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Hong Kong (Refugees)

Volume 79: debated on Wednesday 22 May 1985

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asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs how many refugees are currently being held in the closed camps in Hong Kong; how many were moved out of the camps in the last month for which figures are available; and if he will make a statement.

At 9 May there were 5,646 Vietnamese refugees in closed centres in Hong Kong. During April 277 refugees were resettled from Hong Kong, of whom 142 were from closed centres and 135 from open centres.

The closed camps are a matter of great concern to the British Government and to the Government of Hong Kong and neither Government wish to maintain them longer than is absolutely necessary. We are urgently considering the recommendations of the Sub-Committee on Race Relations and Immigration and will give our response to the House as soon as possible.

Does the Minister agree that those figures show that the population of the camps has remained substantially the same for six consecutive years and that at the present level of take-up the camps will still exist in 10 years' time? Is he aware that many of us regard conditions in those camps as a disgrace for which he and the Government are responsible? Will he explain why in 1984 Britain took fewer refugees than any other participating nation—one twentieth of the number taken by the United States, one twelfth of the number taken by Australia and a quarter of the number taken by Canada? Does he agree that that is utterly inadequate?

To describe conditions in the closed camps or, indeed, the camps generally as a disgrace is absolutely unwarranted and unfair. Mr. Hartling, who has recently in Hong Kong, stated publicly that in his view the Hong Kong Government were treating the refugees well. That should be stated clearly in this House, too. Of course we do not wish closed camps to be retained any longer than necessary, but the House should note that in the past 10 years Hong Kong has taken no fewer than 100,000 refugees in transit. Hong Kong has absorbed 14,000 refugees and Britain has taken nearly 20,000. That, too, should be acknowledged. We are doing our utmost to ease the problem and we shall be responding to the Sub-Committee shortly.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Hong Kong Government have acted most commendably in their acceptance of refugees from Vietnam? Will he confirm that the only reason for having closed camps is the fear that their abolition would lead to an even greater influx of Vietnamese refugees? In responding to the Sub-Committee, will my hon. Friend bear in mind that if this country accepted a small number of Vietnamese refugees other countries could probably be persuaded to take many more?

I note my right hon. Friend's last point, and we are considering urgently our reply to the Select Committee. The Hong Kong Government should be praised for looking after the refugees for over 10 years. It is very important to note that since the introduction of the closed camps in Hong Kong in July 1982 there has been a substantial decline, compared with the rest of the region, in the rate of arrivals of Vietnamese refugees.

Does the Minister of State agree that it is somewhat indulgent for those involved to congratulate themselves upon the 1997 agreement when this great humanitarian problem, which is a challenge both to this country and to other civilised nations, remains unresolved?

I must tell the hon. Gentleman, if he did not hear me say it in a recent Adjournment debate, that we are treating this matter with the utmost urgency. We wish this problem to be resolved and the closed camps to be ended as soon as possible, but this has to be balanced against the very real problems with which the Hong Kong Government have to grapple in terms of numbers of arrivals.

Will my hon. Friend accept that the free world as a whole has an obligation both to the Hong Kong Government, which is carrying the burden in the way that he described, and to the refugees—not only to those in the closed camps but to some of those who are in what are described as transit centres where they have been living for several years? Is there not a very real obligation upon us to try to help, and is it not true that other nations are looking to Britain to take a lead in order to solve this international problem?

I acknowledge my hon. Friend's point, and I commented on these matters in my evidence to the Select Committee. But the House should not lose sight of the cause of this problem. Because of the gross abuse of human rights in Vietnam there have been more than I million refugees from there during the last 10 years. If only Vietnam would start to respect human rights, we might not have this problem.

Is the Minister of State aware that the Hong Kong Government deserve great credit for their humanitarian attitude towards the very large numbers of Vietnamese refugees with whom they have had to deal, but that it is intolerable that thousands of people who are partly our responsibility should still be incarcerated in what are effectively prison camps? Since very few of the refugeess who are now in those camps will be relocated unless the British Government take a lead, urgent action should be taken by the Government that will encourage other Governments to follow our lead. The Government have been warned during the past 18 months — long before the Select Committee took evidence—about this problem.

We have been generous to the Vietnamese. During the last five or six years nearly 20,000 Vietnamese refugees, which is a quite substantial number, have been taken into this country. Of course, the hon. Gentleman is right when he says that this country, in addition to Hong Kong, has a responsibility towards these people, and we are treating it as a matter of urgency.