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Un High Commissioner For Refugees

Volume 174: debated on Monday 18 June 1990

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To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what was discussed when the Minister for Overseas Development last met the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; and if he will make a statement.

I met the new High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr. Stoltenberg, in Geneva on 5 June. We had a most useful and wide-ranging discussion, focusing particularly on Mr. Stoltenberg's plans for reorganising UNHCR and improving its operational effectiveness. I also announced new British contributions totalling £5 million, which will help UNHCR over its current financial difficulties.

While thanking my right hon. Friend for that reply, may I ask whether she believes that Mr. Stoltenberg can take a firm administrative grip on the affairs of his new command, and ensure that adequate resources are made available for the ghastly and growing worldwide problem of refugees?

Yes, I do. Mr. Stoltenberg has been in post for only four months, but in that time he has already begun a serious reorganisation of the Geneva headquarters. His aim is not only to improve overall efficiency, but to cut unnecessary expenditure. We strongly support him in his efforts, and will continue to do so. He will have a high chance of success if other donors follow our lead.

Has the Minister raised with Mr. Stoltenberg conditions in the Whitehead camp in Hong Kong where 22,000 people, 3,000 of whom are children under 10 years of age, are living on an 8-acre site in utterly deplorable conditions? Just what is happening? What assurances can the Minister give the people in those camps about their future? What initiatives are the British Government taking to ensure early screening of those people? Has the Minister visited the camps?

I have not visited the camps, but my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office has done so. Not only is my Department supporting UNHCR in all its work, particularly because we remain committed to the UNHCR comprehensive plan of action, but the diplomatic wing of the Foreign Office is putting money into improving conditions for the people who are waiting to be screened and is seeking to speed up the screening process.

Although one has the greatest sympathy for the refugees in the camps in Hong Kong—I have visited them——

If the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) had a passport, he might know something about the world on which he continually comments.

Although one has great sympathy for these people, is not it a tribute to Government policy that the number of boat people coming over on the monsoon has declined considerably? To what can one possibly attribute that decline except the forthright policy of the Government in returning those people?

The number of Vietnamese boat people arriving in Hong Kong is markedly lower than it was this time last year, but there are still nearly 55,000 people in the camps in Hong Kong, which is the point that the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) was making. I believe that we have got through to many elements in the Vietnamese Government that it would be much wiser to look after the people in Vietnam—that is what we are doing through our aid programme through the non-governmental organisations—rather than many of them taking to the seas and perishing at sea as happened in the past.