As I informed the House yesterday, 64 Sri Lankan Tamils arrived here on Friday, having travelled from Malaysia via Bangladesh without visas. They were either carrying forged passports or had destroyed them in transit. When their claims to asylum were examined and found to be baseless, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary decided that they sho:uld be returned to Bangladesh without delay.
Accordingly, arrangements were made to effect removal of 58 of the passengers by the Bangladesh Biman flight scheduled to leave at 5 pm last night. However, the flight was delayed by an apparently organised demonstration by those who were due to be removed. At approximately 7 pm the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service informed my right hon. Friend's Office that it had obtained a High Court order staying removal action until Monday 23 February. Immediate instructions were given to comply with the order and to make arrangements for the passengers' accommodation or detention until the matter was resolved.
We shall take steps to contest the order and any application for judicial review. The Government remain of the view that the group has no claim to refugee status. If firm action is not taken against abuses of this kind, a potentially disastrous gap in our immigration control will be opened. We will make every effort to prevent this happening.
No doubt the House will be grateful for that deferral, but we are not grateful to the Minister for his court action to challenge the grounds for that deferral. It is not the generosity of the Minister that is responsible for the deferral because he and his Department ignored the normal convention whereby 85 per cent. of those arriving in this country and seeking political refugee status are referred to the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service.
The Minister's Office usually takes 18 months to two years to deal with a single application for political asylum. In view of that, how can the minister convince us that in 72 hours the Secretary of State went through the cases of 64 people and became convinced that each one of those people is not entitled to refugee status? Were there not coordinated and organised attempts by the boat people and by the Jews in the 1930s who, without passports, visas or other documents, left the countries in which they were being persecuted? Does the Minister intend to send these 58 men, women and children back to their deaths in Jaffna?
First of all, the hon. Gentleman referred to the referral system. That system was set up to ensure that those who had a claim to asylum were properly represented. The system clearly does not apply in cases where a bogus asylum claim is made simply as a means of evading our control. On the matter of the speed with which the applications were dealt with, I assure the hon. Gentleman that careful examination of the claims was made, but we must send out a clear signal to others that rackets like this will not succeed. It does no service to the victims of that sort of racket to keep them in detention for a long period before they are returned. There is always a risk in this sort of case of the country from which the people have come refusing to take them back. Those are the three reasons why it is important that such applications should be dealt with speedily.
The comparisons made by the hon. Gentleman are ridiculous or, to use an adjective oft used by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), odious. The truth is that Tamils in Sri Lanka have the opportunity of going to our high commission in Colombo. In the summer of 1985 we made it plain that if they could show that they had a connection with this country and were suffering hardship they could come here. It is unfair to say that our policy towards Tamils has been other than extremely generous.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend say how many Tamils have been granted asylum since the emergency in 1985? Will he say how many are currently having their claims looked at, and will he briefly describe how a legitimate claim for asylum is brought about?
I cannot give my hon. Friend the precise figures that he wants. I can assure him that a large number of Tamils have been granted exceptional leave to remain in this country and that a large number who arrived in this country before the visa requirement was imposed in the middle of 1985, as my hon. Friend knows, have all been granted exceptional leave to remain.
No one wishes to see the system of refugee applications abused. I certainly have no wish to do so and I am not an apologist for racketeers of any sort. However, does the Minister accept that there is genuine concern on the part of a number of organisations such as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the British Refugee Council and others, including Amnesty International, which are deeply worried that if those people are returned they could possibly face persecution of some sort? Why should the Minister be opposed to a judicial review taking place early next week, through the courts, to determine whether those fears have any justification?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that it would be a grave mistake if organisations such as UNHCR or UKIAS were to give the impression that they were not as determined as we are to stamp out such rackets. It would be a grave disservice to genuine refugees if the impression got about the place that UKIAS was determined to bend all its efforts to allowing racketeers to succeed.
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the soundings that a number of Conservative Members have taken in their constituencies indicate that his statement today and his stand have overwhelming support in this country? However, in so far as there may be Tamil political refugees from Sri Lanka, would it not be natural for them to return to their former homeland in India? Will the Foreign and Commonwealth Office discuss that aspect of the matter with the Government of India?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said about the stand that we have taken. However, I want to make it plain that we are determined to honour our obligations under the United Nations convention on the treatment of refugees. We have always done so, and we continue to do so. It does no service to genuine refugees if rackets like this succeed. I cannot get involved in the other matters that my hon. Friend raised. I remind the House that we are talking not about people who came here direct from Sri Lanka, but about people who travelled from Sri Lanka to Malaysia and on from Malaysia to Bangladesh. We are talking about returning people to Bangladesh. We cannot possibly accept that we have any obligation, under the United Nations convention, even in the case of people who are found to be refugees, to take such people in this country when they have not been prepared to take refuge in the first country to which they have travelled after they have left the country to which they say they are frightened to return.
How does the Minister's action yesterday accord with the discussions last week in Switzerland on the common European problem of asylum? Is not what is needed a constructive, compassionate and co-ordinated approach to refugees? Does the Minister accept that by yesterday committing a gross abuse of his own procedures and denying the opportunity of judicial review, representations by hon. Members, and an independent referral to UKIAs, his only honourable course is to resign and let somebody else do a better job?
I never cease to be surprised at the opinions of the hon. Gentleman, but I do not beleive that even he thought, when we were debating stops last year, that we were saying that we would allow people to remain in this country even when it was patently obvious on their arrival that they were abusing the asylum procedures and were in no way refugees. I agree that European countries should work together to tackle this problem, because, unfortunately, it is growing. Over the past year or so, more and more people have claimed asylum in countries in Western Europe when there has been no substance to their claims. Already, many European countries have reacted to that. Denmark, Sweden and Germany have all now started refusing to hear asylum claims at their borders when they come from people who claim that they are frightened to return to one country, but have come from another.
Does not this country have an enviable record on genuine political refugees? Is not this a case of exploitation of pathetic people? My right hon. and learned Friend is right to resist this because many people have a much better claim. Does not this country have its own people to look after, and is it not the case that once people know that we shall be a lot better off?
My hon. Friend is right. Apart from the fact that they have had to pay enourmous sums of money to racketeers, these people have been treated just like cattle. They have come out of Columbo in batches, have been herded together in other batches in Kuala Lumpur and have travelled from there to Dhaka and then on here.
How can the Minister be so dismissive of the dangers that Tamils face in Sri Lanka when, on another case that I have put to him, a Tamil returned to Sri Lanka faces great danger, and his 14-year-old nephew was burnt alive by Sri Lankan troops, who set fire to his home? How can the Minister be certain that, if he returns these people to Bangladesh, they will not in turn be sent to Malaysia, and, in turn, sent back to danger in Sri Lanka? How can he be certain that refugees from a civil war should be expected to go to a high commission to ensure that their travel documents are in order? How are we expected to accept that these people are bogus, as the Minister frequently claims, when he, and nobody but he, has had an opportunity to test their claims? He has stopped them using the recognised procedures to test their claims.
I certainly do not test their claims. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that we have a highly skilled refugee unit that has always earned the respect of all hon. Members. I repeat that these people are not refugees. The hon. Gentleman is saying that anyone coming from that troubled part of the world should be allowed to stay here. We simply cannot accept that as policy. Even less can we accept the idea that people coming from a troubled part of the world can travel to a less troubled part of the world and then to here, and that we, and not the country to which they first travelled, should be expected to take them.
Order. There is a further statement after this and an important economic debate. I shall allow questions to go on for a further four minutes until 10 minutes to four.
Although there must be a degree of sympathy for these poor dupes, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we cannot have our immigration policy run by eastern spivs and racketeers? Will my hon. and learned Friend look at the operations of such agencies and determine whether they can be blacklisted from any future dealings with this country?
I am not sure that the matter involves any dealings with this country. We do not have power to blacklist them. All that we can do is to send out a clear message from the House that rackets of this sort will not work. That is why all hon. Members should support the action taken by the Government. The action taken by the Government supports those who make genuine claims for asylum, and supports the work carried out by the UNHCR and by the UKIAS. Hon. Members who attack the action taken by the Government undermine the important safeguards that operate in this country for genuine refugees.
I am sure that the high commission keeps a close eye on events there. The hon. Gentleman is falling into the trap of his hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden). The hon. Gentleman is now saying that, even if they are not refugees, we should not return them to Sri Lanka because of the general conditions there. I repeat what I said yesterday. There is no reason to suppose that people who have left Sri Lanka will be ill—treated on their return or that the Sri Lankan Government will take action against them. I am quite sure that our high commission in Colombo knows a lot more about that matter than does the hon. Gentleman.
Is it not a fact that hundreds of Tamils have applied for visas through the British high commission, that they have been granted visas, that there are no queues, that the Tamil community has been contacted by the high commission and asked whether there are complaints, and that there are no complaints? Therefore, is it not extraordinary that these people chose not to apply for visas, unlike their compatriots who applied in the regular way?
I gave the House the figures yesterday. Over 1,000 Tamils in Colombo have been granted visits, either for settlement or for visas here. In the face of those figures, it is quite impossible to mount the argument that we are adopting some sort of oppressive policy towards the Tamils. The figures speak for themselves.
Would the Minister care to remind the House that on Monday afternoon a number of his hon. Members sought stops on the removal of these people, that on Tuesday, after he had refused those stops, outside the terms of the representations agreed by this House, he was informed by the solicitors representing the people due to be removed that they were applying for a judicial review of their case, that he knew that that was going on but that he tried to circumvent the course of justice by hastening their removal from this country? Will he assure the House that in any other case of a political asylum application he will accept a stop from an hon. Member and that he will personally examine the case, as he is required to do, within the terms of the United Nations convention on the status of refugees?
Every case was examined under the terms of the United Nations convention on the status of refugees. We made it quite clear in our statement last October that we would not accept stops in respect of visa nationals who arrived here without visas. We said that there was no change in the arrangements for asylum, but I do not believe for one moment that the House contemplated that a stop would be taken when a claim to asylum was manifestly bogus, and it was never envisaged that we should face the situation that we are facing now, with large numbers of people coming here as a result of well—organised rackets. Finally, far from our not having observed the order of the court, we very swiftly observed it, as the hon. Gentleman knows full well, and took the people who had been loaded on to the plane off it again.
My right hon. and learned Friend can he assured that the vast majority of the people of this country in all communities, including resident refugees, will support the action that he has taken. We cannot afford an open door policy. We cannot allow our immigration laws to be flouted. We must take the firmest possible steps against fraudulent means to try to enter this country. Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure the House that he will not be deterred on a future occasion, as a result of the irresponsible attitude of the Opposition and of UKIAS, from taking swift and decisive action in similar cases?
I am sure that my hon. Friend is entirely right. As I said yesterday, at least until the middle of last summer, both parties in this House were supposed to be in favour of firm immigration control. There is not the slightest doubt that the overwhelming majority of the people of this country expect us to operate firm immigration control. We should be abdicating our responsibilities if, faced with abuse on this scale, we were just to say, "It is all too difficult; we must listen to the beseechings of hon. Members like those who have spoken this afternoon" and did nothing about it.
Will the Minister confirm that in the Government's White Paper of September 1985 the Government said that there were three safeguards that were relevant at the time to asylum applicants who were refused admission at points of entry—the representations of Members of Parliament, the UKIAS referral procedure and judicial review? Taking together the Minister's statement yesterday, which denied the representations of Members of Parliament and the UKIAS procedure in this instance, and the fact that the Government are seeking to prevent a judicial review, does this not represent a fairly significant change in Government policy, compared with two years ago? In that context, could the Minister say something about the 64 Tamils who arrived and the fact that 58 of them were to be removed yesterday? What has happened to the other six?
They were granted temporary admission, and it was thought sensible to remove those who were in detention first. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would be pleased with that decision. I have already said all that it is necessary to say about the representations of Members of Parliament. It was made absolutely plain last autumn that we would no longer accept stops in the case of people who arrived here without visas when they were visa nationals. We said that there would be no change in the arrangements for asylum, but I do not believe that the House contemplated for a moment that a stop would be made when a claim for asylum was manifestly bogus. I do not understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying about a judicial review. If an application were made for a judicial review and the application were granted, we have always taken the view that we should not remove people until the matter has been resolved. The hon. Gentleman now seems to be arguing that in every case when an application is made, before it is even heard, we should not take action. We cannot accept that.