Vietnamese Children (Hong Kong)

Part of the debate – 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 1:48 pm, 20th December 1990

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.