most has been sent directly to the United Nations specialised agencies, the ICRC and British charities such as the Save the Children Fund and Afghan Aid. The right reverend Prelate made the point that the wealth gap is immoral and destablising. I agree. He said that we need to make greater efforts to overcome poverty. We have a large and well-targeted bilateral aid programme and make an equally substantial contribution to multilateral development agencies. All that helps to tackle fundamental problems which, I agree, generate refugees and economic migrants in the first place.

The noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition and the noble Lords, Lord Rea and Lord Hylton, asked about the training of immigration officials. My right honourable friend already pays close attention to that point. The UNHCR and outside academics are involved in training sessions and the further development of training is under active consideration.

The noble Lord, Lord Rea, talked about the shortfall in the UNHCR finances. In 1989, it faced a deficit of 38 million US dollars. However, sensible reforms in its administration were undertaken and through that and the generosity of other donor governments, that deficit was absorbed in 1990 and there is now no shortfall. He asked about an Oxford seminar. The ODA will attend. On forced repatriation to Cambodia, the United Nations plan for a Cambodia settlement takes full account of international obligations, including those under the 1951 convention.

The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, asked about Iraqi visa holders. Any Iraqi national, like any other national, who claims to fear persecution if returned to his own country will have his case fully considered against the criteria of the 1951 convention. Deportations are a matter for my right honourable friend the Secretary of State who will no doubt want to take account of all recent developments before taking a final decision.

The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, asked for a guarantee that tortured asylum seekers will not be detained. It would be unrealistic to give such an unequivocal guarantee. It can take time to establish the facts and some applicants may falsely claim to have been tortured. However, I can give an assurance that the Home Office is fully aware of and sensitive to the needs of that group of people. He said we were fobbing off refugees with exceptional leave. The Government's policy is carefully and correctly to apply the criteria of the 1951 convention in every case. There is no question of denying refugee status to those entitled to it.

The noble Lord asked me about the rate of social security payments. Arrangements for maintaining asylum seekers while their cases are decided are included in the review.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, for showing some understanding of the problem and of the difficulties of administering policy in this field. He pointed to what he claimed were insufficient resources for the determination system. With the massive increase in applications, it is clear that there is now a total mismatch between the case load and the resources currently available to process it. That is a key element in the current review.

My noble friend Lady Faithfull and the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, mentioned unaccompanied minors. That is a difficult area within the overall question of reception arrangements for asylum seekers, but it is also something that is being addressed in the current review. I can give my noble friend the assurance that I shall pass on her proposals to the Department of Health and the Home Office. I know that it is a matter that they are looking at closely.

The noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, asked me about the Kurds in Turkey. We have made available £250,000 to help the Kurdish refugees in Turkey and to improve the situation in the camps. I regret the Turkish government's decision not to go ahead with the project.

We have persistently sought better treatment for the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. We share the concern felt about the hardships they have undergone during the recent crisis and, with our European Community partners, have increased our aid to them.

The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, asked me about visas and carriers' liability. Those matters are also being considered in the present review. I cannot give an answer at this stage. Press reports are inevitably speculative.

The international problem of refugees is one which has risen high on the international agenda. The United Kingdom is playing a leading role in international efforts to find solutions to the most difficult and intractable problems in which we encourage the whole international community to play its part. I can assure your Lordships that it is an area to which the Government will continue to devote the greatest attention.

7.58 p.m.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we have had a valuable debate on a subject of highest importance. I am grateful to noble Lords, the noble Baroness and the right reverend Prelate for their contributions based on their experience and their deep feelings about the plight of millions of our fellow men and women and their children. I am grateful also to the Minister for his exposition of government policy. He gave us a great deal of valuable information which we shall study carefully, although I am bound to say, with great respect to him, that he has not completely allayed our apprehensions about the gravity of the matter.

We shall need to return to these problems again. We cannot allow them to remain on the shelf. It is essential that the report of the interdepartmental committee is published to enable us and the country generally to study the Government's policy and to enable the report to be the basis for a further debate in the House. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.