HC Deb 14 June 1988 vol 135 cc121-2W
Mr. Atkinson

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement about his recent visit to the Vietnamese refugee camp in Hong Kong.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

[pursuant to the reply, 9 June 1988, c. 655]: The recent sharp increase in the rate of arrivals in Hong Kong of boat people from Vietnam has been a matter of very great concern to the British and Hong Kong Governments. The number of Vietnamese boat people in camps in Hong Kong now stands at over 16,000, the highest level since 1980 and double the number last year. The flow of arrivals shows no sign of abating.

The Hong Kong Government have acted with commendable efficiency to establish emergency facilities to accommodate the recent influx. But their resources are stretched to the limit. I visited these facilities at the end of last month. I came to the conclusion that the burden was becoming intolerable and that things could not go on as they were.

The overwhelming majority of the new arrivals are ethnic Vietnamese. Most come from North Vietnam and have no family links outside Vietnam. They cannot be described as political refugees as defined by UNHCR. Their prospects for resettlement in the West are virtually non-existent. It was clear to me that Hong Kong could no longer offer itself to this stream of people as a transit point to a future that does not and cannot exist.

In view of the rapidly deteriorating situation, Her Majesty's Government have been considering urgently with the Hong Kong Government what should be done. The Hong Kong Government announced earlier today, with the endorsement of Her Majesty's Government, that with effect from 16 June a new policy will be introduced. From then on, the great majority of boat people arriving in Hong Kong will be detained as illegal immigrants, pending their eventual return to Vietnam. Only those few who can show that they are genuine refugees will be treated as such and will be accommodated in Hong Kong to await resettlement. All arrivals will be screened on the basis of UNHCR criteria, according to procedures which UNHCR will be able to monitor.

In taking this decision we are sending the clearest possible signal to those in Vietnam who may have purely economic motives for contemplating unauthorised departure by sea. They must understand that this is a voyage that can only lead to detention in Hong Kong and ultimately to their return to their own country.

Her Majesty's Government are pressing for arrangements with the Vietnamese authorities to enable those who are found not to be genuine refugees to be sent back to Vietnam under suitable guarantees about the treatment they will receive. In New York on 7 June I urged the Vietnamese Foreign Minister to take steps to reduce unauthorised departures and to take back those who have no prospect of resettlement elsewhere. I saw the Chinese and Soviet Foreign Ministers in New York and stressed the gravity of the problem of the boat people with both of them.

This is not, of course, a complete solution. There is a limit to what can be done until economic policies, official attitudes and other circumstances change in Vietnam itself. We are now in touch with all the resettlement countries, UNHCR and the countries of the region about the change of policy and the way forward. We are impressing upon the international community the need for concerted action to deal with the problem at source and to find a lasting solution to this human tragedy. Her Majesty's Government will devote their unceasing efforts to this end.

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