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.