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Column 334Kong ; it is a process that is applied worldwide to all those, from whatever country, travelling to whatever country, who claim to be refugees. It must be absolutely apparent that it is essential if civilised countries are to continue to provide new homes for genuine refugees, as they wish to do, that there should be some system for determining who is a genuine refugee and who is not. In truth, the process of screening varies around the world. For example, those seeking to enter the United States from Haiti are subjected to a rudimentary form of scrutiny on board ship before their feet even touch the soil of the United States. Only a tiny number are determined by the authorities to be refugees.
In contrast, the system of screening introduced in mid-1988 in Hong Kong is sophisticated, elaborate and thorough. The procedures were developed not at the whim of the Hong Kong Government but in co-operation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and the questions which asylum seekers are asked are based on a questionnaire that is set out by the UNHCR. All interviews--I stress this for the benefit of the hon. Member for Mossley Hill--can be monitored by UNHCR staff.
The hon. Member for Mossley Hill referred disparagingly, I thought, to the fact that the questions are framed in three languages. They are in English, Chinese and Vietnamese, which are the relevant languages. Surely that is a matter for praise rather than disparagement.
Mr. Alton : I was bringing to the Minister's attention the complaint of the organisation that is called Refugee Action, which says that the immigration officer asks the questions from a UNHCR-prepared questionnaire in Cantonese. This is translated by an official Hong Kong Government interpreter into Vietnamese. The refugee's response is translated by the interpreter into Cantonese first and then into English. Notes are taken in English. Interpreters must pass a test, but their knowledge of Vietnamese is often inadequate. Officials often deviate from the questionnaire. That does not correspond with the brief with which the Minister has been supplied.
Mr. Maude : The interviews can be monitored by the UNHCR, which takes a close interest in the process. So far as I am aware, no complaints have been made about the process, which is subject to independent scrutiny. Independent observers can be present, and that is proper. There is no other process of which I am aware which is subject to the same degree of independent scrutiny which is that elaborate, that thorough and that independent. In most instances, the process elsewhere is far more rudimentary. In addition to the interview process, there is a full appeals process, and the UNHCR can help candidates to prepare their appeal.
I have satisfied myself that the screening process that is now in place is both fair and thorough. The results of the screening so far confirm how right it was to institute the procedure. So far, only about 13 per cent. of those arriving in Hong Kong have been determined to be refugees. The remaining 87 per cent.--nearly nine out of 10--are determined, without dispute by the UNHCR, not to be refugees.
The hon. Member for Mossley Hill talked about the journey from Vietnam being dangerous and stressful and not an easy option. The bulk of those now arriving in Hong Kong do not set off in a boat from Vietnam to cross the sea unaided. Many of them come by public transport
Column 335across the mainland through China and travel only the last five miles by boat. The ones that do travel by boat generally coast hop from port to port. The journey is by no means as dangerous as it was made out to be. I accept that the phrase "Vietnamese bus people" does not have quite the same ring as "Vietnamese boat people", but the mundane reality is that many of those now arriving in Hong Kong are bus people more than boat people.
The need for this process was borne out by the Geneva conference of 1989, which agreed on the comprehensive plan of action, endorsing the principle of first asylum, and recommending measures to guarantee its survival, which might otherwise have been under threat from others from Hong Kong. It is important to stress that this plan of action was and is designed to sustain the policy of first asylum to which Hong Kong is properly committed. These measures were, first, the adoption of screening throughout the region, along the lines of that already being used in Hong Kong.
The problem in Hong Kong was already far more intense than anywhere else in the region, partly as a result of the sheer numbers of boat people, and partly because of the desperate pressure on land in the territory. We should not forget that Hong Kong has 5.7 million people in 400 square miles of extremely mountainous terrain. It was entirely right, therefore, that Hong Kong should, with our full support, have instituted this elaborate and fair system of screening when it did. As a result, there were two quite distinct problems to be resolved. The first--it has been much muddled by many commentators, including the hon. Gentleman--was how to resettle all who were either deemed or determined to be refugees. On this issue, the conference agreed on the resettlement of all the refugees in the region, with sufficient places pledged by the resettlement countries to guarantee a new home for them all within three years. The United Kingdom has throughout played its full part in this process, and it will continue to do so. The second, and I stress quite distinct, issue was : what should be the fate of those who were determined not to be refugees? On this second issue, which is what should principally concern us tonight, the conference agreed this :
"Persons determined not to be refugees should return to their country of origin in accordance with international practices reflecting the responsibilities of states towards their own citizens. In the first instance, every effort will be made to encourage the voluntary return of such persons."
I stress to the House that that agreement was unanimous. Not a single participant at the June conference in Geneva--not the United States of America, not the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees--dissented from that conclusion.
And so there is unanimous agreement throughout the international community that for those Vietnamese in Hong Kong who are not deemed to be refugees, there is and can be nowhere to go but Vietnam. And to those who argue glibly that there should be some great international effort to resettle non -refugees in the West, I say that not a country in the world will agree to it. It has already been tried, and it will not happen. It is dangerous and callous to suggest to people in this position that some great remedy lies around the corner. It does not and will not exist, not because of our decision but because of the unanimous decision of the international community.
Column 336The hon. Gentleman drew an analogy with East Germans arriving in West Germany. People can exercise the right of movement between countries only when there are countries that allow them to leave and countries that are prepared to receive them. We strongly support the right of people to leave their country of origin if they choose to, but it must be up to other countries to decide whether to accept them. I am glad that West Germany has decided that it will receive people--that is a matter for the West German Government. But the international community has dwelt at length on this problem and its unanimous conclusion was that no country is prepared to take Vietnamese people who are deemed not to be refugees
Mr. Alton : Have not the British Government thrown open military bases in West Germany and magnanimously provided places in which East German refugees can stay? Surely that contrasts with the Minister's attitude tonight. I hope that in the time that is left he will face the issue of what will happen to these refugees when they return to Vietnam. How will it be possible to monitor what happens to them? What will become of our international reputation if we are seen to use force to send people back from the refugee camps?
Mr. Maude : The hon. Gentleman makes a good comparison. He talks about the British Government making available temporary accommodation in Berlin for people seeking to move. Yes, we have done so--in the same way that, over the years, the Hong Kong Government have made available accommodation at a cost of some £100 million a year ; a cost borne jointly by us and by the Hong Kong Government. They have made that accommodation available for people while they are being screened and for those deemed or determined to be refugees pending resettlement. The parallel is an exact one. We shall always accept such obligations in a spirit of generosity.
The problem with the hon. Gentleman's approach is that he seeks to turn that temporary accommodation in Hong Kong into permanent accommodation by denying the only route that the international community has agreed, which is that they should go back to Vietnam. The issue that we have to face is a stark one which, I regret to say, brooks no equivocation. It is not comfortable and it is not one that any hon. Member would like to have to face, but the issue is whether we are to leave people in closed camps in Hong Kong with no hope of resettlement elsewhere when the international community has unanimously accepted that the only place for them to go is back to Vietnam.
Everyone who has faced the problem and has borne responsibility for its resolution has come to the same conclusion. We have all approached it in the same way, not seeking a convenient solution, not trying to brush the problem away, but testing our decision against the criteria of decency, humanity and justice.
Our conclusion has been that the process of voluntary repatriation has not provided and cannot provide an adequate solution. So far, of the 3,000 people who, after screening, have been determined not to be refugees, only 37, about 1 per cent. have volunteered to return. Faced with the choice of leaving those people in closed camps indefinitely, perhaps in the false hope that resettlement awaits them--a false hope stirred up by the hon.
Column 337Gentleman tonight--or returning them in safety and dignity to Vietnam, we have no doubt that we must do the latter.
I strongly support what my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) said on 25 October :
"It will soon be necessary to tackle the thorny question of involuntary repatriation."--[ Official Report, 25 October 1989 ; Vol. 158, c. 828]
That is not a euphemism. "Forcible repatriation" is an emotive term and it should not be used in this context. The process of deportation is used widely throughout the world according to international standards. When a country deports illegal immigrants--that is what these people are--no assurances are sought from the home country on the safety of those returning. No arrangements are usually made for monitoring their condition and safety. But we believe that, because of the concern that has been expressed, it would be wrong for the process to start without assurances from the Vietnam Government that those who return will not be punished or badly treated and, perhaps more importantly, that their conditions after return can be properly and independently monitored.
As I have said, it is exceptional to attach such conditions to the deportation of illegal immigrants ; a process, I stress, which happens across the world every
Column 338day. The Hong Kong authorities have responded magnificently to a problem the scale of which we may not fully understand from the comfort of Westminster.
In the course of this year, no fewer than 33,000 boat people have arrived, sometimes at the rate of 1,000 a day. But no matter how hard the authorities worked to provide good conditions in the camps, the fact is that all the camps are 50 per cent. over capacity and people and families are living in closed camps and overcrowded conditions. As I have said, there is nowhere for those people to go other than back to Vietnam and if conditions are unacceptable in those camps, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, it is all the more shameful that he should be suggesting that they should be made to stay there indefinitely.
Mr. Maude : No hon. Member believes that the decent and humane solution to the problem is to leave people in the camps, living out their lives in the fading belief that the West will accept them-- The Motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour , Mr. Deputy Speaker-- adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order . Adjourned at sixteen minutes to Two o'clock .
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