HL Deb 24 March 2004 vol 659 cc699-700

3 p.m.

Earl Russell asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will suspend the return of asylum seekers to Kosovo until the situation is clearer.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the situation in Kosovo developed quickly last week. The United Nations Interim Administration in Kosovo which oversees flights of returned asylum seekers advised us on 18 March that due to the security situation it would not be able to accept forced repatriation flights until further notice.

In the light of that, flights returning failed asylum seekers to Kosovo have been temporarily suspended. We shall continue to monitor the situation closely in conjunction with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with a view to resuming flights as soon as is practical and possible.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. In considering how long the duration of this policy should be, will he take account of the remarks made by Ruud Lubbers of UNHCR on 18 March, in which he referred to, the fragile character of the situation in Kosovo"? After all, we are dealing with people's lives, about which we ought not to take too many chances.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Earl is right. Those comments are very important. I have no doubt that they will be carefully considered. The Government take the situation in Kosovo very seriously. For that reason, we have suspended flights and are not returning failed asylum seekers to Kosovo.

Lord Renton

My Lords, bearing in mind that for a good many years now in this country we have absorbed many genuine asylum seekers and many whose claims were not genuine, will the Government be firm in ensuring that those who are not genuine have to return to their own countries?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, clearly that is the intention of the Government. It is also the case that we are returning increasing numbers of failed asylum seekers back to where it is most appropriate for them to return.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords, according to my somewhat confused mind, asylum seekers can be returned to their country of origin if it is deemed part of a safe area. I think that what lies behind the Question posed by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, is perhaps a need to loosen up exactly the definition of safe areas. I am not at all sure, and I wonder whether Members of the House agree, about the policy being adopted by the Government. Will the policy of not returning asylum seekers be viable?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, what needs to be understood is that we have to take very careful cognisance of the safety of those we seek to return if their asylum application has failed. That is exactly what we have done in this situation. We have acted entirely properly. That course has been well advised.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, will the Minister join me in congratulating KFOR on its prompt reaction to the crisis and the rapidity with which we moved forces in to prevent a much greater loss of life than actually occurred? When the Government decide to resume flights, will they pay particular attention to minorities such as the Roma and ensure that the situation in Kosovo is safe for them as well as any others who may be returned?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the whole House will want to congratulate KFOR. It has done a splendid job in the circumstances, for which we are very grateful. My noble friend Lady Symons is taking very close note of what the noble Lord said. I am sure that that will be communicated.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the constitutional limbo in which Kosovo finds itself as defined by Security Council Resolution 1244 represents a major barrier to the move towards stability and democracy in the country? Can he tell us what progress is being made in the Security Council in settling the status of that territory?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I must confess that the noble Viscount has asked a question that is well beyond my brief. To be entirely fair to him I ought to provide him with a written reply.