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Column 271do nothing. It says, "Leave the refugees to languish in the mud. You deal with the problem." That is abominable, and it is equally abominable that the Government still claim to have a special relationship with America.
I shall end with a number of points--[ Hon. Members-- : "Sit down".] I am appalled that Conservative Members should find something funny in what I have said. Let them reflect that 50,000 people do not know what life holds for them in the new year.
I am pleased to note that the Pope has expressed worry about the situation and has urged Britain to take steps in the matter. Also, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Runcie, has spoken out on the issue. Although I see some Conservative Members smiling at what I am saying, I feel that others among them are sincere in hoping that this problem can be resolved amicably. I trust that Members in all parts of the House appreciate that I am sincere in speaking passionately about this issue.
I do not have the solutions to the problems of the world--of dictatorship and of all the other ills that beset mankind--but I offer the suggestion that we, as members of mankind, should do all we can to protect mankind. We should make sure that people have the right to life and we should fight for that right, however much it costs. We in the West, above all, should fight against the oppression of Communism and against other forms of oppression.
As we approach the new year, let us remember what Robbie Burns said about man's inhumanity to man. I hope that, whatever steps result from this debate, they will not result in the Vietnamese being returned to insecurity, prison, a deteriorating standard of life or even death.
The British Government have it in their power to bow to the wishes of international religious and other leaders who have said, in effect, "Please give hope for life to the ordinary men and women who have escaped trials and tribulations and who have sailed the seas in all sorts of weather to reach the security of Hong Kong. Please allow them to live in the West in freedom and security."
I urge the Minister not to be cynical. People in Hong Kong tonight rely on his judgment and sincerity. Let him forget the platitudes that have been used by the Prime Minister and other Ministers. We are looking for a miracle tonight so that folk may have the right to life.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Francis Maude) : Seven days ago the Foreign Secretary told the House that wehad begun to put into effect a policy, long adopted by the British Government, to return to Vietnam those Vietnamese in Hong Kong who were not refugees. That decision gave pleasure to none and I acknowledge that it has caused anxiety to many, and many of those anxieties have been expressed in this debate.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell) opened the debate in a responsible and measured tone. That tone has not always been reflected in the subsequent contributions, but his speech and a few others captured the underlying feeling of the House. I refer in particular to the speeches of my right hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery), the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling).
All those distinguished Members of the House come to the issue with long and distinguished experience of
Column 272government. All of them are used to the assumption of responsibility and I appreciate their expressions of personal sympathy and support for my right hon. Friend and myself. Those contributions were in stark contrast to that of the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes). He ended what I regarded as a grossly irresponsible speech with an allegation about the Government's motivation in this matter that I bitterly resented. It was an allegation that will have earned him the contempt of the whole House.
It is clearly essential for the House to understand fully the background to last Tuesday's return and the basis on which the decision was made. The House will be familiar with much of the background.
In the aftermath of the Vietnam war, many thousands from South Vietnam fled the persecution of a victorious and vindictive regime. The West responded with generosity and compassion. The first Geneva conference, called at our instigation in 1979, agreed that those who fled Vietnam in boats could be assured of first asylum wherever they landed, and that from there they would be resettled in the West. But it soon became clear that the nature of the exodus from Vietnam was changing. As early as 1981, it was apparent that the majority of those arriving in places such as Hong Kong were not political refugees but people seeking a more prosperous life elsewhere. None the less, despite the evidence of this new pattern, the West maintained its commitment to take in all new arrivals. The United Kingdom, of course, played a full part in that. But by 1987, the numbers were so huge that the ability of the West to take in allcomers was strained.
Of course, there were still refugees, genuinely fleeing persecution, but the ability of the West to give asylum to the genuine refugees was being eroded by the sheer weight of the numbers. Accordingly, Hong Kong decided in June last year to introduce a system of screening, and I believe that it was absolutely right to do so. It was a thorough system, developed in conjunction with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, whose representatives can attend any interviews that are carried out under that procedure. Each applicant for asylum has a right of appeal from the initial decision and has the right to help from the UNHCR in preparing his case. I know that Amnesty International has criticised some aspects of the process, and I am looking to see whether any of the criticisms are justified, but I believe that the procedure is fair and thorough. I know that, where doubt arises, that doubt is resolved in favour of the applicant.
The purpose of the screening is to distinguish between those who are genuine refugees and those who are not. This is an essential process, which must be carried out by every country that seeks to keep its doors open to asylum seekers. The only alternative to a screening procedure is to abandon the policy of first asylum. Hong Kong does not want that ; we do not want it ; and this House would not welcome it.
Mr. David Young rose--
It was thus that, in June this year, a second Geneva conference decided that screening should be introduced universally. That conference, attended by all interested
Column 273countries, and by the UNHCR, unanimously reached two distinct decisions. It decided that all those who had arrived before the introduction of screening, and all those whom the screening process found to be refugees, should be resettled in the West within three years. Undertakings have been given by participating countries to ensure that enough places are available for all those refugees. So the West's voluntary practice of taking in all refugees has been fully and honourably maintained, and once again, we have participated in this fully.
The conference's second decision, also unanimous, was that, for those who were found after the screening process not to be refugees, there was nowhere for them to go but back to Vietnam. I stress to the House that it was a unanimous decision, agreed to by every participant at that conference, including the United States and the UNHCR.
The conference agreed that repatriation should, in the first instance, be voluntary. The UNHCR has started this process in Hong Kong, and it has made a little headway, but the numbers returning to Vietnam are tiny as a proportion of the whole. The numbers returning hold no promise that those remaining in Hong Kong will be significantly reduced, or that next year's influx will be any smaller than this year's.
It is worth reminding ourselves--indeed, hon. Members may not be aware-- that, since the whole process began in the 1970s, no fewer than 170,000 asylum-seekers from Indo-China have arrived in Hong Kong. To Hong Kong's eternal honour, that tiny territory--the most crowded part of the globe-- has not turned away a single one. All have been given shelter, but the burden has become intolerable. Some 57,000 Vietnamese remain in Hong Kong camps, of whom some 34,000 arrived this year alone. It is because of the heavy financial burden that this throws on to the territory that we hold this debate tonight. In the 10-year period before 1989, the Hong Kong Government spent about £110 million on building and running camps for the boat people. In the last financial year, that increased significantly, and spending reached some £39 million as the numbers arriving rose dramatically. This year, the Hong Kong Government expect to spend £90 million, and it is partly because of that huge increase in costs that we have felt bound to assist Hong Kong.
In the current financial year, we have provided £4.5 million for emergency accommodation. I announced last week a further pledge of £10.6 million for further emergency accommodation, and a 50 per cent. contribution to a new long-term camp. We shall continue to provide Hong Kong with help for as long as it is needed. In addition to those sums, over the past two years we have pledged or spent a further £15 million to help to resolve the problem more widely. We have given the UNHCR more than £8 million, primarily in response to special appeals for boat people, and also for the construction of a camp in Hong Kong. We are making available some £850,000 this year for our bilateral repatriation programme with the Vietnamese, and for monitoring those who are returned.
We have accepted for some time that a move to involuntary repatriation was likely to become necessary. I should add that involuntary repatriation is not a concept invented by Hong Kong in December 1989, but a process that goes on day in, day out across the world--a process
Column 274that, by its very nature, involves the return of people against their will to a country that they have sought to leave.
A number of allegations have been made in tonight's debate about what was done on Tuesday morning last week. There was talk of handcuffs ; I can tell the House that handcuffs were not used. There was also talk of force, but none was employed, and there was no resistance on the part of those who were returned to Vietnam. It was suggested that the number of escorts was excessive, but I can tell the House tha the number involved is customary worldwide for these procedures.
I remind the House that this was compulsory deportation : there is no escaping that. These people were being sent back--against their will--to a country that they had sought to leave, and it is inevitable that people in such circumstances should not be joyful. I assure the House, however, that there was no resistance.
Mr. Vaz rose --
The suggestion that a blanket of secrecy has been imposed rings rather absurd, given that live television pictures were screened worldwide. It has also been suggested that there has been widespread international criticism of our action--
The reality is this. The entire international community agreed at the Geneva conference in June that there was nowhere for these people to go other than back to Vietnam, and the international response to last Tuesday's events has accordingly been broad acceptance. Of course the United States has been critical--there are obvious historical reasons for that--but it has conspicuously not propounded any realistic alternative.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary told the House last Tuesday that we were considering the resumption of aid for Vietnam. We may be able to say something about that later, but I must say to the House--as did my right hon. Friend--that it is not an alternative to repatriation. Even if it were to start tomorrow, it would not discourage people immediately from leaving to seek greater prosperity elsewhere and, in any event, the large numbers already in Hong Kong would remain.
The aid proposal--serious though it is, and earnestly though we are pursuing it--is not an alternative to repatriation. I am bound to say that I have found some of the arguments that have been advanced a little puzzling : the same people are arguing simultaneously that Vietnam is a tyranny too monstrous to return people to, and that we should be pouring money into it to prop it up. We have, of course, looked carefully at all the many suggested
Column 275alternatives to our course of compulsory repatriation, but nothing has emerged that has not either been done already or been universally rejected.
I should like to look briefly at some of the suggested alternatives. It is said, for instance, that we should renew efforts to increase voluntary repatriation. We are doing that, but it is inconceivable that it could suffice on its own. It is also said that we should increase the United Kingdom's quota of refugees but, as I have pointed out, places are already pledged for every refugee. In any case, that suggestion in itself provides no answer to the problem that we are addressing--the problem of those who are screened out as non-refugees.
The richest absurdity, however, has been the Labour party's so-called three -point plan. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said that he would introduce a screening procedure with independent appeal : that is the first of the three points. Can he really be unaware that it already exists? He also suggests an international agreement to resettle all political refugees. Can he really be ignorant that such an agreement has already been reached, and that places have been offered for all refugees? As for his third proposal, it was thrown together in contemptuous disregard of the realities. In an interview in The Independent, yesterday, he said :
"You get on with the screening [of refugees] you launch international discussions to see whether it is possible to find in the southern Pacific area a territory where a holding centre can be provided for screened economic migrants from Vietnam. The Philippines has been named as one ; possibly Indonesia another."
When asked whether the Philippines or Indonesia would be prepared to provide such a centre, the right hon. Gentleman replied : "Yes, well, I had a considerable discussion a short while ago with Mr. Dukakis who is very heavily involved in the possibility of the Philippines. I was encouraged to believe it might work."
It is a pity that the right hon. Gentleman, as well as talking to Mrs. Dukakis, did not bother to talk to the Philippines or to Indonesia. That possibility has been canvassed on several occasions, and I have news for the right hon. Gentleman. It should not be news, because he should have studied the position. I can tell him that, on every single occasion, every possible participant has rejected the idea unequivocally.
Even if it worked, what would be the substance of this great liberal alternative? It is that people should be removed from one closed camp in Hong Kong to another elsewhere.
Mr. Foulkes rose --
Mr. Maude : No, I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman. The right hon. Member for Gorton accepts that that alternative could provide only a temporary pause on the way back to Vietnam. I noticed that, in the same interview, he was asked whether he would like the refugees to settle in this country. What was the answer from this great liberal?
"No, we've got lots of people who can open restaurants without having Vietnamese economic migrants who are basically
peasants--fishermen and farm-workers and so on."
Column 276Mr. Foulkes : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. These matters were not dealt with in the debate-- [Interruption.] The Minister is not answering the questions that he was asked.
"I wouldn't be a member of a Labour government"--
"that forcibly sent people to somewhere they didn't want to go." Again, I have news for the right hon. Gentleman. He was a member of just such a Government. During the previous Labour Government, in every single year when he was a Minister, between 10,000 and 19,000 people were repatriated from Britain. During the same years, Hong Kong, acting with the full authority of the United Kingdom Government, involuntarily repatriated tens of thousands of illegal immigrants to China. Does the right hon. Gentleman really believe that every single one of those people returned voluntarily? Of course not.
Those of us who have responsibilities in these matters are unable to avoid them. It is all very well for Opposition Members to wring their hands, stand on the sidelines and decry what is done, but they do not have to face the realities and accept the responsibilities. For those of us who have the responsibilities, they cannot be dodged or shirked, and we will not shirk them.
Question put :--
The House divided : Ayes 309, Noes 219.
Division No. 25] [8.40 pm
Alison, Rt Hon Michael
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove)
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)
Banks, Robert (Harrogate)
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)
Bevan, David Gilroy
Biffen, Rt Hon John
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Body, Sir Richard
Boscawen, Hon Robert
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia
Bowden, A (Brighton K'pto'n)
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)
Browne, John (Winchester)
Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)
Carlisle, John, (Luton N)
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Chalker, Rt Hon Mrs Lynda
Channon, Rt Hon Paul
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Currie, Mrs Edwina
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)
Davis, David (Boothferry)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James