HL Deb 17 November 1992 vol 540 cc541-8

3.41 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, it may be for the convenience of your Lordships if I repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary in reply to a Private Notice Question about the grant of visas to Bosnian nationals. The reply is as follows: On 5th November I made a Statement to the House about the offer we were making to the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to receive from Bosnia people with special humanitarian needs who the international organisations judged should be evacuated from detention camps and elsewhere. I said that we would be discussing numbers and timing with the UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross. We have informed the UNHCR that we are ready to receive in the first instance 150 former detainees and their dependants, probably making 600 in all. At the same time I announced the imposition of visas on certain nationals of the former Yugoslavia, making it clear that this action was needed to enable us to target our humanitarian assistance where it was most needed. The Leeds European Refugee Trust, which is commonly known as ALERT, was advised on 6th November by my officials that the group it intended to bring to the United Kingdom could not be exempted from the visa regime to be imposed from midnight on that day. This information was repeatedly given to ALERT before its coaches left the United Kingdom on 9th November. Despite this clear advice it proceeded with its plans and then used its coaches to move the group from the more comfortable conditions in the safe city of Ljubljana to the equally peaceful but colder mountainous region on the Austrian border. The ALERT group then lodged applications at the British Embassy in Vienna which were referred to the Home Office asylum division on 13th November. I decided yesterday that visas may be authorised for six members of the group who have existing close family ties with the United Kingdom. They will be free to travel here to lodge applications for asylum, in accordance with normal policy, as the United Kingdom is the most suitable country of refuge in their cases. I also decided that another 180 members of the group should be refused visas because they have insubstantial or no links to the United Kingdom. Their cases are indistinguishable from the plight of about 2 million people displaced in former Yugoslavia. They are more fortunate than those likely to be referred to the government by the UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross in that the ALERT group is housed in hotels and hospitals far away from the fighting. Eight other cases—two with medical conditions and their relatives—remain under active consideration and are the subject of further enquiries. These enquiries include the need to establish that it is necessary for them to have medical treatment in the United Kingdom rather than in the hospitals where they are at present in Slovenia. It would also be necessary to ensure that the National Health Service could provide treatment for the patients if that case could be made. The Government have repeatedly made clear their willingness to make a humanitarian contribution to the problems in the former Yugoslavia by helping to take the cases which the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Committee for the Red Cross judge to be the most needy. As I have already stated, we have agreed to accept an initial group of about 600 people in all. Numbers and timing are being urgently discussed with the UNHCR and ICRC, and of course we stand ready to consider numbers beyond the 600 I have mentioned. My department did not implement the new visa regime without thought for transitional cases. Groups similar to ALERT who were caught by my Statement on 5th November and had already then commenced their journeys were, in fact, exempted from visa requirements. On 7th and 8th November 187 individuals were admitted to the United Kingdom without visas on that basis. ALERT, however, was fully warned of the position before starting its journey and at no time did it have basis for raising the hopes of the unfortunate people concerned".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.46 p.m.

Lord Judd

My Lords, I am sure that we are all very grateful to the noble Earl for this Statement. The noble Earl is a man of considerable sensitivity and concern. Does he not agree that this whole sorry saga has been extraordinarily ineptly and insensitively handled? At the very least, is it not possible that there was a failure on the Government's part to give a clear indication to those concerned as to the implications of policy? For those of us who have worked in humanitarian organisations it is a very real experience for us that it is easy in the context of this country to understand the administrative decisions made by the Government of this country. But it is quite another matter for the fieldworkers caught up in the actual activity in the field to be able to absorb that information, make use of it and change their plans and operations in time.

Furthermore, is it not a fact that the decision on visas was made at short notice and that that had profound implications for everyone who was concerned about the position of the refugees? Has the noble Earl been made aware of the letter sent by the Red Cross in Ljubljana to Sir Giles Shaw, a Member of another place, which stated: I would like to confirm the contents of the letter and certify that 200 refugees with the Leeds European Refugee Trust will meet the United Kingdom criteria for asylum seekers who can be given entry visas as victims of war with desperate need. They are coming from the war area of Bosnia-Herzegovina, some having been released from concentration camps, some are in need of urgent medical attention and others already having close relatives in England. I understand these people are already in transit to England. These people comply with the new visa legislation issued by the British Government". Was the noble Earl aware of that statement by the Red Cross? Furthermore, is he aware of the way in which the decision on visas was introduced? In much of the world it was regarded as extraordinarily cynical in effect. What was said was that we did not have the facilities on the spot to deal with the applications for visas as we would like to be able to deal with them, and therefore people must set out on the journey to another country to find the visas in the embassies in other countries. What an extraordinary way of administering a policy. In effect, is this not simply to pass the buck to the other countries in which the embassies are located because once people have made the journey to those other countries, they become the responsibility of those other countries?

Is the noble Earl also aware that, when referring to the humanitarian and generous decision by the Swiss Government to take 1,500 people in this kind of plight, the Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees said: We are extremely grateful to Switzerland for its help…But the fact remains that we still have to find safe haven for thousands of prisoners who continue to languish in these camps—camps that have been condemned by the international community as an outrage to humanity. If a few more countries followed the example of Switzerland…we could end this sad chapter in a very tragic conflict"? Does the noble Earl not agree that the sane, sensible and humane way to have handled the matter would have been to say, in commonsense terms, that the refugees assembled by ALERT would be allowed in but that this was the absolute point at which the new policy would become operative and, from then on, there would be no further extensions of this kind? Why could we not envisage some humanitarian gesture of that sort? Does the noble Earl feel no shame that these refugees are now going to Spain and countries of that kind because Britain cannot take them? How does he feel about comparing our position—our hard and unyielding line—in the face of the most appalling experiences of the people in Yugoslavia with the position of the Government in Switzerland, a smaller country, which has taken yet again the steps which it has taken?

It is impossible to over-emphasise the sense of bitter frustration among the humanitarian aid workers in many organisations throughout the country at what the Government have done. The Government have thrown back those people's commitment in their faces. It is also impossible to imagine the sense of bewilderment and agony felt by the refugees who have been caught up in a situation over which they have no control. I hope that, even at this late stage, the Government will think again. It is one thing to talk about humanitarian commitment, but the whole of Britain's real reputation for humanitarian commit-ment stands on what it does about these people in this appalling plight.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, I should like to associate myself with what the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said about this particularly unfortunate case which has been handled in a particularly unfortunate and ham-fisted fashion. Is the noble Earl aware that of those 200 people waiting on the border 100 are children? Perhaps some special account might be taken of their needs.

Is the noble Earl further aware that, although he has assured us about the course of events, the story that I have is a rather different one? Like that of the noble Lord, Lord Judd, my information is that ALERT did what it could to go through the procedures that it was told to go through—that is to say, it sought the guidance of the Home Office. It received the support of the International Red Cross via the Ljubljana Red Cross and thought that it had satisfied the requirements of the new ruling. As the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said, the new ruling was introduced at ludicrously short notice and in such a fashion that it was impossible for people to get the visas that they had been told to get. The noble Lord said that that was cynical. I would simply say that it was savagely inhumane. If voluntary agencies follow the course of instructions that they have been told to follow, it seems hard if they should then be told that that is not good enough and that six or seven out of 100 people will be accepted by this country.

Perhaps I may add that I thought that the Government had recently said that they had made it clear to UNHCR and ICRC that, we are ready to receive from Bosnia and from other parts of the former Yugoslavia, people with special humanitarian needs who the international organisations judge should be evacuated, including those released from detention camps". It seems to me that a large number of those in the convoy of 200 people fall precisely into that category. Therefore, I wonder why the Government have gone back on the undertaking which I understand they gave.

Speaking on this subject yesterday in another place, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces said: The House is well aware of the continuing work of the international conference on the former Yugoslavia in Geneva, which is continuing to draw together the efforts of the European Community and the United Nations in close liaison". —[Official Report, Commons, 16/11/92; col. 76.] Perhaps I may suggest that that conference should take into account the refugees as well as other matters because if one thing is absolutely essential it is that the European Community co-ordinates its policy towards the reception of refugees. If each country pursues a "beggar-my-neighbour" policy, not merely will it be an unsavoury spectacle, but it will do nothing to help the refugees or to solve the very real problem which confronts us all, and particularly those countries closest to the former Yugoslavia. I urge the noble Earl not only to take these suggestions seriously, but also to take seriously the condition of these people to whom we have a humane obligation.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I can understand both the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, being concerned about those people who are caught in this predicament. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, said that this was a matter of great sensitivity and he is, of course, right. He said that it had been ineptly and insensitively handled by Her Majesty's Government and added that Her Majesty's Government had not given any clear indication of what was going to happen. I would take issue with the noble Lord on that.

It was stated perfectly clearly on 6th November that as from midnight that night visas would be required. The Member of Parliament for Great Grimsby was advised on 6th November by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office that no exceptions would be made for the ALERT group as its journey had not yet begun. It was fully aware that visas would be required and that these could be obtained only from a British post outside the former Yugoslavia. ALERT officials were subsequent-ly in regular telephone contact on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday —6th, 7th and 8th November —with officials of my department. They were consistently advised that no exceptions could be made and that it was unlikely that the vast majority of the group would qualify for visas under the immigration rules. So ALERT was warned about that and was told about the position; however, ALERT did not stop the coaches leaving the United Kingdom for Ljubljana. As the Statement said, ALERT was then responsible for moving those people from relatively safe conditions to the relatively inconvenient conditions of the foothills in the north of the country.

I can understand certain noble Lords being concerned at the fact that the visa regime was instigated, but we felt that that was necessary because we cannot take everyone into this country. One must try to take those whom the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Red Cross consider the most appropriate. In that respect, it would be wrong for the ALERT group (or for any other group) to take advantage over those who might be in an equally or sometimes even more competitive position in terms of requiring consideration to be given to their cases.

The noble Lord, Lord Judd, referred to the position of the Red Cross. ALERT is well aware that the International Committee of the Red Cross had not asked the United Kingdom to take this group. I think that what the noble Lord, Lord Judd, is referring to is the local delegation of the Red Cross in Ljubljana. That is a local committee; it is not the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is situated in Geneva and which deals on a government-to-government basis. Therefore, whatever the local branch of the Red Cross said, that did not have the authority of the international committee.

I also point out to both noble Lords that Slovenia is in fact a different country. These people had gone from Bosnia to Slovenia and therefore they were in a different country. What we now have to do is to find out whether they nevertheless still require to come to this country.

In all this ALERT has, if I may say so, been responsible for the condition in which these people find themselves. ALERT was warned by the Home Office; it was advised by the Home Office; and despite all the warnings and despite all the advice it nevertheless sent coaches over there; it nevertheless moved these people from a safe position. Then when it finds that it is impossible to give them the visas which they require, ALERT complains and says it is unfair. The responsibility was theirs.

4 p.m.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, does the noble Earl remember the question that I put to him on Thursday of last week about these refugees on the frontier? Does he recall that he said to me then that visa officers were being sent, presumably from Britain, to deal with this problem? Would that not give the impression to those involved, including ALERT, that there was an intention by the British Government to deal effectively with the issue? I was very pleased with the answer that the noble Earl gave me at that time.

Does the Minister accept that ALERT had the support of the local Red Cross? We should not write off the value of the Red Cross at a local level. Does he accept that housing had been obtained in the United Kingdom for all these refugees? In all the circumstances, how could these people be called economic migrants, as they were this morning by Mr. Charles Wardle, the Home Office Minister responsible? It is intolerable and an act of intolerance that the Government should treat these unfortunate people in such a hardhearted way. Will not the Government think again? I wonder whether the noble Earl heard the exchange on the radio this morning between Mr. Charles Wardle and the man who was looking after these people on behalf of ALERT. Does he not feel a certain sense of shame that the British Government are behaving in this hardhearted way? If he does, will not the Government think again about this appalling way of treating people who are in such distress?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I know the anxiety of the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, over these people; and I remember well his question on whether or not these people would have visas. I did not say that visa officers would be sent but that forms would be sent to these people. One has to have a form before one can apply for a visa. I did not give any indication that, having filled in those forms, those people were more likely to have preferential treatment—

Lord Ennals


Earl Ferrers

The noble Lord says "huh" or perhaps it was just an expletive that he emitted while in a sedentary position. I gave no indication—I could not do so—that because a person fills in a form he is to have preferential treatment.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, I did say it from a sedentary position. If the noble Earl says that visas are being sent and decides that he will not send an officer with them, does it not give the impression that the Government have an intention to issue visas?

Earl Ferrers

Certainly not, my Lords. The noble Lord may wish to have a passport. He applies for a passport and then it is up to the Government to consider whether it is suitable to issue it. It is just the same with a visa. One applies for a visa but that gives no indication whatsoever that there is an intention to give a visa. Those forms were sent out there. They were processed over this last week-end in order to help these people. In fact it was found, for the reasons that I have given, that it was not possible to give these people visas.

I come back to the point—but it is an important point—that ALERT took these decisions and took its action against the advice of the Home Office and against the advice of officials there. And having done that, I find it hard to think that it ought to feel a sense of grievance. I quite understand that those people who hoped to come in and now will not do so may feel a degree of sorrow. But there are 2 million people there in as good a position as or in an even worse position than those 180 people. ALERT cannot be the organisation that decides who should or should not come into this country. It must be done by a proper method. The noble Lord asked whether we take account of the support of the local Red Cross. Obviously, that is a matter of interest. But the local Red Cross is not the international committee, and it is that body to which we have to go for advice as to who are the most suitable people to bring in.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, who will advise the international committee if it is not the people on the ground? I should have thought that the best information available was precisely the information from the international Red Cross people on the ground. Any bureaucracy that may have to take place in Geneva is only adding to the problem. I should have thought that this was a useful short cut.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, perhaps it is a useful short cut but it may not be a very accurate one because there may be all kinds of other local committees which might give information and advice to the international committee. Governments cannot decide on the basis of dealing with a local committee. One has to decide on the basis of the advice of the international committee and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.