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Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:53 pm on 18th June 2002.

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Photo of Lord Chan Lord Chan Crossbench 8:53 pm, 18th June 2002

My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, on securing this debate, which, significantly, is taking place during Refugee Week. It is therefore appropriate for your Lordships' House to dispel some myths about refugees.

Refugees are generally people who have no intention of leaving their homeland until a catastrophe occurs. As a result, they come unprepared to Europe and the United Kingdom. They are unlikely to be brought here by illegal gangs.

Negative attitudes towards refugees continue to receive press coverage, in spite of the finding of a new public opinion poll, published yesterday, carried out by MORI Social Research Institute. That new research found that the British public are broadly four times more sympathetic than hostile towards asylum seekers and refugees. It also showed that young people overestimate by 10 times the number of the world's refugees and asylum seekers present in the United Kingdom. There is a popular but unfounded assertion that refugees in the United Kingdom are attracted here by our social benefits system because they are poorly educated and unskilled. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I quote from the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning. The society lists as refugees 17 Nobel laureates, 71 fellows or foreign members of the Royal Society, and 50 fellows or corresponding fellows of the British Academy. Some of Britain's wealthiest entrepreneurs are refugees, such as the late Lord Hamlyn, publisher of Reed International Books, and Mr Rolf Schild of Huntleigh Engineering.

Migrants, on the other hand, are not refugees because they make a conscious choice to leave their country. Migrants are able to plan their departure from their homeland. Many people living in the United States of America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are migrants. Those countries accepted them because they possessed the skills needed.

Our Government only recently—on 28th January—launched their Highly Skilled Migrant Programme. It allows individuals to seek entry to work in the United Kingdom without a prior offer of employment. People with skills and experience required by the United Kingdom to compete in the global economy can migrate through the programme.

Among those we need are doctors, nurses and other professionals required in the National Health Service. Some refugees in the United Kingdom have the skills that we require, and they should therefore be given the opportunity to apply for settlement through the migrant programme. Some 2,000 refugee doctors in the United Kingdom are just beginning to obtain help to re-enter medical practice through a little-known programme of the Department of Health. I welcome that programme.

One disadvantage of the Government's Highly Skilled Migrant Programme is the adverse effect that it might have on developing countries were we to employ their skilled professionals. The resulting brain-drain of talent from less developed countries to the United Kingdom may not be morally acceptable. But it gives individuals the choice of migrating to a country that gives them better opportunities for improving themselves.

Therefore, while congratulating and supporting the Government on their Highly Skilled Migrant Programme, I ask Ministers to monitor the flow of migrants under the programme according to country of origin. Regular reviews of the programme will help the Government to adjust the intake of skilled people according to our employment needs. I hope that the spectrum of skills will be widened to include chefs and cooks for our restaurants, as well as computer engineers.

Finally, the Government now have the opportunity, through managed migration and resettlement, to reclaim leadership of this important and sensitive issue in order to achieve harmony in our multi-ethnic society.