§ 10.55 p.m.
§ Lord Chitnis rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what plans they have to improve the present living conditions and resettlement prospects of Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. I am aware that at this hour I should not assume your Lordships' formal consent. However, I tabled this Question after a visit to Hong Kong in February as chairman of Refugee Action, together with the director of that organisation and a Vietnamese-speaking member of its council. Refugee Action is one of the two main organisations in this country which has the problem of resettling Vietnamese refugees who come here, and we felt that it would be useful to go to Hong Kong to see the conditions from which they were coming, the better to be able to understand their problems when they arrive here.
§ What we found was a complicated problem which the Hong Kong authorities have laboured manfully to deal with over the past years since it started, the root of which I realise the Government can do little about. The root of the problem of the Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong is the conditions in Vietnam itself. Were those conditions different, there would not be a problem. But in Vietnam at the present moment there is harassment of religion, there are political education camps in which some people spend many years, there is compulsory military service for a very nasty war, there are food shortages, and there is malnutrition.
§ None of your Lordships would happily live in Vietnam. Indeed, Her Majesty's Government I think agree with me on this point, in that they said in their reply to the Home Affairs Committee of another place that people would continue to leave Vietnam as long as conditions there continued to be intolerable, which was the word that they used. I think that the people who manage to escape from the country deserve every sympathy and consideration.
§ What happens to them when they enter British waters? After a dangerous and difficult journey in normally inadequate craft over the South China Sea, they are not even allowed to land in Hong Kong. They are taken to a pontoon in the harbour and there they are given what I can only describe as "a verbal going over". During the two weeks that we were in Hong Kong no boat happened to arrive, and so I cannot claim to have seen the process myself, but I have had it described to me by the Hong Kong authorities and I have seen some of the briefing material that is given to those who talk to the refugees.
§ Certainly the process is enormously effective in the sense that, after that tremendously dangerous journey 1256 on which some of the people concerned died following enormous deprivation, nearly half of the 2,000 people who arrived in Hong Kong in 1985 and who were subjected to that process decided that they would sail on. The Hong Kong Government refuel their boats, they equip them with food and water, and they are sent out to sea again. As I understand it, no record is kept of them other than their numbers, and nobody knows what other landfall they reach. It is a reasonably fair assumption that some of them die. I think that perhaps the claim of the Hong Kong authorities in the material which they issue and which was referred to by the Minister in another place last week, that no refugee has ever been refused political asylum, rings a little hollow.
§ What happens to those who stay? The new arrivals are now put into closed camps. I hope that tonight the Minister will not spend time defending the closed camp policy. Although it is arguable whether it was necessary and is effective, I do not intend to argue that point tonight. The figures of refugees coming into Hong Kong were falling anyway, before the policy was introduced. It is a matter of fact that over the past several years not one refugee has gone missing from an open or a closed camp. If it is said that public opinion in Hong Kong insists that the camps be closed, I do not believe that the Government should bow to that pressure. During my time in Hong Kong I found an enormous degree of sympathy for the refugees among the population.
§ I accept that the Government have decided that the closed camps are here to stay, but if that is so, one must next consider what the conditions in the closed camps should be. The present system is that the camps are run by the correctional services department of the Hong Kong Government—what we would call the Prison Department. Because they are run by people who were trained to run prisons the camps are run as prisons. The camps are full of prison staff who call the people within them by their numbers rather than their names. There are very many of them and there is the whole atmosphere of a prison institution in the camps.
§ It seems to me that there are two possible remedies to the problem which I think is undesirable, both of which have the merit, apart from anything else, of saving money. First, there are voluntary organisations working in the camps at the moment. They are doing splendid work, but they are doing particular work. The Save the Children Fund, or whichever organisation it may be, will run the school or the workshop. Is there any reason why instead of the Prison Department handling the camp administration—while it may control the camp perimeters—within the camps the administration could not be carried out by the voluntary organisations? I know that many of them are prepared to fulfil that task, and were they to do so, it would civilianise the administration, get the prison officers out of the camps, and make for a much more relaxed atmosphere within them.
§ There is an even more adventurous solution which is—again, I do not argue that the prison officers should not guard the camp perimeters—that the administration within the camps could be given to the refugees. There are closed camps in other parts of South-East Asia where within the perimeter the refugees run their own affairs.1257
§ I recognise that the result of that would be that the buildings they are in would be slightly less clean and spick and span than the correctional services department in Hong Kong would like them to be, but it would mean that people who at present are being reduced to mere numbers in an institution would have some kind of control over their own lives and, more to the point, would be better equipped to face life outside the camps when eventually they are resettled. That, of course, is the main point. If those refugees could be swiftly resettled, conditions within the camps would be considerably less important.
§ The United Kingdom is taking some 50 refugees a month during 1986 as part of an agreed family reunion programme. The Government said recently that they would relax the criteria for the family reunion programme and would not insist on the rigid and close degrees of relationship which had sometimes operated. In view of my experience of the administration of that programme I hope that the Government can confirm that that remains their policy.
§ The main point is that before I went to Hong Kong, and while I was in Hong Kong, I talked to representatives of the other settlement countries—the Canadians, the Australians and the Americans—and I am convinced that they would do a great deal to solve the problem if the British Government would do a little more than they are doing.
§ I believe, for example, that if the Government were to agree that the present flow into this country of 500 a year could be continued into 1987 and 1988, the other settlement countries would do even more than they are doing to make a big dent in the problem. Is there any chance of that happening?
§ I wish to ask one question. Will the Government exempt the refugees from the new supplementary benefit regulations which are currently before us? The proposed changes in the single payment regulations will make the resettlement of those refugees in this country much more difficult than it need be. The regulations are reasonably drawn up with the British population in mind.
§ The refugees coming into that situation have very particular problems. It would surely be possible to exempt them from this.
§ The world is full of problems. By the standards of famine in Africa or the number of refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan and so on the problem of the 9,500 Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong is a tiny one. But this is a situation where an act of will by Her Majesty's Government on the sort of matters about which I have spoken could make a very great difference to one little problem in a small part of the world. I very much hope for a positive response.
§ 11.6 p.m.
§ Lord MacLehose of Beoch
My Lords, while I do not wish to detain your Lordships long at this late hour, I want to thank the noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, for tabling the Question and speaking to it so forcefully. I am also very glad that he is personally taking an interest in the problem. I have the most vivid recollection 1258 of the beginning of this problem with people arriving in very great numbers, not knowing how many were coming and wondering whether the crowded city would be swamped by the potential numbers from Vietnam. I remember extremely well how staunch the Hong Kong public were in those days and how magnificently the public services coped with this invasion that just could not be turned away.
I listened with great interest to what the noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, had to say about what was going on in Hong Kong and about what should be done for the refugees. I have also read a recent report by the Oxfam working party that came out at much the same time that the Question was tabled. As I understand it, the noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, and the Oxfam working party have much the same things to say. They do not question the basic policies of the Hong Kong Government, but they have criticism of administrative practice and recommendations for change. I cannot comment on that. It is over four years since I was in Hong Kong, and the noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, has been there quite recently.
However. I would record a gentle plea to be guided in this by the Hong Kong Government. The public is humane, the Oxfam report was largely drafted by Hong Kong people, and the record of the territory is exemplary in Asia; so I suggest no exhortation. However, if something practical can be offered, I am sure that would be a very different matter.
I have a few questions to ask. The first stems from the fact that Hong Kong never had a fair share of the resettlement places on offer. I made this point as forcefully as I could to the Geneva conference in 1979, obviously without effect, because I notice that the Oxfam report says that this remains the situation—28 per cent. of the problem, and a very small share of the solution. First, can anything be done to improve Hong Kong's share of the places offered, whether by representations to other host countries or by the United Kingdom leading the way, as the noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, has said?
Secondly, is there a prospect of repatriating to Vietnam any refugees who now wish to go? I listened to what the noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, said about conditions in Vietnam, but the fact is that some have been able to return; I think that the Oxfam report said at least 25.
The report also made a point that I have heard from others; namely, that while the early refugees were genuine refugees—that is to say, people in danger of life or liberty because of their race, religion or political beliefs—more recently the emigration has been stimulated more by accounts from relations and friends abroad of the much better conditions that they can get abroad as against in Vietnam. This is a slightly different situation. I was ambassador in Vietnam at one time. It is a harsh country, I know. I wonder whether the Minister would agree that if any wish to go back, their repatriation would be a desirable objective. I believe that this problem is best dealt with by slow and steady erosion, not by some dramatic terminal gesture. The latter might only touch off a further stream of emigration. After all, the noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, mentioned that there were only 9,000 and how small that number is. Yes, but how many millions 1259 of people are there in Vietnam? The last thing that one wants to do is to suggest to them that they have only to come somewhere else and their problems will be solved. The world will not solve them. That has been proved.
If a policy of erosion is to be followed, this requires a steady net offtake. My last question is therefore to ask whether the Government can do more to improve and continue the rate of resettlement. That is all that I have to say. I hope, however, that the noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, will persevere in his interest in the problem, because it can be rather forgotten in this country. It is very real in Hong Kong, to the Vietnamese refugees, of course, but also to the government and people who have borne this burden all these years.
§ 11.12 p.m.
My Lords, whenever the noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, speaks in this House he does so on the basis of expert knowledge and sincere dedication to the causes that he espouses, and never more so than on this occasion when he has raised the question of the Vietnamese refugees. The noble Lord has raised this subject in his capacity as chairman of Refugee Action, following, as he has explained, an intensive study of the problem on the spot a few weeks ago. My own knowledge of the problem is not a direct one. It is derived from my reading of the report of the Home Affairs Committee of another place, the Government's reply to that report, and, most useful of all, the report of the delegation that the noble Lord led to Hong Kong. It is indeed a formidable document.
The first two documents necessarily deal with the major policy questions and with the recommendations from the Home Affairs Committee for the solution of the refugee problem. What distinguishes the report of the noble Lord and his colleagues is that from its pages one not only derives a view of those major issues and what should be done about them, but one gets also a vivid series of intimate details of life in the camps, both those that are closed and those that are open. It is typical of the report and indeed of the noble Lord's speech that although they are highly critical, and rightly critical, of the conditions they saw, they acknowledge that it is a most complex situation and that the authorities are wrestling with most difficult circumstances. Throughout the report, which I have read with care, it is clear that the noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, and his colleagues have endeavoured to be objective and fair in their assessment of the situation. It seems to me all the more important therefore that the Government, and indeed the Hong Kong Government, should examine carefully every sentence in this report and ask what can be done to alleviate the conditions which are described in it.
There are two parts to the noble Lord's Question this evening. One part concerns living conditions of the refugees and asks what can be done to improve those conditions. The other part of the Question concerns the prospects of resettlement of the refugees. I suggest that even if the Government have good reasons, which we shall no doubt hear from the noble Baroness, for not accepting the main recommendations either of the Select Committee or of the 1260 delegation of the noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, in respect of resettlement prospects, there is a very great deal that can be done on the basis of what they have described, and a great deal that ought to be done, to improve the living conditions, particularly in the closed camps. The picture which emerges is indeed that of a bleak existence going on year after year for those who have been living in these camps simply because they cannot satisfy the complex criteria which determine their prospects of resettlement.
The monotony of their lives comes through from this report, the almost complete lack of recreational or educational facilities in many cases, and the frequent problems arising from the lack of interpreters leading very often to misunderstandings, are factors which could surely be alleviated even if the major problems of resettlement policy cannot be overcome.
However, I am not satisfied that it is impossible to overcome those major problems. We can acknowledge that the Government have accepted the first of the recommendations of the Select Committee; namely, that there should be a relaxation of the criteria governing family connections. Like the noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, I hope that the Minister when she comes to reply can give a satisfactory report on the numbers who are being admitted to Britain as a result of that relaxation: and the assurance that was asked for by the noble Lord that that relaxed policy can be continued beyond this year.
I hope too that careful note will be taken of the instances reported by the delegation on hard cases of refusal of admission through misunderstandings. May I quote from page 5 of the report with regard to one particular case although it is said that there are other cases of this kind. The report says:We were introduced to a man who had not been settled because he was deemed to have rejected a British offer. In fact he had merely overslept on the morning of his interview. There was a cross against his name on the British list with no explanation. This meant that no other country would consider him.There are other hardship cases of that kind. Surely it is at least possible to accept the recommendation of the noble Lord and his colleagues that Britain should review these 200 cases—or a number of that order—of refusals which put a stop on their being considered by other receiving countries.
May I make two points in connection with the Home Affairs Committee of another place? The first is the recommendation that the closed camps should be abolished. The committee reported that many of those in open camps secure employment and become pretty independent and almost resettled in Hong Kong itself. That is surely a strong argument for enabling those who are at present in enclosed camps to have a similar freedom.
I know the arguments on the other side, and the noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, has put them forward. The arguments are that the closed camps were necessary as a so-called humane deterrent to prevent a further influx of refugees, and that abolishing the closed camps would give preferential treatment to Vietnamese refugees as against those Chinese who come illegally from the mainland. There may be some validity in both those arguments, but surely it is a matter of judgment as between opposing arguments. It 1261 is not a black and white situation. I am by no means convinced that the Government have reached a balanced conclusion on that particular matter.
My second point in relation to the report of the Home Affairs Committee is again one that was touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, in his speech—namely, if the British Government can reconsider their position, they will provide a good example to other receiving countries, particularly Australia, the United States and Canada. As Britain has clearly the major constitutional obligation because Hong Kong is a British colony, it seems to me understandable that those other receiving countries should expect us to give the lead.
I support the view that has been put forward that a more generous attitude by our Government would enable the others to relax their conditions as well. I hope that when the noble Baroness comes to reply she will give some attention to those points. They are not my points, but points which are raised in the report of the Home Affairs Committee.
In conclusion, I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, would agree with me in saying that we recognise how difficult the whole problem is and that the Government have not been entirely unsympathetic in seeking a solution to the problem. As I have suggested, all along the line it is a matter of judgment. We feel that so far the Government's judgment has erred on the side of caution and restriction, and that there is room for still further relaxation in the numbers who can be admitted. We hope that we shall hear from the Minister when she replies that the Government can now review the situation and take some further steps forward to a solution of what, after all, is a very tragic human problem.
§ 11.24 p. m.
§ Baroness Young
My Lords, I am sure that we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, for tabling this Unstarred Question and it is a matter of regret that it should come on at so late an hour. The noble Lord is right to draw attention to the problems which have been caused by the enormous exodus of refugees from Vietnam in recent years. I do not think we need to be ashamed of the part we have played in the efforts to solve this problem: most of the burden has, of course, fallen on the authorities and people of Hong Kong.
The problem is still acute. Hong Kong still has more boat refugees than anywhere else in South-East Asia. But we are making steady progress towards a lasting solution: the permanent resettlement of refugees. The number of Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong was over 50,000 in 1979. It dropped rapidly to under 13,000 by the end of 1981, and more gradually since then to just under 9,000 at present. We shall continue to do all we can to help these unfortunate people to find a secure future, and to make sure that the conditions in which they live are as humane as possible. The Government very much hope that the resettlement of all Vietnamese refugees can be completed as early as possible.
Perhaps some figures would illustrate the present position in Hong Kong. On 5th May there were 8,661 Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong, 4,005 in open centres and 4,629 in closed centres. In the past year the refugee population has fallen by 2,542. Since 1st 1262 January 1,451 refugees have departed Hong Kong for resettlement compared with 1,135 in 1985. This is a result of increases in the numbers taken by the United Kingdom and other countries, to which I shall refer in more detail. Five hundred and twenty-five refugees have arrived in the same period, against 314 in 1985.
All those noble Lords who have spoken in this debate this evening have asked about what the United Kingdom has done. Since 1975 the United Kingdom has resettled some 12,500 Vietnamese refugees from Hong Kong. A White Paper published last September in response to the report of the Home Affairs Committee, entitled Refugees and Asylum with Special Reference to the Vietnamese announced the Government's agreement, in accordance with the committee's recommendation, to accept some 500 Vietnamese refugees, about 420 of them in Hong Kong, under relaxed immigration criteria for family reunion. The Government also agreed to consider accepting further limited numbers from Hong Kung in the future.
So far, 250 refugees have been resettled in the United Kingdom out of the 420 from Hong Kong whom we expect to qualify under those relaxed criteria. This programme is proceeding satisfactorily at the rate of about 40 people per month, thanks to excellent co-operation between officials in Hong Kong and the United Kingdom and the voluntary agencies.
In line with a recommendation of the Home Affairs Committee we are making major efforts to persuade other countries to take additional refugees from Hong Kong to maximise the effect of the decisions to resettle further numbers of refugees in the United Kingdom. The noble Lord, Lord MacLehose, made the point that Hong Kong never had a fair share of the places that were on offer, and asked whether this could be improved and whether we could do more to stimulate resettlement—a point that the noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, made in his opening remarks. I can assure both noble Lords and the noble Lord, Lord Oram, that we have raised the matter with Ministers in other countries, and this has been supported by regular representations by our diplomatic missions. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees accords priority to the resettlement of refugees from Hong Kong, and has taken up the matter with many governments who seek his advice when allocating their refugee resettlement quotas.
I am glad to be able to say that so far Australia has agreed to accept a further 200 refugees, Canada 50, Finland 70, the Netherlands 80, New Zealand 10 and Sweden 100. The United States, which resettles more Indo-Chinese refugees than any other country, is currently accepting refugees at an annual rate of some 1,800, 200 more than the previous year's ceiling. This is a most encouraging initial response to our diplomatic campaign. We are grateful to all those countries for their efforts to help Hong Kong. Several other countries are likely to respond favourably. We are continuing to press the rest for a similar response.
Both the noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, and the noble Lord, Lord MacLehose, asked me about further resettlement in the United Kingdom, and indeed the report of the noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, recommends that we should accept 40 refugees per month after the 1263 commitment to family reunions is fulfilled. I have to tell the noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, that our priority task for the moment must be to complete the resettlement of the 500 refugees whom we have already agreed to accept. Whether we might be able in future to take further refugees from Hong Kong will be decided in the light of the willingness shown by other resettlement countries to respond to Hong Kong's needs and all the other circumstances at the time.
We are studying the report of the noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, carefully. We share a common aim—that is, to see a permanent solution to the problem of the refugees in Hong Kong and one which is in the refugees' best interests. The noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, made a number of criticisms of the present circumstances in Hong Kong and I should like to take these points as he has given them and see whether I can give an assurance about them.
The first was a criticism of refugees arriving in Hong Kong. I think his words were that they were given a verbal "going over". Refugees reaching Hong Kong are advised on entry into Hong Kong waters that if they wish to land they will be allowed to do so and will be accommodated in a closed camp until they are resettled overseas. Almost 11,000 of the 13,000 reaching Hong Kong since the closed camps were introduced elected to stay, indicating that a majority regard these camps as preferable to the alternative of sailing somewhere elsewhere, generally towards Taiwan or the Philippines where camps similar to Hong Kong's closed centres exist. Those who wish to sail on may request to have their boats repaired and re-victualled by the Hong Kong Government at its own expense.
The noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, also criticised the role of the Correctional Services Department. The Hong Kong Government consider the Correctional Services Department to be the service best suited in Hong Kong to perform the difficult task of running the closed centres. The CSD administers a variety of institutions, not just prisons, for example, training centres for young offenders—and most CSD staff working in the closed centres are recruited for this task and are not trained prison officers. Indeed, many have social welfare qualifications.
The record of past continuing disturbances in the open centres, which are run by voluntary agencies, leads the Hong Kong Government to believe that closed centres need to be managed by an experienced and disciplined service such as the CSD. When Mr Hartley, until recently the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, visited the closed camps last May he commented that they were well run, and in particular he praised the efforts of the CSD's staff.
The noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, also commented that the refugees ought to be able to play a more meaningful part in the running of the camps. In each closed centre there is a refugees' management committee, with two representatives elected from each dormitory. They meet the Correctional Services Department senior staff daily and participate in all major decisions. They also meet regularly with representatives of the voluntary agencies, and are encouraged to participate in centre management. I have to say, however, that the response is poor.
1264 The noble Lord, Lord Oram, also criticised the camp administration, and I can say that the daily affairs of each centre are run in close consultation with individual centre committees composed of elected representatives from each hut. However, attempts by both the Hong Kong Government and voluntary agencies to involve the refugees in activities other than those which they perceive clearly to help their chances of resettlement sadly often bear little fruit. The committees are constantly encouraged to play a greater role in the life of the closed centres; but the difficulty is that the better-educated refugees, who are willing to participate in management, are generally those who are accepted for resettlement. Those left behind are often unwilling to participate in the management of the closed centres. The work done by voluntary agencies in the refugee camps in Hong Kong is of great importance and I should like to pay tribute to the commitment and compassion of the people involved who give frequently of their time in a multitude of ways.
The noble Lord, Lord Oram, also commented on the recommendation that the closed camps be abolished.
We have always made it clear that the policy is not intended to be a permanent measure: if the flow of illegal departures from Vietnam were to be reduced to a trickle, such deterrent measures would no longer be necessary. We should be ready to discontinue the policy at once if circumstances permitted. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, knows, and as he said in his opening remarks, large numbers of Vietnamese will continue to attempt to leave so long as the social and economic conditions imposed by the Hanoi Government make life within Vietnam intolerable. Without some policy of deterrence—and the closed camps policy is the only humane one open to us—Hong Kong will continue to be viewed as a convenient gateway to the rest of the free world.
The noble Lord, Lord Oram, also commented on particular hardship cases. I can say to him that I shall draw this particular point to the notice of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The noble Lord, Lord MacLehose, also asked about the possible repatriation of refugees to Vietnam. I understand that there has been a small number of voluntary repatriations—approximately 20 out of 100,000. Of course they are free to return if they so wish.
I should like also to say to the noble Lord, Lord MacLehose, that we are of course studying the report which has just been published by the Hong Kong Oxfam group under the title Hong Kong Cares for Vietnamese Refugees, but we have only just received it; and we are studying the report of the noble Lord, Lord Chitnis.
In closing, I should like to express the Government's admiration for the quite remarkable efforts made by Hong Kong in caring for over 110,000 Vietnamese refugees since 1975. No refugee has ever been turned away. Hong Kong is the only place of first asylum in South-East Asia to introduce a policy of local resettlement. It has absorbed some 500 refugees from the camps and has in fact resettled a total of 14,500 Indo-Chinese displaced persons since 1975. In the light of a recommendation by the Home Affairs Committee, Hong Kong has agreed to resettle up to 1265 250 more ethnic Chinese refugees from the camps in Hong Kong. This is a courageous measure given the difficulties that I have mentioned for Hong Kong in being seen to give Vietnamese refugees better treatment than illegal immigrants from China. Hong Kong is the only place of first asylum in the region to contribute towards the upkeep of its refugees. Last year it gave 100 million Hong Kong dollars—two thirds of the money spent on refugees in Hong Kong—and that came from the Hong Kong Government itself.
The noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, asked me about the new social security regulations. I must say that I think I had better write to him on that point because it is one that is new to me. In the words of Mr Poul Hartling, the last UN High Commissioner for Refugees, at a press conference in Hong Kong a year ago:We are very grateful to Hong Kong—to the authorities, the Government here and to the people—because Hong Kong has given asylum and never, never refused to give asylum to refugees coming here and never forced them back against their will, and has treated them well, but of course, they would like as we would like to see a solution, a durable solution, for these refugees.I think that those are good words on which to end what I think has been a short but very useful debate.