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Vietnamese Refugees

Volume 124: debated on Friday 18 December 1987

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Question again proposed, That this House do now adjourn.

11.32 am

The Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong have been described as the forgotten people. They have not been on our television screen since the original news film about the boat people, but they are not forgotten by the House. It is right that we should be debating their plight in the Christmas Adjournment debate today. Hon. Members who have visited Hong Kong have seen the appalling conditions in which the refugees are living, and I shall not dwell on those today. Suffice it to say that living in confinement, in cramped conditions, with no privacy is not, and no one would represent it as being, a long-term solution to the unhappy situation of the refugees.

The British Government's efforts to alleviate the problem have been strenuous, but we must sustain and redouble our efforts. We have accepted nearly 20,000 Indo-Chinese refugees since 1975, and about 13,000 refugees from Hong Kong. That is the third highest number of refugees from Hong Kong in any country. This year, the Government have decided to accept for settlement 468 further named individuals, who are close relatives of those already here, and they will be resettled at the rate of about 20 a month over two years.

In addition, we are continuing to try to persuade other countries to follow suit. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs will be able to tell the House something about our success in doing so. I know that talks have been held with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and that talks have been held in Vietnam about the settlement there of those who wish to return. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to tell the House something about their progress.

The serious refugee position in Hong Kong has recently become worse. There are now 9,331 refugees in Hong Kong awaiting resettlement and 3,119 refugees have arrived this year. This represents a 54 per cent. increase over the same period last year. By contrast, a total of 2,105 refugees have been resettled this year, which represents a 44 per cent. decrease in resettlement compared with the same period last year. The refugee population in Hong Kong has gone up from just over 8,000 at the beginning of the year to 9,387 now.

Since the introduction of the Hong Kong closed centre policy, 47 boats have opted to continue their journey from Hong Kong after arrival, with provisions of rations and other essential items—three of them this year. About 11,000 of the 13,000 refugees reaching Hong Kong since the closed camps were introduced have elected to stay, preferring them to the alternatives of going on to Taiwan, the Philippines, or perhaps to a totally unknown destination.

Although, on the scale of human suffering, the Vietnamese refugee problem in Hong Kong is not of the same horrific size as the tragedy of the millions of Afghan refugees, which the House debated last week, it is a serious and intractable problem for the Government and the people of Hong Kong and, needless to say, it is a matter of life and death to the Vietnamese people involved. The arrival of the refugees has compounded the difficulties posed by illegal immigration from China into Hong Kong. There have been about 630,000 legal and illegal immigrants from China in the past 10 years. That is a 12 per cent. addition to the local population. In addition since 1975, there has been a constant flow of refugees from Vietnam at a completely unpredictable rate. In the first seven months of 1979 no fewer than 66,000 arrived. Since then there have been varying numbers every year. There have been more than 3,000 already this year, an increase of more than a half over the same period last year.

The rate of resettlement has been falling. There has been a 44 per cent. drop this year. Last year a special offer was made by the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries, but they now feel that Thailand and Malaysia, which have more Vietnamese refugees than Hong Kong, should take priority in their resettlement policies. It is becoming increasingly difficult for the Hong Kong Government to predict the rate of resettlement. There are only five ongoing resettlement programmes—the United States of America, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong and Britain—all with stricter criteria in force than previously. The Australians, the Canadians and the Americans have made plain their view that the international responsibility is now primarily British. There are other programmes, but they are limited to accepting refugees for family reunion, and for families rescued by ships at sea flying the flags of, or owned by, traditional maritime countries. The problem is getting worse.

Hong Kong, which has a land area of only 1,000 sq km, three quarters of it barren hillside, has a population of at least 5·5 million, with a density of more than 5,000 per sq km compared with about 230 people per sq km here, and 22 in the United States of America.

The record of Hong Kong, faced with this serious problem and threat to the stability of its already crowded population, has been quite remarkable. All arrivals by boat from Vietnam have been given asylum, although some ships have been given help to continue their journey if they have opted to do so.

The House is aware that in 1982, the Hong Kong Government adopted the closed centre policy, which it has described as a humane deterrent. Refugees are housed in closed centres awaiting resettlement, and are given basic facilities and necessities, but conditions are grossly overcrowded. People are told about the policy when they arrive, and given assistance to move on to other destinations if they so wish. Hong Kong has also provided a place of new settlement as well as temporary asylum, and has accepted the permanent resettlement of about 14,500 Indo-Chinese refugees since 1975.

Following the British Government's decision in 1985, the Hong Kong Government have accepted more refugees. The criteria which the Hong Kong Government apply are that refugees should be long-stayers in Hong Kong, that is to say that they have been in Hong Kong since before July 1982; secondly, that they should be ethnic Chinese; thirdly, that they should be financially independent; and fourthly, that they should not meet the resettlement criteria of other resettlement countries. Those are strict criteria, and perhaps a relaxation of the first and last of them might be an acceptable way of allowing more resettlement cases at a rate that the Hong Kong Government feel could be accommodated by the colony.

The people and authorities of Hong Kong have given temporary asylum to over 110,000 Vietnamese since 1975. Throughout that period, the voluntary agencies have been doing the most essential and distinguished work. I know that the House will wish to pay tribute to the dedicated individuals who carry out that work.

The efforts have been remarkable. Not one refugee has been turned away. Hong Kong is the only place in south-east Asia to introduce a policy of local resettlement, an extremely courageous thing to do, given the difficulties of illegal immigrants from China, with which it already has to cope. It is the only place of first asylum in the region to contribute financially towards the cost of its refugees. Since 1979, the cost to the Hong Kong Government of looking after the Vietnamese refugees has been over US ․86 million. The voluntary agencies in Hong Kong have spent about US$10 million, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to whom this country is a substantial contributor, has spent about US$40 million. The current cost of caring for refugees is over US$20 million a year, of which the Hong Kong Government is contributing three quarters, the UNHCR about US$4·5 million and the voluntary agencies about US$1 million. By contrast, in the other countries of first asylum in the region, the Governments insist that the UNHCR meets the full cost.

The problem is part of the wider difficulty posed by the many millions of people fleeing from cruel and repressive Communist regimes in several parts of the world. We in this country have accepted a large number of refugees for resettlement. I think that the whole House will accept that, because of our constitutional relationship with Hong Kong, we have the unique duty to take the lead in accepting refugees for resettlement here as part of the overall programme. I believe that an important gesture would be for Her Majesty's Government to accept some long-stay refugees with no family links here, and who do not therefore fall within the family reunion principles. I hope that that will be emulated by other countries.

Integral to the solution is persuading other countries, as well as Australia, Canada and the United States, to share in the solution to the problem. Many people, of whom I am one, believe that Hong Kong has never had a fair share of the resettlement places on offer. I know that the UNHCR gives priority to the resettlement of refugees from Hong Kong and has asked many Governments to help. First and foremost must be those in the region—Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and perhaps Japan. They have accepted for temporary asylum some 35,000 boat refugees from Vietnam at the moment, which is up by over 1,000 this year, but given the substantial land areas, particularly in the Malaysian, Indonesian and Philippine archipelagos, there must be a case for their accepting refugees for permanent resettlement. Of course, there are difficulties—delicate ethnic balances, precedence for other refugee groups, and so on — but those countries must contribute to the solution. They will have to do so eventually, and they should do so now.

The Hong Kong Government's decision to introduce the closed centre policy probably had the effect of reducing the number of refugees leaving Vietnam for Hong Kong, although the numbers were already declining. The decision highlights a dilemma. If a country has a Government who are oppressive and cruel, as in Vietnam and, of course, in Afghanistan at the moment, where over half the population are refugees, can the international community assimilate everybody who wishes to move across international frontiers for a better life? The answer to that question is no.

On the other hand, there are people who clearly fulfil specific refugee criteria, and for whom it is our duty to find places of permanent resettlement. That problem, which is facing the Hong Kong Government in an acute form, is one that we in this country share with them.

The causes of the problem lie in Vietnam and are beyond our control — they are religious harassment, compulsory military service, political education camps, in which people sometimes spend many years, shortage of food and consequent malnutrition. People who manage to escape from the country and risk their lives and those of their families in open boats deserve every sympathy. The early refugees were all genuine — people in danger of their lives or their liberty because of their religion, political beliefs or race. Subsequently, emigration was no doubt stimulated by accounts of better conditions. It is not helpful to anybody to suggest to the millions of people living in Vietnam that all they have to do is to go somewhere else for a better life. It is not a practical proposition. The only possible course is a steady policy of erosion of the number of genuine refugees awaiting resettlement. At the moment, sadly, we are going backwards rather than forwards.

The British Government have said that this country's willingness to take further refugees from Hong Kong will be decided in the light of the willingness of other resettlement countries to respond to Hong Kong's need, and in the light of all the other circumstances at the time. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to tell us what has been the outcome of the Government's pressure on other countries to take more refugees from Hong Kong and of the conversations with Vietnam.

I hope that my hon. Friend will spell out to the House how our own willingness to accept refugees for settlement is evolving. One of the constraints is the capacity of the voluntary agencies, primarily the Ockenden Venture and Refugee Action, in accommodating refugees. They do a distinguished job, and I hope that my hon. Friend will reassure the House that they will continue to enjoy the necessary financial support from the Government for doing so.

The Government have said that the principal determinant for the rate of resettlement in the United Kingdom is the availability of accommodation for refugees. I need hardly remind my hon. Friend and the House of the number of empty houses, particularly outside the south-east. I hope that my hon. Friend will elaborate on the current availability of suitable accommodation.

The need to alleviate the plight of the Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong is compelling and urgent. The means are available and I hope that my hon. Friend can tell us that the will is undiminished.

11.45

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. Goodlad) for the humane way in which he has introduced this subject. I am sure that we all echo the tribute that he has paid to the Hong Kong Government for the way in which they have tackled the problem and to the charities that have done so much to alleviate suffering.

A few weeks ago I had an opportunity to visit again a closed centre in Hong Kong where some 1,676 people were detained in an area about the size of the Holland Park comprehensive school. The staff who looked after them were clearly humane, and relations between the staff and the inmates were remarkably good. The inmates' health was good and there seemed to be less crime than one might expect to find in an English village of comparable size. On the other hand, the overcrowding is becoming much worse. When I was there 12 months before, there were double bunks, and this year triple bunks were being introduced. The average length of stay in the camps is now three and a half years and some of the children approaching school age have never set foot outside the camps. That cannot be right.

Like my hon. Friend, I recognise that we are in a cleft stick. If we open the camps in Hong Kong, and if the West accepts many more Vietnamese boat people for resettlement, the number of people setting out from Vietnam will almost certainly increase. In the summer we saw a major increase in the number of refugees trying to come to Hong Kong because of the mistaken belief that in Washington the Secretary of State had announced a relaxation of American policy, allowing in more immigrants.

What can we do? I echo the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury. We must try to persuade other countries in south-east Asia, and in the Philippines, in particular, to accept some of the refugees from overcrowded Hong Kong until such time as the harsh regime in Vietnam softens its stance sufficiently to allow those people living in the camps to return.

11.48 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
(Mr. Tim Eggar)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. Goodlad) for giving the House an opportunity to consider this very important issue. I welcome the opportunity to put the Government's view on record and to explain what we are doing to resolve this tragic problem. I shall do my best in the limited time available to answer some of the points that have been raised. If there are any outstanding matters that I cannot cover, I will write to my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury and to my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Sir P. Gooodhart).

Since 1975 a vast number of people have left Indo-China. The reason is very simple. They have fled the Communist oppression. More than 1·5 million people have left their homes to seek sanctuary overseas and more than 1 million of them are Vietnamese. More than 35,000 Vietnamese await resettlement in refugee camps in the region and some 9,400 are in Hong Kong. That is a human tragedy of appalling proportions and one which only international action can resolve. I should state that the only comparable refugee problem is that of the Afghan refugees trying to escape from Communist oppression.

In July 1979 it was a British initiative that led to a conference in Geneva designed to tackle the worsening crisis of the boat people. It was agreed that group refugee status would be conferred on those leaving Indo-China by boat. That was an important step forward. Asylum would be offered by those countries where boat people first arrived to allow time to arrange resettlement in third countries. For years that British-initiated system worked well, taking the south-east Asian region as a whole. The rate of resettlement declined after 1980, but until recently it had more than kept pace with the declining rate of arrivals. The change came this year.

While the pace of resettlement continued to decline, the rate of arrivals increased. Many are accepted as refugees in places of first asylum, but then not by other countries for resettlement. That is often because their motivation for leaving Vietnam is perceived—with some justification, I must say — to be economic rather than political. However, the implications of those people for the places of first asylum are obvious. The places of first asylum bear an increasingly heavy burden.

Hong Kong is only too aware of that. From 1979 until this year the number of Vietnamese refugees in camps in Hong Kong fell. However, the numbers are again on the increase. My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury quoted the figures, which tell their own story. That trend extends wider than Hong Kong. It is a regional problem that demands an international solution.

We hear much of the suffering caused by natural disasters. What is shocking about the refugee problem is that it is entirely man-made. It is important to make it absolutely clear—as both my hon. Friends the Members for Eddisbury and for Beckenham did—that the root cause of the refugee problem in Indo-China lies in Hanoi. It lies in the repressive policies of a Government who maintain the fourth largest army in the world while continuing to devote their scarce resources to the military occupation of Cambodia and yet lamentably fail to provide a decent life for their own people. That is a sad commentary on Communist priorities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury drew attention to the efforts of successive British Governments to resettle Vietnamese refugees from Hong Kong. He referred to some of the figures, and I believe that they deserve to be repeated. Since 1975, we have accepted some 20,000 Indo-Chinese refugees, and nearly 13,000 of them were Vietnamese refugees from Hong Kong. That is a substantial commitment which reflects our special responsibilities for the territory. It is an honourable record, especially when we take into account the pressures that we also face to settle immigrants from other parts of the world.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury referred to the resettlement offer that we made in 1985. Further to that, in May this year, as he also noted, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced that we would accept a further 468 Vietnamese refugees from Hong Kong with relatives in this country. So far this year, 150 refugees have been resettled under this programme. The pace at which it is being implemented will facilitate the reception of the refugees by the voluntary agencies and their absorption into the community. We are also making a financial commitment to the upkeep of the refugees in Hong Kong through contributions to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and to a voluntary agency working in the camps. I associate the Government with the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury about the major role placed by voluntary agencies.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury asked about the availability of suitable accommodation in this country. The resettlement of refugees in Britain is primarily a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, but my understanding is that in one way or another the reception of refugees puts considerable demands on local resources. We judge that a gradual flow of around 20 people a month is to be most easily handled. The voluntary agencies here at home have an important role to play, and the Government ensure that they receive adequate financial support.

I should also pay tribute to the contribution of the Hong Kong Government. My hon. Friend has noted Hong Kong's particular generosity in offering local resettlement. I believe that that is a significant and praiseworthy contribution by a small and overcrowded territory. However, I note that my hon. Friend has suggested some relaxation of the criteria applied, and, of course, I shall draw that to the attention of the Hong Kong Government.

The contribution of Hong Kong does not end there. My hon. Friend has also noted the generous financial contribution made by the Hong Kong Government, and their readiness to accept every refugee who seeks help. That is a humanitarian record of which the Hong Kong Government can be justly proud.

I said that an international commitment was required. My hon. Friend asked about the progress that we have made in urging other Governments to accept refugees from Hong Kong. We keep in close touch with all the Governments who in the past have taken refugees from Hong Kong, and we are deeply grateful for the contribution that they have made. We are now urging them vigorously to follow our recent initiative, and agree to accept more refugees. We also work closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and my hon. Friend is quite right in saying that he gives priority to the resettlement of refugees from Hong Kong. He is in contact with many Governments who seek his advice w hen allocating their refugees resettlement quotas.

Our diplomatic campaign for further resettlement places for refugees from Hong Kong is a major priority for us, but let no one underestimate the difficulties. Some replies give us cause for encouragement: some additional places have been offered as a result of our representations. Often, however, the response is disappointing. I have already said that some resettlement countries now apply more restrictive criteria when considering Vietnamese for resettlement. Yet those refugees have all been accepted in good faith, and without distinction, by places of first asylum on the basis of the consensus reached at the 1979 Geneva conference.

We acknowledge with gratitude the contributions that the resettlement countries have already made, but I assure the House that we shall be redoubling our efforts to persuade them to show even greater generosity in the future. As I said earlier, we consider that our latest decision to accept a further 468 Vietnamese refugees from Hong Kong with family ties here represents a significant continuing commitment to Hong Kong, given the immigration pressures that we face from elsewhere.

While I deeply sympathise with Hong Kong's problems, and with the plight of the refugees themselves, I have to say that at this stage our resettlement commitments have been extended as far as possible. I do not think that at present we can announce any further moves.

Both my hon. Friends the Members for Eddisbury and for Beckenham have referred to the possibility of permanent resettlement for Vietnamese refugees in the south-east Asia region. We have considered the idea carefully in the past, and have also taken informal soundings of the Governments who might be involved. I have to say that that has led us to conclude that no country in the region would be receptive to the idea of accommodating large numbers of refugees from Hong Kong.

When my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced a new intake of Vietnamese refugees from Hong Kong, he made it clear that we do not consider resettlement alone to be the answer to the territory's refugee problems. As I said, the key lies with Vietnam. We shall keep up our support for the orderly departure programme, which offers one mechanism to reduce the pressure for illegal departures. We are pleased that that programme has started again to allow departures to Britain. So far this year, 162 Vietnamese have arrived in Britain under the programme.

My hon. Friend referred to those who wish to return to Vietnam with the consent of the authorities there. I understand that a handful of refugees in Hong Kong have elected to return to Vietnam, and have been accepted back by the authorities, but the number is very small.

There can be no doubt that the long-term solution to the problem is the creation of acceptable conditions for the return to Vietnam of those who have left for essentially economic reasons. Our view is increasingly shared by other Governments. We are in contact with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. We are in contact with the main resettlement countries. There is now active international discussion of the possibility of returning to Vietnam under suitable safeguards—I should stress that—those who do not meet the criteria of refugees. At the same time we have intensified our bilateral contacts with the Vietnamese authorities.

So far, those approaches have not borne fruit. I regret that we have found no new willingness on the part of the Vietnamese authorities to accept back those who have left, other than on a very limited case-by-case basis. It will be difficult to reach acceptable and agreed arrangements covering those who do not meet the criteria of refugees. I can assure the House that there can be no question of returning them to a punitive reception in Vietnam. We cannot expect quick results, but I believe that international perceptions are changing in a way which will over time facilitate that development. We shall continue to play an active part, in full recognition of our special responsibility for Hong Kong.

I hope that this debate has enabled the House to understand in rather greater detail the problem of Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong and the efforts that we are making to resolve it. I have explained the main aspects of our policy but the most important thing is that over the longer term we must seek a lasting international solution to the Indo-Chinese refugee problem as a whole. We are under no illusion that progress here will be quick or easy. It is linked to the pace of international discussions, and it needs a change of heart in Hanoi itself, but we must all recognise the need for a durable solution to a continuing human tragedy. It is an objective that we shall continue to pursue with determination.