Skip to main content

Miss Thi Minh Bui

Volume 78: debated on Thursday 9 May 1985

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Lennox-Boyd.]

10 pm

I wish to draw the attention of the House to an important and moving human problem because Britain and the Government can help many refugees in Hong Kong and other areas. I shall give some of my time to my hon. Friend the Member for, West (Mr. Clarke). The hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Best) asked to be associated with the debate, but for good reasons, I am sure, he is unable to attend.

The question relates to the reunification of families of Vietnamese origin in the camps in Hong Kong and other parts of south-east Asia. The case came to my attention because two sisters, Miss Thi Nga Bui and Miss Thi Minh Bui, aged 23 and 19 respectively, live in my constituency. They arrived in the United Kingdom in 1981.

I recognise that no country, and certainly not Britain, which has a relatively small land space, can solve all the refugee problems of the world. However, we have a duty to act where we have particular responsibilities and if we can do something important both for humanity and to persuade other countries to act. I am supported in that view by a recent Select Committee report, from which I shall quote generously.

The two sisters left Vietnam, were picked up by a British freighter and taken to Brunei. From there they came to the United Kingdom. Their father, mother. three brothers and one sister—the children are aged 20, 18, 10 and eight respectively—left Vietnam about a year later and sailed directly to Hong Kong, where they were admitted to a closed camp.

Hon. Members without exception are disturbed by the existence of the closed camps. We recognise the pressures that there were on Hong Kong in 1979 and 1980 when 200,000 refugees left Vietnam. However, none of us can be anything but deeply disturbed by the camps. People in those camps cannot leave them, or go out to work. They rely on money sent to them by relatives and friends overseas and they own little or no property. My hon. Friend visited the camps more recently than I did, and he may wish to add to that.

We hear a great deal about the importance of family life, and we all accept that it is important. It is especially important to Vietnamese families, who are extremely close and rely greatly on each other for support. We should remember that we are a signatory to the Helsinki final act. Although it does not apply throughout the world, the spirit of it is what counts. If our commitment to it is true, we should allow the principles on which we signed it to guide us on family matters.

Until May 1981 families were reunited, but the policy was changed and brought into line with general refugee policy. The Select Committee and others, including myself, contend that that is unjust and unnecessary. It is generally accepted that verbal undertakings were given, although perhaps not by Government officials, that members of families would be reunited.

Mr. Barber, who is the director of the British Refugee Council, said this when he gave evidence to the Select Committee:
"In seeking to fill the quota, I think there is no doubt…that from the voluntary agency side…efforts were made to say that 'Of course, if close family members join you and come to Hong Kong later when you are already settled in Britain, then Britain will accept them."
The Select Committee concluded:
"Secondly, it is clear that many Vietnamese were given assurances in Hong Kong that if they came to Britain family members would be allowed to join them. When the quota of 10,000 was announced, there was some difficulty filling it, because refugees understandably preferred countries with larger Vietnamese communities and better job opportunities, and some Vietnamese may therefore have been persuaded to come to Britain by assurances of family reunion. We accept that no such undertakings were given with Government authority, but at the time when selection was taking place to fill the quota, Britain had wide criteria for family reunion and it would be extraordinary if the selecting teams had not mentioned this."
Lord Ennals, who is the chairman of the British Refugee Council, said this in evidence to the Select Committee:
"There is, of course, as the Committee will know, a continual policy of family reunions from those whose close relatives are still in Vietnam, and some of those who fled and went to Hong Kong now find themselves in the invidious position that had they stayed in Vietnam they might have been able to have been brought to Britain under the 'Orderly Departure' policy; having now arrived and taken all the risk of going by boat, they now find that they cannot be admitted to Britain."
The second important reason why we must reconsider the policy—it was emphasised by the Select Committee—is that if some family members are in Britain, no other country will consider other members of their family, who are trapped in the camps in Hong Kong or elsewhere. The Select Committee states in paragraph 16:
"Thirdly, and most importantly, Vietnamese who have close relatives in Britain will not usually be considered for resettlement by any other country…the problem should have been foreseen when the family reunion criteria were narrowed. These people are likely to remain in refugee camps indefinitely unless they are allowed to join their families in Britain."
That powerful point was emphasised and given more power by the hon. Member for Ravensbourne (Mr. Hunt) who, alas, but probably for good reasons, is not here tonight. When he questioned the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, he said:
"Because it is a fact, is it not, that unless we accept that liability, these people are destined to remain virtually indefinitely in these camps, because in view of their links with those already in the United Kingdom, no other country is going to come anywhere near to accepting responsibility for them? So that they are in a very special compassionate situation, are they not?"
The Minister of State replied:
"I think I would have to say yes to that. I agree with you."
That is a powerful argument for acting in the way that I have suggested. Given that the Minister of State, the Select Committee and a growing number of people inside and outside the House are saying that, we are obliged to take it seriously.

The third reason why it is important to reconsider the policy is that it is essential to bring together these families if they are to cope with the real problems of settling down to life in Britain. Divided families inevitably have greater problems than do united families, who can rely on each other. I have already said how especially important that is to the Vietnamese, although all of us would accept that it is important to everyone, regardless of race, colour or creed.

The inability to reunite the family makes resettlement difficult. I am supported in that by the Select Committee, which said, talking about the stress-related problems that some refugees have experienced:
"The principal cause appears to be the cultural shock of life in the UK after Vietnam; the realisation that return is impossible"—
I wish to emphasise the next part—
"the sense of loss, concern and guilt for those left behind; the lack of an established indigenous group here to provide support, and the difficulties of communication."
These are three good reasons why the House needs to reconsider this policy.

Britain must give a lead. Another important argument for that is that there is good reason to believe that Australia and the United States and probably Canada, West Germany and France, would act to help us clear the 11,000 or 12,000 refugees left in the camps in Hong Kong. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, said on behalf of the Department:
"It is our responsibility to take the lead, as the Department in the Government responsible for Hong Kong, and to try to find a solution to it…it must be a priority in terms of our responsibilities."
The Select Committee said:
"We are convinced that a new intake of Vietnamese from Hong Kong by Britain is indeed a 'pre-condition' to resolving the problem, and that no substantial progress can otherwise be made in emptying the camps."
I accept that Britain, and Hong Kong in particular, have made gallant efforts to help in the Vietnamese refugee problem, but we are talking about a relatively small number of people, probably only about 500. If we took the lead in their case, other countries would follow our example and help us to resettle these people. That would ease the burden on Hong Kong.

Britain has not been ungenerous, but the closed camps disturb all of us. The Select Committee called for the closure of these camps, and I identify myself strongly with that call. I ask the Minister to allow this family to settle in Britain. Will he reconsider the policy and change it? He could begin by allowing my constituents to have their parents, three brothers and sister come to live with them here.

It is deeply moving to think of people who have managed so well here on their own but who are in contact with their family only by letter. They are trying to send money to their relatives, but they have only a limited amount, as one is a student and the other is working as a waitress. It is extremely difficult for them and they are an example of the Vietnamese families struggling to manage here. We should be doing everything that we can to help.

I support the Select Committee recommendation that family reunion criteria should be relaxed in respect of Vietnamese in camps in countries of temporary asylum. I have said that this is why we should change the policy. The fact that they are in these camps means that they cannot be settled anywhere else if they have relatives in the United Kingdom. I support the Select Committee's call for the closure of the camps and the transfer of the inmates to open camps.

The Minister said that if Britain committed itself to a modest resettlement programme we would have a good chance of a reasonable response and good reason to expect it. We also have the help of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who would be more than willing to put pressure on other countries if we took this initiative.

I wish to leave time for my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, West to speak, and I see that the hon. Member for Ynys Môn is here as well. I urge the Minister of State, Home Office to give this matter full consideration. I should dearly like to tell the two sisters that they can have their family here to resettle with them. The least that I ask is that the Government urgently look at this policy again and consider changing it along the lines recommended by the Select Committee. They could take away the agony that has been going on for years for some people.

10.13 pm

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), and the House will want to express its gratitude to him for the eloquent, lucid and dedicated way in which he presented his case.

Just over a year ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) and I had the opportunity to visit these camps in Hong Kong. To get to them, we had to go by helicopter, land on a prison site, go through the prison site, and eventually we found ourselves at our destination. We found there something which reminded me of factory units in my constituency. People had been there for a very long time, in some cases for four or five years. One little boy of seven is probably still there. Although we have endorsed the Hong Kong agreement and will be relinquishing sovereignty in 1997, we still have a responsibility for these refugees.

I am very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith has provided the House with an opportunity to debate the matter, because I believe that the House wishes to support the reunion of this family. The Minister will wish to he reminded of recommendation 4 of the Select Committee on Home Affairs:
"A considerable degree of ministerial discretion should be retained in the granting of family reunion applications."
In that spirit I appeal to the Minister to respond positively to my hon. Friend. This case calls for consideration, compassion and concern. The Minister is capable of responding in that way. For that reason, I invite him to do so. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the determination with which he has pursued this admirable cause.

10.15 pm

The House is indebted to the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) for having raised this matter. It is particularly appropriate because the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is visiting south-east Asia and Hong Kong. I speak as chairman of the British committee for Vietnamese refugees and receive very many family reunion applications which I pass on to my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Home Office. I pay tribute to him for his hard work in trying to help these refugees, wherever possible. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley), who did such sterling work on the Select Committee and in the preparation of its report, is in the Chamber.

I had the privilege of visiting these centres in January of this year. I visited Chi Ma Wan, referred to by the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke), which is a closed centre. I met a woman who had been there for two years. She was unable to join her husband who is working in an open centre. That is a measure of the tragedy that is posed by this closed centre policy. It splits families in Hong Kong, let alone those who wish to come to this country to join their families. I visited also the Kai Tak and Jubilee centres. Hong Kong is doing the best that it can in the circumstances, but this country needs to make a gesture. It has already done so much to help refugees.

When I went to Hong Kong I found that only 434 people need to be accepted by this country. This means that 112 cases have close family links with people in this country. We appeal to my hon. and learned Friend to show humanity towards these people in the Hong Kong centres, many of whom have no chance of going to any other country. They can be accepted only by this country because they have close relatives living here who may be outside the normal immigration rules criteria. This plea for humanity is one which I know that my hon. and learned Friend and this Government will not reject.

10.19 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) on securing this Adjournment debate. Before I turn to the details of the case of Miss Bui and her relatives I think that I should set it in context by saying a few words about the camps in Hong Kong, how the present situation has arisen and about how British policy towards refugees has evolved in recent years. it is also appropriate for me to say right at the start that we as a country have nothing to be ashamed of in the way in which we have accepted refugees. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Mon (Mr. Best), who said that this country has already done much for refugees. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) said that we have not been other than generous. It is necessary to bear that in mind right from the start. We have no historic links with Vietnam, yet we have done a great deal to help to resolve this human tragedy.

When the Vietnamese boat people first began arriving in Hong Kong in the 1970s, they were settled in open camps and they were able to move freely within the territory and take employment. That remains the situation in the open camps today. However, because of the continuing large numbers of refugees arriving in Hong Kong and the pressures therefore imposed on a small crowded territory, closed camps had to be introduced in July 1982. They were set up by the Hong Kong authorities as a humane means of discouraging other Vietnamese from coming to Hong Kong and all refugees arriving in Hong Kong since July 1982 have been placed in them.

The result is that at present about half the 11,200 Vietnamese in the camps are in the open and half in the closed camps, and inevitably in the camps are relatives of people who have already found permanent refuge in Western countries, including Britain, separated perhaps from the other members of their family by the very circumstances of their escape from Vietnam.

When the number of Vietnamese refugees entering the United Kingdom was small, we operated a generous family reunion policy. Spouses, unmarried children under 21, parents and unmarried brothers and sisters under 21 were all allowed to come and join the person who had been admitted originally. But the House will remember that in 1979 we agreed to take a quota of 10,000 Vietnamese and by 1981 there were going on for 16,000 in this country.

Furthermore, that number was going to grow pretty quickly because of our obligation to accept boat people rescued by British ships and our willingness to take others direct from Vietnam under the orderly departure programme.

On top of that we had our commitments towards refugees of many other nationalities. It was in those circumstances that in July 1981 we announced new criteria for the admission of relatives of those Vietnamese already accepted for settlement, and those new criteria meant in effect that people could come if they would have qualified to do so as dependants under the immigration rules.

That is the position today. We look carefully at all applications on an individual basis, but, unless there are exceptional circumstances, we apply what might be thought the not unreasonable and not unfair policy of admitting spouses and minor children and parents who can show the degree of dependency required under the immigration rules.

Now I come to the case of Miss Bui. She came here, it seems, in 1981. She is not alone in this country. She lives in a council flat with her sister and a cousin. But in a closed camp in Hong Kong are her parents, her three brothers and a young sister. She has applied twice through the British Refugee Council for those relatives to come here, but clearly they do not qualify under the criteria that I have mentioned.

Miss Bui's three brothers and her sister are certainly not dependants under the immigration rules, and her parents, both of whom are under 65, would also not be admitted if Miss Bui were an ordinary immigrant. They are not wholly or mainly dependent on Miss Bui and her sister, and it is doubtful whether, if they were to arrive in this country, Miss Bui and her sister would be able to support and accommodate them. I need not remind the House of the sensible maintenance and accommodation provisions which for long have been in the immigration rules.

I have every sympathy with Miss Bui's wish to be reunited with her relatives, but, as I have said, the difficulty is that they clearly do not come within the present criteria. However, there have been two developments since I last wrote to the hon. Member for Hammersmith about the case, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman now that as a result my mind is not closed on this case.

The first development to which I am referring is the recent report of the Select Committee of which the hon. Gentleman spoke. I heard him on the radio this morning making the point, which he repeated this evening, that if we were to take, as he put it, a percentage of people from the camps, the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany and France would take significant numbers also. Many of those countries have already taken refugees from Hong Kong and I am sure that the House will be delighted to hear that the Canadian Government have recently decided that this year, as part of their annual refugee programme, they will be taking 500 refugees from Hong Kong in addition to the 600 which they had already agreed to take. That means that this year they will take the same number as they took last year.

But no country has yet declared that a special gesture by this country would persuade them to take extra numbers to clear the camps. That must be borne in mind.

It must be remembered that other countries already have commitments to take Vietnamese refugees from other parts of the world apart from Hong Kong. The obvious example is Thailand.

However, the Select Committee's recommendation is that we should relax the family reunion criteria and that our willingness to do so should be used as a bargaining counter to attract offers of additional resettlement places from other countries, the the aim of reducing drastically to size of the Hong Kong Vietnamese refugee population. The fairly cautious way in which this recommendation is framed is, I think, a recognition that things are not necessarily quite as simple as the hon. Gentleman has said.

But we are now considering the Committee's recommendation very carefully and will be responding in due course. We hope to have the support of the international community in alleviating the plight of the Vietnamese refugees who are in Hong Kong and we shall maintain a continuing dialogue with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other countries with the aim of helping all these victims of an oppressive regime.

Clearly the hon. Gentleman will not be expecting me to respond to the Select Committee tonight, as a detailed response will be given in due course. But he obviously recognises that our response, when it comes, will have a direct bearing on the case of Miss Bui's relatives.

The other development that I should mention is that, before the Select Committee reported, I gave an undertaking to the BRC to review those cases in which applications for relatives in Hong Kong have been refused but where the BRC considers there exist exceptionally compelling compassionate circumstances. The BRC has provided us with details of a number of cases and Miss Bui's case is among them. Again, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a decision tonight, but I can assure him that I shall review the case very sympathetically in the light of the BRC's representations and of what he has said so eloquently tonight. Once again, I am grateful to him for raising this most important matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Ten o'clock.