Over the past two months, well over 300 Sri Lankan Tamils have arrived here, having travelled from countries other than Sri Lanka, carrying forged passports or having destroyed them. A further group of 64 arrived at Heathrow from Bangladesh last Friday, 13 February. They had previously been in Malaysia and the group had been organised by an agent there who had travelled with them to Dhaka. All of these had travelled on forged or mutilated passports, or had no passports, having destroyed them in transit. None had the required United Kingdom visa. They claimed asylum on arrival, but we are satisfied, on the basis of their own accounts given to immigration officers, that they have no claim to refugee status. We are therefore arranging for them to be returned to Bangladesh without delay.
The House should know that, in view of the organised nature of this attempt to secure admission by fraudulent means, my right hon. Friend and I were not in this case prepared to accept a stop on removal by right hon. or hon. Members. Nor, in future, will we be prepared to do so in similar circumstances in which immigrants seek entry here through clearly bogus applications for asylum. The right of asylum is highly prized and the Government will continue to honour the obligations they have accepted under the 1951 United Nations convention on the status of refugees. But these obligations are to people who are judged to have a well-founded fear of persecution. We cannot accept that the making of patently false claims to asylum should be used as a means of evading the immigration control. Our system of immigration control rests on the ability to refuse admission and to remove those not qualified to enter the country. A potentially disastrous gap would be created in the control if organised groups were able to secure admission in the way attempted by these groups, and the Government cannot and will not allow that to happen.
Will the Minister confirm that my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) contacted the Home Office last night when he first heard of this matter, in order to prevent the immediate removal of the group so that there could be more time for us to know what the facts are? When did these people leave Sri Lanka? By what route did they travel? What is likely to happen to them on their return to Bangladesh, where I understand they are being sent? Is the Minister absolutely certain that none of them has any claim to asylum in this country? If the Minister finds that any members of the group of 64 have such a claim, will he defer their removal while it is being investigated?
The hon. Gentleman is entirely right that the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) contacted the Home Office last night. The position is that these people who formed the group arrived in Dhaka, having spent varying periods in Malaysia.
On the question of how they will be treated on their return, of course we cannot say with certainty that they may not finally find their way back to Sri Lanka, but I have to make it quite plain that they are not refugees, that their claim to refugee status has been examined and found wanting and that the information available to the Government from the British high commission in Colombo gives no reason to suppose that people who have left Sri Lanka will be harassed or ill treated on their return or that the Sri Lankan Government would take action against them if they were eventually returned to Sri Lanka.
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that his statement will be welcomed by those of us who know Sri Lanka well? In particular, is he aware that there are about 1 million Tamils who live happily with their Sinhalese and Moslem patriates in Sri Lanka and that, perhaps more importantly, there are reports from India that over 500 Tamils a week are returning to Sri Lanka? Is it not about time not only that we returned these people to Bangladesh but that we looked at the other 1,800 other Tamils who have claimed refugee status here and who would be perfectly welcome to return home to Sri Lanka?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said, but I do not think that this is the appropriate occasion to enter into a wide-ranging discussion of the situation in Sri Lanka. However, I assure the House once more that we have been in touch with our high commission in Colombo and I repeat that there is no reason to believe that those who leave Sri Lanka and later return there are harassed or ill treated in any way by the Sri Lankan authorities.
Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman assure the House that, when someone comes here from Sri Lanka via India, or wherever, claiming political refugee status, the port control will not return him immediately and that ample time will be provided for Members of Parliament to make representations? In the few cases where my representations have been accepted, I find it disturbing that those people would otherwise have been returned immediately and that preparations were being made for their return. That does not seem quite to fit in with the Government's intention to give refugee status to those who deserve it.
I should like to make plain what I hope is obvious to the House: that Her Majesty's Government attach the greatest importance to our obligations under the United Nations convention on the status of refugees. However, we are dealing with a large number of organised groups of people who have arrived in this country since December. One really ought to draw a clear distinction between the person who arrives here and makes a claim for asylum and a situation like this, where it was quite obvious, from the examination carried out by the immigration officers at the port, that the claims made by these people were manifestly bogus.
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that there is widespread concern about the patent and flagrant abuse of the long and time-honoured tradition of political asylum and refugee status in this country? Will he therefore reiterate that we shall not tolerate this sort of abuse and that anyone who seeks to abuse our hospitality will be sent back to where he came from, promptly and forthwith?
My right hon. Friend and I feel that it is terribly important for genuine claimants for refugee status that this form of abuse should not be allowed. If we were to allow such abuse, the whole system would become discredited. That is why, with the full knowledge of our obligations under the United Nations convention, we are sure that it is right to take this action today.
Is the Minster aware that the steps about which he has reluctantly informed the House today are yet a further retreat from Britain's obligations under the 1951 convention? Is he further aware that the United Nations high commissioner for refugees recommends that there is an independent appeal system among all member countries and that the British Government supported that recommendation? Today, the Minister has not only repudiated a recommendation which he claims to have supported, but has removed from asylum seekers in this country who are fortunate enough to be able to contact a Member of Parliament, the right to even have a case considered by the Minister. Yesterday I sought stops on 35 asylum seekers. The Minister cannot have considered those cases, yet he has refused the terms of the statement that he made to the House less than six months ago.
It is not the first time that the hon. Gentleman has furnished us with long lists of names of people in respect of whom he is asking for stops. I must make the position absolutely plain. My right hon. Friend made it clear in his statement on 27 October that there would be no automatic stops on the removal of passengers who arrive here without visas. He said that there would be no change in arrangements for asylum. However, I do not believe that anyone in this House contemplated that a stop would be taken when a claim to asylum was as manifestly bogus as the claims in this case. Furthermore, we never envisaged that we would face today's problem. Large numbers of people have come to this country as a result of well-organised rackets. This is in no way a retreat from our obligations under the United Nations convention.
While I totally endorse the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Morris) about the position in Sri Lanka, would my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the present position is that the method of arrival is far more consistent with a deliberate attempt to avoid the immigration laws of this country than with a genuine claim to political asylum?
My right hon. and learned Friend is entirely right. It would be very helpful if a message were sent from this House that it is very difficult for our staff and against the interests of all genuine asylum seekers if people allow themselves to fall into the hands of racketeers, are furnished with false documents and destroy their documents—or that part of the document which, if they still possessed it on arrival in London, would reveal that the documents were forged to gain entry to this country.
Will the Minister confirm that communal violence against Tamils is continuing in north Sri Lanka and that organisations such as Amnesty International and the United Nations high commission for refugees have put it on record that no group of Tamils should be capriciously returned to Sri Lanka? Is not the heart of the problem for hon. Members that, if they are to test whether these people are genuine refugees, the procedure agreed by the Home Office is worthless if the test of referral to the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service—and for hon. Members to intervene—is set aside unilaterally by the Minister as he has decided that this case should not be referred? How can we judge whether these people are genuine refugees if the matter cannot be referred to an outside body such as UKIAS?
But the hon. Gentleman is a reasonable person and he must consider the absurdity of the present position. If organised groups of this size arrive in this country and hon. Members claim that they should be treated as genuine claims when it is quite obvious after they have been examined by immigration officers that they are not genuine claims, where will that lead us? How on earth is that in the interests of these people, who obviously cannot be released into the community? We cannot grant temporary admission to people who are in no way documented and when we do not have the faintest idea who they are.
I must not be drawn into a debate about the situation in Sri Lanka. I shall remind the hon. Gentleman of our policy since 1985, because it has not been ungenerous. It is possible for somebody who wishes to claim refugee status to go to our high commission in Colombo and say that he is suffering hardship. Our policy since 1985 and the introduction of the visa regime allow entry to people who show that they are suffering exceptional hardship and who have connections with Britain. The hon. Gentleman may say that that is meaningless because nobody has been accepted, but the opposite is true. No fewer than 1,060 Tamils were granted visas in Sri Lanka in the first seven months of 1986.
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that there will be a warm welcome for the firm, fair and speedy action that has been taken in this case? That welcome will come not least from the many thousands of my constituents who are members of the ethnic minority community and have no sympathy for those who seek to enter Britain by fraud. They have no wish to be associated with such criminals.
I am absolutely sure that my hon. Friend is right. It does not do community relations any good when there is widespread abuse of the control. All members of the ethnic minority communities that I have met recognise the need for firm and fair control and are as likely to be as outraged as my hon. Friend and I when that control is abused.
The Minister has told the House that a number of Tamils have been admitted to Britain because of their fear of retaliation and persecution had they remained in Sri Lanka. The British high commission does not know about these people, so how can it be certain that they will not be harassed and persecuted on their return? Can the Minister explain why people of substantial means, like the family who are relatives of one of my constituents and who are about to be sent back to Sri Lanka, should give up their homes and businesses to go to a foreign country just on a whim? There must be something more to it than that.
I do not think much of the hon. Gentleman's last point. Large numbers of people have been coming here over the last 20 or 30 years and they did not all say that they had come because they were facing persecution. They came here because they reckoned that they would have a better life for themselves and their families in the West than in the countries in which they had lived. For obvious reasons, we have never accepted a blanket policy of non-return to Sri Lanka. There is no doubt that some parts of Sri Lanka are more dangerous than others and that it may be dangerous for some people to return. Return will cause hardship to some people but no hardship to others.
I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his firm action in this case. Is it not absolutely consistent with an attempt at fraudulent entry into this country under our immigration laws that these people came from Bangladesh and Malaysia? Can my right hon. and learned Friend tell the House any more about what these people were doing in those countries? That would reassure the Opposition that these people are being returned to a country to which they chose to go before coming to this country.
I cannot throw as much light on that aspect of the matter as my hon. Friend would wish. What seems to have happened is that an agent in Sri Lanka organised the movement of these people out of Sri Lanka to Malaysia. Either the same agent travelled with them or another agent took over the management of the racket, and this large party was eventually assembled in Bangladesh. We are piecing together the story. I assure my hon. Friend that this is the culmination of two months of some quite extraordinary events during which parties arrived from various parts of the world—and not only via Malaysia and Bangladesh.
Is not this illiberality typical of the mean-mindedness of modern Toryism under the Prime Minister, the chairman of the Conservative party, who very much typifies it, and, sadly, the Home Secretary? Will the Minister ensure that the British high commissioner in Sri Lanka checks in six or eight months what may have happened to any of these men who return to Sri Lanka?
At least until this summer, the Conservative party and the Labour party were supposed to believe in firm control. How on earth one can believe in firm immigration control and allow a gaping hole to be driven through it by this sort of abuse, I really do not know.
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the vast majority of people in Britain will regard his action as absolutely right and fair? Is it not extraordinary that the Opposition should be so out of touch with ordinary people as to hold the views that they do? Why do they not condemn this action instead of trying to support it?