Vietnamese Children (Hong Kong)

– in the House of Commons at 1:48 pm on 20th December 1990.

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Photo of Mr Philip Goodhart Mr Philip Goodhart , Beckenham

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise once again at Christmas time the subject of the Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong. In December 1989, we had a full debate on the boat people in which I was able to take part. In December 1988 and in December 1987, I was able to raise the issue in the regular pre-Christmas debate. Sadly, the problem still troubles our conscience at this time of year. I am grateful for the support of my hon. Friends the Members for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) and for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims), who know the problem well.

At Christmas time, we should be especially conscious of those for whom there is, metaphorically, no room at the inn. We should also be especially concerned about young children in need of care and comfort. Sadly, however, this season will once again be a bleak time for the many thousands of young children locked up in the detention camps of Hong Kong, for which we in the House are ultimately responsible.

Over Christmas, many thousands of young Vietnamese children will catch a glimpse of the outside world only through thick coils of barbed wire. They will play as best they can on crowded cement yards in which they have spent every day of the past year. Some children in the camps are lucky if they can walk on grass or touch a flower on one day in the whole year. Their regular home will be shacks 30 m long by 9 m wide, shared by 300 adults and children.

The minimum guidelines set by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees state that every adult or child should have living space of at least 3·5 sq m. At the Whitehead and High Island detention centres, which hold almost 30,000 boat people, the living space is about 1 sq yd per person. That means that three families will live on top of each other in tiered bunks. It means that home for a husband, a wife and two children will be a strip of plywood measuring 8 ft by 6 ft, with one family living 3 ft above their heads and another family living 3 ft below them. I am ashamed that we should make families live in such conditions.

We require men, women and children to live in such conditions as a by-product of a policy which has been tacitly approved by the House whereby we seek to stop a flood of people desperately seeking a haven from political and economic repression. We know, and the people of Hong Kong know, that a quarter of the 60 million inhabitants of Vietnam would emigrate if they could. Indeed, more than a million have left Vietnam in the past 12 years, and 800,000 have found new homes in the United States. To stop that vast potential flow of people trying to escape from political repression and abject poverty, we had to erect effective and unpleasant barriers.

There are two prongs to such a policy. On the one hand, we say that all new arrivals in Hong Kong from Vietnam must face a fair, but rigorous, screening process to establish whether they are genuine political refugees rather than economic migrants. We also make conditions tough for those who have been screened out and denied refugee status, as well as tough for those waiting to be screened. Our policy of being deliberately unpleasant to those fleeing from Vietnam reached an unhappy climax earlier this year when a planeload of protesting boat people were forcibly deported to Vietnam.

I acknowledge that the policy has had its successes. The flow of boat people from north Vietnam has dropped dramatically since that single act of forced repatriation. Perhaps that reduction was caused by news of the repatriation. However, the fall has been so steep—from 2,000 boat people per month from north Vietnam to 100 per month—that it seems more probable that the drop is the result of a change of policy by the Vietnamese and mainland Chinese Governments.

The Foreign Office has reached an agreement with the Vietnamese authorities which provides for easier repatriation of those boat people who do not protest too much. In some ways, that is a typical Foreign Office agreement, in that it reassures Vietnamese symathisers like me that there will not be forced repatriation, while it encourages anti-Vietnamese politicians in Hong Kong to believe that there will be.

At the same time, the policy of making conditions intolerably uncomfortable is supposed to persuade people who have been screened out and denied refugee status to return to Vietnam voluntarily. In the first nine months of this year, 3,500 people returned voluntarily. That is a far higher figure than I had expected 12 months ago. The authorities in Hong Kong, and Foreign Office Ministers, will claim that the policy is working, that the number of refugees from north Vietnam has been cut dramatically and that the number of boat people returning voluntarily to Vietnam is higher than we had reason to believe.

However, that policy is based on the hope that economic and political conditions in Vietnam will improve and that the repressive nature of the Vietnamese communist Government will be relaxed still further. Unfortunately, in recent weeks Vietnam seems to have been going backwards rather than of forwards. A year ago, inflation in Vietnam seemed to be under control and the Government there appeared to be adopting a more liberal attitude politically and economically.

In the summer of 1989, I met the Vietnamese Foreign Minister, a veteran hard-line communist, who at that time sounded like a member of the "No Turning Back" group with his buoyant enthusiasm for market forces as a cure for inflation. That seemed to be working, but inflation is, alas, now rising sharply once more and the economic liberals have given way to communist hard-liners. Other conditions are also deteriorating. Soviet aid has disappeared. Fertilisers are in short supply in Vietnam. Oil prices are rocketing and unemployment is growing. The foreign currency earnings of Vietnamese guest workers in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union have disappeared.

At the same time, political repression, especially in the more relaxed south, seems to be intensifying. I note that, although the number of boat people coming from North Vietnam has fallen dramatically in the past few months, the number from south Vietnam has trebled in the same period. Many of the thousands of south Vietnamese boat people now arriving—most are ethnic Chinese—are confident that they will be given refugee status. Postal communications between Vietnam and the detention camps in Hong Kong are surprisingly good. It seems wholly unlikely that many detainees will agree to go back in the face of genuine fear of famine and hunger. I also fear that the economic and political repression in Vietnam could lead to a fresh wave of desperate people taking to their boats. If that happens, the British Government must be prepared to step in directly.

The finances of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Hong Kong are in a mess. When I was last there a few weeks ago, UNHCR owed the Hong Kong Administration more than 100 million Hong Kong dollars, but sadly some countries specifically exclude Hong Kong from their UNHCR contributions on the grounds that Hong Kong is rich. The politicians in Hong Kong, some of whom will be facing elections soon, are all too likely to want to cut the amount of money spent on the boat people. If there is a new exodus, the British Government have an obligation to step in with fresh help.

So, what can be done? I shall comment on three areas—screening, accommodation and education. First, there has been some improvement since I referred to the screening process last year. Of course, it is not perfect and there have been bad cases, such as the 111 boat people who were recently freed on a writ of habeas corpus and who have now been given refugee status. Clearly, they should never have been treated as they were. That episode has had a happy ending, however, and I am satisfied that the bulk of the boat people have received a far more thorough screening than most would-be refugees seeking asylum in other countries.

However, I am not at all happy about the screening of the unaccompanied children in the camps. Depending how one defines the words "unaccompanied" and "children", there are between 2,000 and 4,000 unaccompanied children in the Hong Kong camps. I am sure that their screening is carried out humanely, but it takes an extraordinarily long time. There is the bureaucracy of the Hong Kong Administration, meshing with the bureaucracy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. One then has to deal with the even more inefficient bureaucrats in Vietnam.

If the present rate is maintained, unaccompanied children may languish for years in the overcrowded detention camps. When I was last in Hong Kong, about 40 unaccompanied children were dealt with per month. That cannot be sensible of humane. I ask the Minister to look again at the special screening arrangements for those children. In view of the deteriorating situation in Vietnam, I hope that far more can be resettled in the West.

Secondly, I hope that all the unaccompanied children, and many of the families, can be moved from closed detention camps to open centres where they are not kept in prison-like conditions. When I was in Hong Kong this autumn, I was impressed by the Pillar Point open centre, which is run by the non-profit-making firm, Hong Kong Housing Services for Refugees Ltd. Pillar point now houses 5,000 people who have been given refugee status. All those refugees will be rehoused in the west sooner or later. Many have jobs in the still-thriving Hong Kong economy. Rent is charged at 100 Hong Kong dollars per month per room. Accommodation is sparse but adequate. In place of the scores of wardens with jangling keys, who are an inevitable part of the scene at High Island and Whitehead closed camps, there is an administrative staff of fewer than 20.

When it comes to looking after refugees, privatisation works. I am glad that there are plans for that non-profit-making private company to run the new Tai A Chau detention centre being built on the Soko islands. That should give hundreds, if not thousands, of children the opportunity to lead a more normal life. I hope that the Chi Ma Wan closed centre—also on an isolated island many miles from the city—can also be privatised and opened up.

I accept, with reluctance, the necessity for some closed camps, where conditions are austere, but as the ominous situation in Vietnam means that only a minority of people will be willing to return in the immediate future, we must take urgent action to ensure that children and young people are treated humanely.

Thirdly, I note that the Vietnamese, like the Chinese, are hungry for educations. I salute the work that the Save the Children Fund and other voluntary bodies are doing to provide playgrounds for the younger children. I note that considerable efforts are being made by the authorities to provide Vietnamese education, with an improved curriculum, for children of school age, but the effort seems to have a patchy impact and I hope that the Hong Kong Administration will feel able to increase the resources spent on the boat people's skills. A little money spent judiciously on educating those children should not be begrudged.

When I visited Pillar Point refugee camp recently, I was depressed to hear that the UNHCR had cut out all adult education, particularly the teaching of English. We know that the thousands of adults and children there will eventually be resettled in the west, almost certainly in English-speaking countries. It seems folly, therefore, not to make an effort to teach those people English while they are waiting for resettlement. I have appealed through the American press to Vietnamese organisations in America to fund that work, but ultimately the responsibility for this and for life in all the camps rests with us.

The people who run these camps on our behalf are generally kind and humane, but as Christmas approaches we should not tolerantly accept a system which leaves a child, or a man or woman, with 1 sq yd of living space. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development announced an extra £5 million for famine relief in Ethiopia and the Sudan, and I welcome that. I accept that the British taxpayer cannot meet all demands, but we have a particular responsibility to help those whom we have deliberately locked up.

Photo of Mr Mark Lennox-Boyd Mr Mark Lennox-Boyd , Morecambe and Lunesdale 2:18 pm, 20th December 1990

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Sir P. Goodhart) for once again raising the important issue of the plight of Vietnamese children in the boat people's camps in Hong Kong. I know that the House will be pleased to welcome my hon. Friends the Members for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) and for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims), who have taken a great interest in this subject.

The debate provides an opportunity to review recent developments in our efforts to find a humane and lasting solution to the problems posed for Hong Kong by the large numbers of boat people there and by those who still continue to arrive—although, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham said, fortunately in rather reduced numbers—for it is only through a lasting solution that a stable future for the children in those camps can be secured.

I pay tribute to the Hong Kong authorities, who, despite preoccupations with their own future during a time of considerable uncertainty, have continue to provide a safe haven for the Vietnamese asylum seekers. As we have been able to say for over 11 years now, no Vietnamese has ever been turned away. Hong Kong's humanitarian record is one of which to be proud, but I remind the House that last year Hong Kong coped with the arrival of more than 34,000 people, in addition to the 18,000 who arrived in the previous year.

The cornerstone of our concern is that genuine refugees should continue to enjoy protection and that a new home for them should be found in the west. The corollary is that those who are not refugees should return to their country of origin either to rebuild their lives in their home cities or villages or, if they are intent on leaving, to migrate through normal emigration channels. It is against that background that the policy for dealing with the Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong and south-east Asia has evolved.

Screening was introduced in Hong Kong in 1988 with the co-operation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham has been good enough to say that it is a thorough process. The procedures in Hong Kong have undergone some changes over the past 30 months, and I am confident that they are fair and well adapted to their main objective, which is to ensure that no one facing the prospect of return to Vietnam need fear persecution at the hands of the Vietnamese authorities.

Screening selects those whose fear of persecution in Vietnam is well founded. My hon. Friend referred to the agreement that the Foreign Office has concluded with Vietnam, and we have sought to obtain from the Vietnamese authorities specific undertakings that nobody who returns will be punished for having left. I am happy to say that the Vietnamese have honoured that. More than 6,000 people have returned to Vietnam from Hong Kong since March 1989, and their conditions have been monitored by the UNHCR and the British embassy. Not a single incident of persecution or mistreatment of those who have returned has yet been recorded.

Nevertheless, one can understand the argument that it would be hard-hearted to send people back to Vietnam without offering them any help to rebuild their lives. Our policy is far from hard-hearted, for the following reasons. The UNHCR has been providing reintegration assistance to which we have contributed. In addition, last May we announced a contribution of £1 million of aid for the areas of Vietnam from which the boat people originate. Perhaps most significantly, at our instigation, the European Community proposed in July to set up a major repatriation and reintegration assistance programme for returning Vietnamese. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham may have seen an announcement in the press stating that that is starting with a pilot project of some 10 million ecu.

Therefore, returning Vietnamese can now enjoy the prospect of generous financial support and a real opportunity to build their own future. There is no prospect that the international community will change its mind and resettle Vietnamese who are not refugees. Yet, sadly, pamphlets, some of which have originated in the United States of America, have circulated in the camps urging people to hang on in the expectation of change.

Photo of Mr James Lester Mr James Lester , Broxtowe

The basis of the economy in Vietnam could be changed if we and the United States recognised Vietnam and normalised relations. In that way, the many people who want to reinvest in Vietnam and its economy could do so, and the future of the Vietnamese people would be secure in their own country rather than their having to leave. That would be more helpful than the policy that my hon. Friend the Minister has just described.

Photo of Mr Mark Lennox-Boyd Mr Mark Lennox-Boyd , Morecambe and Lunesdale

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, and certainly it will be considered. However, it is going wide of the debate.

The pamphlets are appallingly irresponsible. They prolong to no purpose the detention of men, women and children at a time when the wherewithal exists for them to start a new life back in the communities which they left.

In the few minutes left to me, I should like to comment on the main subjects of the debate. If the ultimately hopeless period of waiting in the camps in Hong Kong is hard on adults, it is even harder on children. There are some 16,500 children under the age of 16 in Hong Kong, and special provision is made for them. They have special dietary scales and are provided with supplementary feeding to ensure that they are well nourished. Medical services, including the same free immunisation service for all babies and children as is provided for all Hong Kong children, are available in every centre. Any child requiring specialist treatment or hospitalisation is sent to outside hospitals, and arrangements are made for the parents to visit regularly.

During the 1989 influx many of the facilities provided for children had to make way for basic accommodation. However, as a result of the improvements this year, conditions are now much better. Education programmes include pre-school, primary and secondary levels. There is a library in each centre and access to educational videos is available to all. My hon. Friend commented on education for these children. Curricula taught in the detention centres are modelled on curricula taught in Vietnam. If more resources could be found, the quality of education would be improved, and we shall give some thought to that. English is taught in the camps to refugees to help them prepare for resettlement and to non-refugees. For the latter, the emphasis must be on Vietnamese because they will be returning to Vietnam.

The camp environment is far from ideal for children. There are play areas and open spaces with play equipment where possible. Donations of toys and gifts, especially at Christmas time, are distributed. Recreational programmes, including outings and excursions, are organised in co-operation with voluntary agencies.

My hon. Friend spoke of the Tai A Chau and the Chi Ma Wan camps. We believe that children are best cared for by responsible adults—their parents, adult relatives or temporary foster parents. Children inevitably tend to be spread throughout the camps. Tai A Chau is to be used as a camp for southerners. Consistent with that policy, the Hong Kong authorities intend to move as many children and unaccompanied minors as possible to Tai A Chau when the camp opens early next year. I am happy to say that the arrangements at Chi Ma Wan are being reviewed. We shall consider including families in that camp.

My hon. Friend was particularly concerned about unaccompanied children, of whom there are estimated to be 2,000 or more. Special committees responsible for them must be created in each country of first asylum. The committee in Hong Kong has operated since 19 April. It is charged with making a recommendation to the Hong Kong Government. So far, 663 cases have been submitted to the committee, which has reached a decision on 116 of them. Of those, 78 have been recommended for repatriation and 38 for resettlement.

My hon. Friend expressed concern at the committee's slow rate of progress. We and the Hong Kong Government share that concern and have urged the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' office in Hong Kong to speed up the committee's work.

Hong Kong has some 12,000 people who have been determined not to be refugees. They are no different from any other illegal immigrants—except that, inevitably because of the emotive history of the boat people and the Vietnam war, their deportation is a matter of contention. It is not fair to expect Hong Kong to continue to provide a temporary resting place. Nor is it fair to the people themselves to continue to hold out a false hope of resettlement.

We, the Hong Kong authorities, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will continue to work closely to achieve the orderly return of those people as soon as possible. I am confident that we have the basis of a durable and humane solution to this long-running problem. We will continue in our unflagging efforts to make it work.

Photo of Mrs Rosie Barnes Mrs Rosie Barnes , Greenwich

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You may be aware that all right hon. and hon. Members received today a letter from the Secretary of State for Health about my private Member's Bill on no-fault compensation in the national health service. His letter refers to provisions in the Bill, which is not yet published and was only deposited with the Public Bill Office less than one hour ago. Is not it a grave contempt of the House for a Minister publicly to oppose a Bill in that way, before it has even been published?

Photo of Mr Harold Walker Mr Harold Walker , Doncaster Central

As I understand the hon. Lady, she is suggesting that contempt or a breach of privilege is involved. The correct procedure is for the hon. Lady to write to Mr. Speaker. Doubtless she will reflect on that.