Hong Kong (Vietnamese Refugees)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 11th June 1979.

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Photo of Mr David Ennals Mr David Ennals , Norwich North 12:00 am, 11th June 1979

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement about the settlement of Vietnamese refugees in Britain and if he will say whether the Government have yet taken a decision about admitting to Britain those refugees, mainly children, rescued by the British ship "Roachbank".

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

The ruthless behaviour of the Vietnamese authorities is creating a major problem in that region which must be of deep concern to the whole world. The Government will continue to bring the maximum international pressure on the Vietnamese to cease their shameful activities. Meanwhile we shall, of course, honour our international obligations in accordance with the law of the sea.

The refugees from the MV "Sibonga" will be arriving in this country over the next two weeks. They will be received by the British Council for Aid to Refugees and the Ockenden Venture, to whom the Government are making available practical help and financial assistance. They will be accommodated initially at reception centres in Hampshire and Staffordshire.

As regards the refugees on board the "Roachbank" anchored in international waters off Taiwan, the Government have been using their best endeavours to persuade the Taiwan authorities to accept their responsibilities, and we hope that some at least will be granted refuge there. However, in view of the time that has elapsed and in consideration for the captain and the crew and the passengers, many of whom are children, the Government have decided that those not accepted by Taiwan will be brought to this country as soon as possible. They will be received in accommodation provided by the Save the Children organisation.

The Government would like to take this opportunity of expressing warm appreciation of the efforts being made by the voluntary organisations.

Photo of Mr David Ennals Mr David Ennals , Norwich North

I am sure that the House will agree with the right hon. Gentleman in his criticism of Vietnam and the policies and pressure that should be brought to bear. The House will welcome his decision to allow the refugees from the "Roachbank" to be admitted to this country. I am certain that all sides of the House will pay tribute to the work of the voluntary agencies.

Will the Home Secretary answer three questions? Does he accept that, although the problem of Vietnamese refugees must be dealt with on an international basis, the numbers so far accepted for admission to Britain are relatively small compared with those accepted by some other countries?

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the voluntary organisations to which he has referred, together with the Save the Children Fund, have already indicated their readiness to accept a significantly larger numbers of refugees than has so far been authorised by the Government, including those from the "Roachbank"?

Will the Government now agree to stand by the principles laid down by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) when he has Home Secretary that Britain would be prepared to accept for settlement refugees picked up on the high seas by ships registered in Britain and not acceptable elsewhere? Is this not a time for firm British leadership on this humanitarian issue, rather than for a retreat from the clear position that was taken by my right hon. Friend?

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

The problem of refugees is certainly an international one. We must accept it on that basis. I think that we in this country are entitled to say that we have many other pressures and that there are many other claims on our resources, and we have to regard them on that basis.

The voluntary organisations have said perfectly properly that they can cope with the refugees from the "Sibonga" and the "Roachbank", but if it were to go further they would be subjected to very great strains that are well beyond their resources to cope with.

As for our saying that we would, irrespective of the circumstances, take people for settlement, I must tell the right hon. Gentleman that of course our international obligations require the master of a British ship to assist those in distress at sea but that normal international practice is for the country of the next port of call to take in people so rescued.

Photo of Mrs Jill Knight Mrs Jill Knight , Birmingham, Edgbaston

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the extremely heavy cost, both in terms of money and delay, to the shipping companies involved in this matter? Is anything being done by the United Nations or any other international agency to encourage those shipping companies to pick up the refugees?

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

There is an international obligation on the master of a British ship to assist people in distress at sea. It is also a matter for the international organisations and for the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees thereafter to do everything they can to help companies in a very difficult situation.

Photo of Mr Jo Grimond Mr Jo Grimond , Orkney and Shetland

I welcome the Home Secretary's statement, but I should be grateful for any more information he can give on what the United Nations is doing either to protest against the savage brutality of the Government of Vietnam or about the refugees. We are always hearing about world opinion. Is not this the moment when world opinion should be mobilised?

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

That is exactly what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister sought to do in her communication to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dr. Waldheim. That was and still is our position. We shall do everything that we can to condemn the Vietnamese action by international opinion. That is very important, and it is a major first step in dealing with this problem.

Photo of Mr Patrick McNair-Wilson Mr Patrick McNair-Wilson , New Forest

My constituents living around the Sopley resettlement camp, whilst looking forward to welcoming the refugees fleeing from Communism and starting to arrive tomorrow, nevertheless are concerned that unless firm quotas are set at some point that camp may become a permanent refugee camp with all the attendant pressures on local services and employment.

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

It was at that point that part of the answer I gave to the right hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Ennals) was directed. If we had to go further, that would place a very great strain on the resources of this country in many different ways.

Photo of Mr Tom McNally Mr Tom McNally , Stockport South

I think that everyone accepts that the scale of this problem is beyond the capacity of any one country to deal with. However, if the Home Secretary and his colleagues are to mobilise world opinion they will have to lead by example. Does he accept that the previous Government's willingness to take 1,500 land-based refugees, as well as those picked up on the high seas, is not beyond the capacity of a country which is genuinely willing to mobilise world opinion? Does he agree that if we do not do that we are not only not leading but are going back on previous commitments?

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

We have accepted that commitment.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

Order. There is another private notice question and a statement still to come. We must now move on to the second private notice question.