Vietnamese Refugees (Hong Kong)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 22nd December 1988.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. John M. Taylor.]

Photo of Mr Philip Goodhart Mr Philip Goodhart , Beckenham 9:34 am, 22nd December 1988

We meet this morning in the shadow of an appalling air disaster that has shocked us all. Perhaps 300 people have been killed. In the 13 years since the fall of Saigon, an estimated 300,000 people have been killed or drowned trying to flee from Vietnam. A sudden disaster captures our imagination and compassion but a long-term human tragedy produces indifference and neglect. Therefore, it is appropriate that we should begin our Christmas Adjournment debates by discussing the plight of some of the most unfortunate people for whom the House bears ultimate responsibility —the Vietnamese boat people who are currently sheltering in Hong Kong.

Earlier this year, the Hong Kong Government, for whom we are ultimately responsible, changed the rules for those boat people trying to escape from the appalling conditions in their own country. There was some relaxation in the conditions under which boat people who had arrived in Hong Kong before midnight on 16 June this year were held. In the past, thousands of those detainees were kept in small, closed camps, some of which I have visited. The camps are clean and the detainees are surprisingly healthy. There is less crime than in an average English village. Children are taught to read and write and paid work is available to many of the inmates. There is also a total lack of privacy and freedom. For years, large families have been expected to live in a space no larger than a dining room table—or the Table on which the Dispatch Boxes rest. Families do not have floor space for themselves. They are often stacked in three tiers of bunks so that three families are literally living on top of each other.

Until 16 June this year, detainees were allowed out only to go to hospital. That meant that some children of school age had never been outside the camp site, which comprised one or two acres. Six months ago we relaxed the rules for the people already in the detention camps. The gates were at least partially opened but, at the same time, we imposed new, even stricter rules for boat people who had arrived after the deadline. Those who arrived after the deadline would not be looked on as prima facie refugees unless they could show that they had fled from fear of individual persecution because of their political or religious belief. The others would be regarded as unwelcome economic migrants. We seem to have signed an agreement with the Vietnamese authorities which covers the repatriation to Vietnam of those so-called unwelcome economic migrants.

I know many of the men and women who devised and administer that policy and they are humane and honourable people. The staff of the camps that I visited seemed to be kindly and are clearly on good terms with the detainees. The civil servants responsible for the camps seemed to be sympathetic individuals. I know some of the members of the refugee committee of the Hong Kong Legislative Council. They are kind and caring people who are caught in an impossible situation. Those who have known the Foreign Secretary, who bears the final responsiblity for this, for many years know that there is not a cruel or wicked bone in his body. The House will know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary who will reply to the debate is one of the kindest and most generous of men. Yet the policy that we have devised is shameful. I am ashamed of it, and in years to come historians will judge that we should be ashamed of our handling of this human tragedy.

A few weeks ago the press was full of stories about the findings of a commission that investigated allegations that Harold Macmillan and others were responsible for callously repatriating thousands of white Russians and Yugloslavs in 1945. That repatriation turned out to be a tragedy which later provoked recrimination, but our policy of repatriating the Vietnamese has provoked hardly a murmur of protest. To some extent, our consciences have been salved by the reluctance of the Vietnamese authorities to take back anyone who does not volunteer to return.

Of course, there are good reasons why any sensible person wants to discourage the flow of people from Vietnam. Hong Kong has one of the highest population densities in the world. It should not be asked to take in tens of thousands of additional refugees from Vietnam. Yet the potential flow is enormous. In the first half of 1979, boat people were arriving in Hong Kong at the rate of 10,000 a month, and there is no doubt that hundreds of thousands of people in Vietnam would be prepared to undergo the hardships and risks of a boat trip to Hong Kong if they thought that it would lead to a quick resettlement in the west.

The problem for Hong Kong has been increased by the fact that many of the countries that took large numbers of Vietnamese refugees have begun to show compassion fatigue. Some countries have absorbed very large numbers. In the 13 years since the fall of Saigon, America has taken nearly 1 million, and they are beginning to make an important contribution to American life at all levels. Three other countries—Canada, Australia, and France —have each taken more than 100,000 Vietnamese refugees. Britain has taken more than 20,000, mostly from Hong Kong, and I pay tribute to the many charities and individuals who have helped the Vietnamese refugees to settle into the mainstream of British life.

But there is an increased reluctance among the main receiver countries to keep their doors open. When the Hong Kong refugee rules were changed in June, there was a hope that potential host countries would respond to the new tougher entry rules by offering to take many more of the 16,000 people who already had prima facie status and were established in the camps. That does not seem to have happened. The Hong Kong authorities reckon that during the next 12 months only 2,500 camp inmates will be offered resettlement. The authorities in Hong Kong and many refugee organisations believe that if we took another 2,000 refugees other countries would open their gates and the old refugee problem would be solved. I do not believe that that will happen. Although our present quota of 20 refugees a month is pathetically low—if my hon. Friend the Minister could announce an increase, I should be the first to cheer —the solution to the problem is not resettlement in the west. A well-publicised transfer of families from Hong Kong to Britain could start the rush again.

Should we acquiesce in the proposed policy of repatriating most of the 10,000 boat people who have arrived in Hong Kong since June, and should we repatriate the bulk of those who will continue to try to reach Hong Kong? At present, pushing the boat people back to Vietnam is as repulsive as handing back to the East German authorities anyone who manages to get over the Berlin wall. There is the problem of punishment. Earlier this month, a notable television programme entitled "Boat People go Home", which was part of the ITV "This Week" series, showed that ordinary people who are caught trying to leave Vietnam are subjected to interrogation, re-education and sometimes imprisonment for up to 12 years.

The Vietnamese Government may change their policy. Perhaps perestroika will come to Vietnam. I gather that the Vietnamese phrase for perestroika is "doi moi". Perhaps the crushing burden of taxation in a country where the average income barely exceeds £2 a week will be reduced. Perhaps there will be a sensible agricultural pricing system and perhaps runaway inflation will be checked. Perhaps the Vietnamese authorities will relax their political grip and will not penalise any returning boat people. But the good sense and good faith of the Vietnamese Government must be tested much more strenuously before it is safe to think about repatriation.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to give a pledge that no one will be repatriated to Vietnam against his will. I ask him to give that pledge not only for next year but for the lifetime of this Parliament. I also ask for an assurance that no pressure will be put on boat people in Hong Kong to volunteer to return.

If the West is suffering from terminal compassion fatigue, if Hong Kong is too crowded and if repatriation is unacceptable, what should we do? The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees favours refugee resettlement in the general area from which the refugees come. That is a sensible policy. There is space in parts of the Philippines and in Borneo, and there are many other underpopulated areas of south-east Asia where, if there was the political will, the boat people could be resettled temporarily for, say, five years while we see whether the Vietnamese Government become more tolerant and more tolerable. Of course, neither the Indonesian Government nor the Government of the Philippines will welcome penniless refugees in large numbers and give them land and a permanent home. It would be much more acceptable if an international consortium agreed to take a temporary lease on camp sites in the Philippines and Borneo and guaranteed that no financial burden would fall on the host country.

Hong Kong should not be asked to pay more than a small part of the cost of any temporary relocation of refugees in the area. I note that when the rules were changed in June, the influential Far East Economic Review acidly noted that support for mismanaged local banks was costing Hong Kong taxpayers more than the £l5 million a year spent on refugee support. We should be major contributors to any regional temporary relocation project.

There is considerable all-party support for an increase in our aid budget, and if one is made I should give high priority to more help for refugees. Help should also be given by Taiwan, the administration of which is wealthy enough to play a major role in regional aid. Above all, help should be given by Japan—its business did well out of the Vietnam war—which has made no worthwhile contribution to solving the refugee problem.

I note that an international conference that will be concerned mainly with the Vietnamese refugee problem will meet next year. We must try to achieve multilateral support for temporary local resettlement and should be prepared to play a part with financial and administrative support. At Christmas time, we should hold out hope to these wretched people and not threaten to send them back against their will. I cannot support a policy based on detention and repatriation of brave people who have already suffered so much.

Photo of Mr Roger Sims Mr Roger Sims , Chislehurst 9:51 am, 22nd December 1988

I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Beckenham (Sir P. Goodhart) on securing this Adjournment debate and am grateful to him for allowing me to make a brief contribution on a topic in which I have taken an interest for many years.

We are discussing some of the original boat people who went to Hong Kong 10 or more years ago, and we remember the wave of sympathy for them in this country. Most of them have been resettled in different parts of the world, a number of them here. Several thousand have remained in Hong Kong for up to 10 years and their position is hopeless; they have tried to resettle in different parts of the world without success. We are taking 20 people a month, but they must already have a family connection in Britain. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider opening our doors a little wider and to persuade the Home Office to allow a few more refugees to come here, albeit at a gentle pace. If we were prepared to take a few more refugees, perhaps we could persuade other countries to do the same. As the country ultimately responsible for Hong Kong, others look to us to take the lead. I hope that special consideration will be given, not to the recent economic refugees but the original political refugees.

The status of those individuals apart, we have a moral obligation to the people and Government of Hong Kong. It is one of the most densely populated areas of the world, yet without question the Hong Kong people took in the refugees; not a single one has been turned away. The assumption was that Hong Kong would be a staging post and that the refugees would be moved on. Hong Kong took the refugees despite the fact that many families there have friends and relatives in mainland China who would like to go to Hong Kong but are not allowed to do so. With open arms, the Hong Kong people accepted the refugees, but Hong Kong is still having to bear the burden, expense and sheer discomfort of having to cope with them. Other considerations apart, we have a strong obligation to the people and Government of Hong Kong to ease the burden that they have shouldered for so long.

Photo of Mr Timothy Eggar Mr Timothy Eggar , Enfield North 9:54 am, 22nd December 1988

Almost a year ago to the day, in the Christmas Adjournment debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Sir P. Goodhart) and I discussed the plight of the Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong. Today's debate provides a further timely opportunity for the House to review the important developments of the past 12 months. I am most grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Beckenham and for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) for their continuing and constructive interest in this extremely sensitive subject.

For reasons of which hon. Members are well aware, the problem of the boat people is extraordinarily complex. It is tied to the wider problems of the region and is a difficult and sensitive issue. I assure my hon. Friends that we and the Government of Hong Kong are very concerned about it and attach high priority to solving it.

It may be helpful briefly to summarise the developments of the past 12 months and the steps that we and the Hong Kong authorities have taken to deal with them. As the House will be aware, there has been a sharp and dramatic increase in the number of boat people arriving in Hong Kong since mid-1987. Between mid-1987 and mid-1988, the boat people population in Hong Kong rose from 8,000 to more than 25,000. In the first half of 1988 alone, there were more than 9,000 arrivals—three times more than in 1987, four times more than 1986, and eight times more than 1985.

In addition to that massive numerical increase, it became increasingly clear that there had been a change in the background and motivation of those arriving in Hong Kong. The overwhelming majority of recent arrivals were farmers and fishermen from north Vietnam. They were seeking a better life in the West and not leaving to escape political and religious persecution, so they could not meet the internationally accepted criteria for refugee status. Such people stood little or no chance of being resettled in the West—resettlement countries understandably choose to give priority to genuine refugees from other parts of the world—and their arrival in Hong Kong almost overwhelmed the already stretched reception facilities in the territory. It also made it more difficult for genuine refugees in Hong Kong to find resettlement places elsewhere. The major resettlement countries began to question the wisdom of resettlement programmes that appeared only to stimulate ever greater numbers of departures from Vietnam.

By June this year, it had become clear that the burden on Hong Kong had become intolerable and that things could not go on as they were. It was no longer fair or realistic to pretend that all those who arrived in Hong Kong by boat had the prospect of automatic resettlement in the West, however long that might take. It would have been a cruel deception to offer those who plainly did not qualify as refugees the prospect of a future that did not and could not exist; nor could a civilised Government leave such people to the mercy of the sea.

Against that background and with our support, the Hong Kong Government introduced a new policy on 16 June. From that date all new arrivals were to be screened to distinguish genuine refugees from the rest. The screening procedures are in accordance with established international criteria and have been fully endorsed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. UNHCR officials are able to monitor screening and give advice and assistance when appropriate. The procedures are, and are seen to be, fair and objective.

I assure the House that the Hong Kong authorities are proceeding with screening carefully and thoroughly. Results so far have identified 38 genuine refugees—slightly less than 10 per cent. of those screened so far. The rest have been screened out as failing to meet the relevant international criteria. Those screened in—those accepted as genuine refugees—are accommodated in camps to await resettlement. Those screened out are given a temporary base in Hong Kong until suitable arrangements can be made for their future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham repeated his thoughtful suggestions about providing temporary relocation elsewhere in the region. We have considered his proposals carefully and taken soundings on the practicality of the idea of what one may loosely call a "haven" for Vietnamese refugees elsewhere in the region. All our research leads us to conclude that no country in the area would be receptive to the idea of accommodating large numbers of refugees from Hong Kong. It would amount to the creation within that country's territory of what, in practice, would be an isolation centre for stateless persons. We do not think such an approach would be acceptable. We have always believed that other long-term solutions must be sought. It is for that reason that the Hong Kong Government introduced their new policy earlier this year.

My hon. Friends have expressed concern about the conditions in the camps in Hong Kong. That is understandable, but we should not forget that the Hong Kong Government have had to accommodate 25,000 boat people, including over 17,000 new arrivals in the past year. The Hong Kong Government attach great importance, as we do, to ensuring that conditions in the camps are as good as possible in the difficult circumstances. They have paid close attention to the safety aspects and to the provision of adequate food and medical facilities. This has been, and still is, as my hon. Friends have recognised, a major strain on the territory's resources. But the authorities have coped magnificently. I am sure that the House will join me in paying tribute to the Hong Kong authorities for the efforts that they have made.

In parallel with the introduction of screening, the Hong Kong Government announced that the closed centres for those with refugee status would be liberalised. As the House knows, that process is already underway. The new screening policy has made this possible, because it is no longer necessary to have restrictive conditions in the refugee camps as a deterrent to further departures from Vietnam. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will run a new open camp for all those in Hong Kong with refugee status. It is currently under construction. In the meantime, the refugees have access to outside employment and increased educational training facilities. The Government welcome the role that the UNHCR is playing in Hong Kong. On 3 October, we announced that we would be making a contribution of £1 million to UNHCR's operations in the territory.

Since September the flow of arrivals in Hong Kong has diminished significantly. That is encouraging. It shows that the message of the new screening policy is getting across in Vietnam, which was intended. It also suggests that the Vietnamese authorities have been playing their part in taking effective measures to bring the outflow of people to an end. We are far from complacent because the autumn and winter months are traditionally the period of relatively few new arrivals. We are therefore monitoring the situation closely.

Those who do not meet the criteria for refugee status cannot be permanently accommodated in the small and overcrowded territory of Hong Kong—I think that everyone recognises that. It would not be right either to contemplate the indefinite detention of such people and their children. Their future can lie only in their own country. It must therefore be right to seek satisfactory arrangements, in consultation with the Vietnamese authorities, for their return, without fear of punishment or persecution of any kind.

It is with that objective that we have held two rounds of talks with the Vietnamese authorities about the future of those boat people who do not qualify as refugees. We have insisted on—and, I am delighted to say, obtained—assurances from the Vietnamese that all returnees will be treated humanely and will not be punished. We have also secured the agreement of the Vietnamese that the UNHCR should monitor the observance of these undertakings and the reintegration of the returnees into Vietnam. These are important developments which I am sure will command a general welcome. They provide the basis for a viable future for those for whom no other realistic option exists.

Several hundred boat people in Hong Kong have already expressed a wish to return to Vietnam. The UNHCR is taking charge of the practical arrangements for that. I am pleased to confirm to the House that a memorandum of understanding between the UNHCR and the Vietnamese authorities was signed on 13 December. It represents a significant step forward. We have indeed come a long way. Until recently, the Vietnamese authorities would have been resolutely opposed to the signing of such a document. It is as a result of our diplomatic efforts, the impact of Hong Kong's new screening policy, and the patient and exemplary work of the UNHCR that such a memorandum has been made possible. The memorandum clearly provides for the monitoring by the UNHCR of the arrangements for the return and reintegration of the individuals concerned. It provides also for financial assistance to help them to pick up the threads of their former life.

We hope and believe that the success of these arrangements will, over time, serve to encourage other non-refugees in Hong Kong to opt voluntarily to return. We hope that they will make that choice as it becomes clear that they will not be subject to punishment in Vietnam and as the inevitable logic of their situation sinks in. We are convinced that a solution on these lines is both realistic and humane: realistic because there is no practicable alternative, and humane because it is conditional on there being no ill-treatment of those who go back.

In response to a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham, I assure him that we would not repatriate a single boat person to Vietnam if we were not satisfied that such people would be properly treated on their return and would not be punished. We shall be in close consultation with the UNHCR to make sure that the terms of the memorandum that has been agreed with the authorities in Vietnam is adhered to extremely closely.

Photo of Mr Philip Goodhart Mr Philip Goodhart , Beckenham

Will my hon. Friend go a step further and say that, while the monitoring takes place next year, no Vietnamese boat people will be sent back against their will?

Photo of Mr Timothy Eggar Mr Timothy Eggar , Enfield North

We are not talking about compulsion at this stage. We envisage a gradual return by people on a voluntary basis. It is critical that the monitoring process is successful and that people are reintegrated. It is also critical that the news that the Vietnamese authorities are abiding by the letter and spirit of the memorandum signed by the UNHCR seeps back to Hong Kong so that those who have not been given refugee status can feel confident that they will receive a proper welcome when they return to Vietnam and that they will not be persecuted.

My hon. Friends mentioned the resettlement of the boat people in Hong Kong who do not enjoy refugee status. It is critical that those people find homes in the major resettlement countries as soon as possible. In the meantime, as I have already said, the camps in which they are being accommodated are being opened up and a new camp is being constructed.

There are now more than 15,000 Vietnamese in Hong Kong who are recognised as refugees. Following the change in policy introduced on 16 June, they represent what is essentially a residual problem. Of the more recent arrivals, few seem likely to meet the established international criteria to be considered as refugees. I have already given the House the figures for the screening so far.

We have played a major part over the years in resettling Vietnamese refugees from Hong Kong, despite the heavy immigration pressures that we face from many other sources. We are deeply grateful to other Governments who are continuing to make their contribution by resettling substantial numbers from Hong Kong. We believe that the time has come for a major international effort to tackle the residual problem. I am able to announce to the House that we are prepared, in principle, to contribute to that effort by taking a further 1,000 Vietnamese refugees from Hong Kong over two to three years, provided that other resettlement countries are prepared to contribute commensurately. The 1,000 would include relatives of Vietnamese already here and others with the potential quickly to become self-sufficient in the United Kingdom. They would also include some of those mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst who have been in the camps for a long time and have not yet been accepted elsewhere.

We shall do everything possible to ensure that additional refugees are resettled in a way that does not add to the considerable pressure on housing resources in certain urban areas in Britain. My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary will be considering with our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and others how rehousing problems can be avoided.

We shall enter into immediate consultations with the other resettlement Governments and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. We shall make it clear that there must be a genuine international effort. We shall look to other Governments to state clearly their readiness to match what. we intend to do by accepting substantial additional numbers of Vietnamese refugees from Hong Kong. We hope that the other resettlement countries will respond generously, as they have in the past. Depending on the response that we receive, and on achieving a solution to the problem of pressure on housing resources in certain areas, we shall be ready to go ahead with our new plans.

I reassure the House that we shall continue to devote all our efforts, in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and in Hong Kong, to tackling all aspects of this complex and tragic problem. In doing so, we shall continue to work closely with the Hong Kong authorities, the UNHCR and the international community. We need a national and international response to the problem.

We are far from complacent about what has been achieved so far and we do not underestimate the difficulties that remain to be resolved for the genuine refugees and those who cannot be accepted as refugees.

This short debate has been useful in giving the House an opportunity to make its views known and I am delighted to have been able to make my announcement. I assure hon. Members that we will continue to listen carefully to the concerns of the House and to those in Hong Kong and elsewhere in this difficult and sensitive area.