HL Deb 30 November 1992 vol 540 cc1200-8
Earl Ferrers

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement on ex-detainees from the former Yugoslavia which is now being made in another place by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Madam Speaker, I will make a Statement about further arrangements which the Government are making to accept in this country ex-detainees from former Yugoslavia.

"In his Statement on 5th November, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary confirmed the willingness of the Government to receive from Bosnia and other parts of former Yugoslavia, people with special humanitarian needs whom the international organisations judge should be evacuated. We had already advised the United Nations High Commission for Refugees that we were prepared initially to accept 150 former detainees from camps in Bosnia and, in due course, their dependants.

"In the light of the plans made to receive the first group of 150, we have now informed UNHCR that we are willing to receive over the next few months additional groups of former detainees to a total of 1,000, together with their dependants, totalling perhaps 4,000 in all.

"Arrangements have already been made to receive the first group of 150 ex-detainees as soon as UNHCR confirm that they are ready to depart. The size of further groups, and the timing of their arrival, has still to be discussed with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. This will be dependent in part on the speed with which the international organisations are able to bring the detainees out of detention to transit camps in Croatia or elsewhere, and to complete such screening and documentation as UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross consider necessary.

"We have asked the Refugee Council and the British Red Cross to provide initial reception support and accommodation for the former detainees; both the initial group and subsequent groups. The first group will be taken to three locations; a former mental hospital in Surrey, an existing Refugee Council hostel in London and a former residential care home owned by the British Red Cross in Cambridge. Arrangements for accommodating subsequent groups of arrivals are being developed. After an initial period in reception accommodation, the evacuees will be rehoused in more permanent accommodation in the community arranged by the Refugee Council.

"The British Red Cross will liaise with the International Committee of the Red Cross to trace the dependants of the former detainees, and arrangements will be made in consultation with the Foreign and Commonwealth Department and voluntary organisations to bring them here.

"Once rehoused in the community, the evacuees, and their dependants, when they arrive, will be entitled to receive the range of statutory benefits and services which are available to the rest of the population.

"I am sure that we all hope that these evacuees will be able to return in due course to their own country. They will be admitted to this country exceptionally outside the immigration rules for six months initially. We shall obviously wish to review the position in the light of individual circumstances and the situation in former Yugoslavia.

"The Government will be meeting the cost of transport of the former detainees and of their dependants to this country. They will reimburse the costs incurred by the Refugee Council and the British Red Cross in providing initial reception support and accommodation. And they will fund the Refugee Council to provide the necessary degree of ongoing support".

My Lords, that concludes the text of the Statement.

4.47 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Earl for repeating the Statement made in another place. For once we have no complaint to make about the short notice given for us to consider a Statement, because virtually its entire text was printed in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday. In accordance with their usual practice, I have no doubt that the Government will be setting up an inquiry to discover how the leak occurred.

The Statement is curious, in that it refers to "ex-detainees" at all times and never refers to "refugees". There is no indication at all in the Statement whether the Government recognise that these are civil war victims in the widest sense. Some will be ex-detainees, but many will not. Can the Minister say why it is that this particular form of words has been chosen rather than that which is most commonly used in these circumstances?

The Statement states that the ex-detainees—I believe the word "evacuees" is used—will be accepted, outside the immigration rules for six months". Does that mean that they will not require visas to come to this country? Does it also mean that the announcement which was made a few weeks ago that citizens of the former Yugoslavia would require visas that could only be issued in Zagreb, Belgrade and Ljubljana no longer applies? Does it mean that visas are to be obtained? If that is so, how are they to be obtained, because many of these people are detained in Bosnia where they cannot possibly get access to Belgrade, Zagreb or Ljubljana? If visas are to be issued, will they reflect refugee status, which is the status recognised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees?

There are doubts both about the restrictions on the categories of people who will be allowed into this country and about the status under which they will be allowed in. However, our most profound questions must be about the total numbers. The Government have indicated that the total number, including dependants, is to be up to 4,000. I say "up to" advisedly because there are to be 1,000 ex-detainees, plus their families. Each family may include up to three members. Those figures still contrast with those for Germany—do they not?—which has admitted 235,000 refugees, and with those for Sweden, a much smaller country, which has admitted over 60,000 refugees. Do the Government not accept that even with this minor concession (which we cannot say is unwelcome) this country is still lagging far behind the humanitarian aid which has been given by nearly all other countries? Therefore, although one does not wish to look a gift horse in the mouth, it appears that the Statement is unsatisfactory in terms of the definition of those involved, their status and numbers.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Earl for repeating the Statement that was made by his right honourable friend in another place. I should also like to associate myself with many of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey. I am also glad that the Government have (belatedly and not particularly generously) responded to the pressure which has been exerted upon them by public opinion both in this country and abroad.

I, too, am mystified by the use of the word "ex-detainees". I thought that we were dealing with refugees and with people who are seeking asylum. Does the use of the word "ex-detainees" mean that our reception arrangements are confined to that category of person? Does it take no account of the fact that many others in Yugoslavia (and in Bosnia in particular) are living in danger of their lives? That is the human problem that we are meant to be tackling, as opposed to making rather absurd distinctions between people on the grounds of whether or not they have been detained. The real factor is whether they are in danger. The Government should be concentrating on that. I hope that when the noble Earl answers, he will explain why he has used that particular and unusual expression.

There are other questions. I must confess that the lack of urgency is one of the things that strikes one most. I believe that it was at the beginning of this month that the Government announced that they would take the magnificent number of 150 people, but we hear that those 150 people are still waiting to come in or have still not been told that they can come in. Is that honestly the pace at which the Government think that they should respond to an emergency of massive size, scale and horror? Do they think that this is an adequate way of responding?

Why is the selection of these people to be left to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees? Is that part of his job? I thought that it was our job—the job of our officials—to say who should and who should not come into this country. Will the noble Earl tell us what role British officials will play?

Like the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, I wonder what has happened to our visas. How many people have been let into this country since it was announced that they could get visas in one or two remote towns in Yugoslavia if they were clever enough to reach them? How many visas have been given, and are these people to have visas after six months or is that all to be forgotten?

I agree with the noble Lord that this is a drop in the ocean. It really is. The figures which he quoted for Germany, Sweden, Austria and Hungary are simply indicators of the size of the problem. To suppose that we are playing our part by taking in 4,000 people at most is frankly ludicrous. The fact is that this is a massive problem. It will be dealt with adequately only if it is dealt with on a European scale. It is no good thinking that we can deal with it on a "beggar my neighbour" basis. If there is not to be a great deal of resentment in the countries next to the areas of conflict, we must take our share. Those countries should not have to carry far too much of the burden. Although we do not behave like it, the fact is that we are members of the European Community. We get benefits from it, and we must also share its problems. I hope that this lesson will be learned ultimately by the Government.

Finally, I hope that the ex-detainees who come here will receive a word of welcome on arrival. They are people who have gone through the most appalling experiences. They have been the subject of unspeakable hostility and I think that it is important that when they arrive here they should be welcomed to a safe haven.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, when I knew that this Statement was to be made, I thought that it would meet with the universal approval of your Lordships, but I wondered which noble Lord would find something disagreeable about it. Both the noble Lords, Lord McIntosh of Haringey and Lord Bonham-Carter, have been critical of it. I thought that it was rather a good Statement and I am sorry that they have found cause to criticise it. Both noble Lords found the word "ex-detainees" curious and asked why the Government used that expression. The fact is that that is what they are. They have been detained in detention camps and are being moved out of detention camps into transit areas from which, if they come to this country, they will come as a special group outside the immigration rules. As such, they are ex-detainees. It might very well be that when they are here they will become refugees but, at the moment of entry, they are not that. It is important—I see that the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, wishes to say something—

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Earl for allowing me to intervene. Just to make it clear in people's minds, is he saying that this group is to be restricted entirely to those people who have been in detention and that it does not cover refugees who perhaps have been bombed, shelled, raped, pillaged and generally treated appallingly? Am I right that those people are not to be included in this group and that it will include only those people who have, as it were, the status of having been in a detention camp?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, many of the people who have found themselves in detention camps have suffered the very conditions which the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, has described. Although I see he shakes his head, he must allow me to answer the question—

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, I am not denying what the noble Earl is saying.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord says that he does not deny it. That is a good thing. If he could signify assent as opposed to dissent, that would be more helpful.

What he must realise—and I am sure that he does —is that one cannot operate any form of immigration policy if one allows everyone from anywhere to come in. Therefore, we have a policy of requiring visas from those who have come from the former Yugoslavia. In order to meet the problem which has been associated with this devastation, we have agreed to take people who have been put into detention camps —who, on the whole, are the ones most people would say have suffered worst. It is for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to decide which are the most deserving of moving out to another country. That is why we take that body's advice upon whom we shall receive.

The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, asked about the position of our officials. The position of anyone entering this country via what used to be Yugoslavia with a visa or without a visa is exactly the same as it is for anyone else under our immigration rules. What we are doing here is to meet a special circumstance for those who have been hardly hit.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said that Germany had done very much better than us. Inevitably, in crises such as this the greatest burden falls on those countries with the strongest geographical, cultural, historical and community links with the country which is experiencing the crisis. Germany, for instance, had a Yugoslav community of 700,000 before this conflict. Naturally, in times of trouble, people choose to seek help and assistance from their friends and families in such countries. The United Kingdom, by comparison, had a community of only 12,000, and naturally has attracted smaller, though still substantial, numbers.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said that Germany has taken 26,000 people compared with the United Kingdom. That may have been so in the case of the ex-Yugoslavs who have already gone to Germany but in the current situation, far from being at the bottom of the league, we are right at the top of those countries in the European Community which have agreed to assist in taking these ex-detainees. Belgium is taking 200, including the dependants; France is taking 300, with dependants; Germany is taking 1,362; Italy is taking 100; The Netherlands is taking 200; Spain is taking 1,050; Luxembourg is taking 10; Denmark is taking 100; and the United Kingdom is taking 1,068, plus dependants. Far from being at the bottom of the list, we are in fact at the top of the list to help those people who have suffered.

The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, asked how many people have been let in under the new visa arrangements. The arrangements only came into operation on 6th November and so I cannot as yet tell him what the figure is.

5.1 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich

My Lords, I apologise to the House for attempting in my ignorance to speak out of turn. This is a matter with which Church leaders are vitally concerned. In general I know I speak for leaders of all denominations in expressing a warm welcome for the Statement. I know that the noble Earl will agree with us that there is incontrovertible evidence that thousands of people are in imminent danger of losing not merely their homes but their lives and also that neighbouring countries which have been very generous in provision of refuge have now reached the limit of their capacity for reception.

The Churches of this country as well as voluntary agencies have been and are doing all in their power but the problem is of such a scale that it can be solved only by the goodwill and compassionate action of governments. One should also note that the situation in former Yugoslavia is dangerously fluid and so one expresses the hope that our Government will be able to respond to future events with the same flexibility which we welcome today.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am most grateful to the right reverend Prelate for his welcome for the Statement and for what he said. It is perfectly true that the Churches are doing a great deal in this situation and we are enormously grateful for that.

The right reverend Prelate asked whether the Government would be prepared to look constantly at the situation because it is, as he said, dangerously fluid. I agree that it is and my right honourable friend has said that he is prepared to keep the matter under review. The suggestion has been made that at the moment we take the number that I mentioned. Obviously we will keep the position under review for the future.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, with the right reverend Prelate I applaud what the Government have done. That is the praise. The fact that it is too small is an allied matter but one that will crop up more in the next few weeks. The weather in that part of Yugoslavia has not yet reached its worst. When that time comes I observe that the Government will have to be clearer on status. It will not be enough to say "ex-detainees". Indeed, after the six months is up, there will have to be clarification on this point.

I wish to raise three points which are of importance to me. First, who will carry out the screening in the camps in Yugoslavia? Will they be Home Office personnel or Foreign Office personnel? What is the nature of this screening? If they are in the camps, they are in the camps, so what is there to screen? On what basis will they be allowed to come in? Secondly, who will be responsible for the camps in the United Kingdom? Who will pay for the camps here? Who will administer them? My third question is about the children and those who are older than children. Are the local education authorities primed to deal with the numbers, as small as they may be? Are they primed to deal with those who will go to colleges of higher education and so on? It is important that we are clear on these points, especially as the numbers will grow in the months ahead.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. He is quite right. The position is likely to get worse for the simple reason that a good many of these detention camps are above the snow-line. As the winter gets worse, the conditions will get worse. The conditions in the camps in terms of heating, food and medical treatment are not very good.

The noble Lord asked about screening. There are at the moment some 10,000 people in detention camps. It will be for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to decide which of those are the most deserving. He will request, as I understand it, that certain ones come to this country. Obviously, those who have some form of link or language connection will be more easily accommodated here than those who may have a different language facility, if they have one, who may be better accommodated elsewhere. We intend to follow the advice of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and not to try to suggest that we know better about the circumstances that obtain there.

The noble Lord asked who will pay for the camps. This is being done by the Refugee Council and the British Red Cross. They are making arrangements with local authorities and the expenses which they incur will be reimbursed to them. The noble Lord asked about children. I can only give a general answer. Until we have the children, we will not know exactly how they will be positioned. Once they are here all parents will have the benefit of housing allowance and income support. They will also have the benefit of being educated. That will have to be done by the education system and it will be for those who involved with taking these people in to make sure that those facilities are available. Once they have been moved into their temporary housing in the three places which I mentioned, the idea is that they will subsequently move to other more permanent housing throughout the country but that they should be kept nevertheless in groups. It is not on the whole desirable to farm people out into individual private houses because they will be lonely. They will be required to be kept fairly close together. The exact position on that remains to be seen.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, I welcome the Statement. I do not think it is very profitable to indulge in speculation about numbers, either actual or comparative. The question that I wish to ask my noble friend is a rather different one. It arises in part from his reference to looking at the matter again in six months' time after these individual allotments of detainee status have been agreed and carried out. It seems to me that the Statement reflected what has really been the problem before his department in dealing with the human consequences of the war in former Yugoslavia; namely, the total failure politically of the European Community to do anything to bring an end to the conflict and a failure which results from—one hears it echoed in ministerial statements—a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the conflict.

We talk about people avoiding the distress of a civil war. We say that when the civil war is over there will he homes for them to go back to and that six months in Britain will fortify them for that experience. But this is not to a very considerable extent a civil war. It has been revealed as a war of genocidal aggression against one of the communities in Bosnia—to some extent against others but mainly against the Moslem community. There is no prospect of their going home unless there is a total revolution in terms of the situation in that country. There is no escape from facing the political consequences. It is no use saying that we will not give arms to the Bosnians as that would exacerbate the conflict. The conflict exists. It is a war. It is hard—this is why I do not criticise my noble friend or his department—for them to catch up on a year or two of constant misunderstanding and folly on the part of the European Community and its member states.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Beloff takes the subject rather wide of that to which the Statement refers. He asked why the European Community did not do more to prevent the conflict. It would be inappropriate to speculate as to why that has been the case. My noble friend will be aware that a great many people have been applying their best efforts to try to bring the conflagration to an end, so far without success. As a result, many people have been deeply traumatised and subjected to the most appalling conditions. We therefore try to help, as does every other country. One country cannot automatically open the floodgates. It has to be done in a structured way. We have done it with the help of and in agreement with UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross whose members know about the refugee position. They are on the spot. They can best advise and help us.

The people will be allowed in for six months. If at the end of six months they wish to remain, they will have to apply for leave to remain under the normal immigration system. Their cases will be considered when they apply.

Lord Prentice

My Lords, I welcome the Statement. The grudging nature of the comments made by the opposition parties was a pity. We are not talking just about numbers of refugees. If we measure Britain's contribution in terms of the substantial financial help that we have given through the ODA, the dedicated work of British volunteers on the spot, and the presence of our troops who are in a most difficult and unusual situation, this country need not be apologetic about its contribution in relation to other European nations. Perhaps we should all be doing more, but our total effort should be appreciated fully.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Prentice for saying that we need have nothing to be ashamed about. He is entirely correct. The United Kingdom has done a great deal to help those people. Since the beginning of the crisis, we have donated more than £70 million, bilaterally and through the European Community, to relief efforts in the former Yugoslavia. We are providing 2,300 United Kingdom troops who are protecting humanitarian convoys. We have flown about 200 air flights into Sarajevo. We have assisted the UNHCR with a £3 million programme for winter shelter in central Bosnia, based around nine centres, to house 20,000 refugees. We are engaged upon a feasibility study with the UNHCR to ensure that power and heating is maintained in central Bosnia. We have provided 15 expert field staff to assist the UNHCR. We have 31 lorries operational in Bosnia, ferrying emergency supplies, and 12 more left the United Kingdom on 16th November. We have provided £2.5 million of medical supplies to the WHO for its operation, and we have evacuated 68 wounded and sick Bosnians for medical treatment in the United Kingdom. I agree with my noble friend that we have done quite a lot.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I do not wish to take up a lot of Back-Bench time but two questions, arising out of the Minister's replies to supplementary questions, have not yet been answered. The first relates to the restriction of the offer to former detainees. I understand from what the Minister said that the selection is to be made by the UNHCR. Does not the UNHCR normally consider as a prime criterion the danger in which people find themselves? Does that not conflict with the proposal to restrict admission to those who are former detainees.

Secondly, in a supplementary reply the Minister referred to the possibility that those who come here might obtain refugee status after six months. Will he enlighten the House as to the circumstances under which that might occur? Having said that, I do not wish any of our comments to show anything other than admiration of the work to which the noble Lord, Lord Prentice, and the Minister referred.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, with regard to the former detainees, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, asked whether the UNHCR normally dealt with danger. In this case, it is dealing with those people who have, for one reason or other, been put into detention camps. They have to be removed. They are suffering appallingly. It is those people whom we seek to help with the assistance of the UNHCR. The noble Lord also suggested that I said that they could apply for refugee status after six months. What I actually said was that they would be allowed in for six months, outside the immigration rules, and that at the end of six months they could apply for leave to remain. That is not the same as applying for refugee status.