HL Deb 05 June 1997 vol 580 cc704-6

3.16 p.m.

Lord McNally asked Her Majesty's Government:

What assistance they plan to give to the Government of Bangladesh and to British and international non-governmental organisations working in Bangladesh to assist the Biharis who have now been refugees in Bangladesh for 25 years.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, our bilateral aid programme to Bangladesh is our second largest, at £45 million per year, with poverty reduction a major priority. We hope that the Biharis will increasingly benefit from general development programmes not exclusively targeted at themselves. Since 1990 we have provided some £770,000 specifically for primary education and reproductive health projects within the Bihari community.

Lord McNally

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the cause of the Biharis in Bangladesh was espoused in this House for many years by the late Lord Ennals, one of my predecessors as international secretary of the Labour Party? It has been espoused in another place by Mike Gapes, one of my successors. Was the noble Baroness as astounded as I was to learn that 200,000 people are trapped in refugee camps 25 years after a war has come to an end? Does she not agree that the October Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference gives a great opportunity for the countries concerned—Bangladesh, Pakistan and India—perhaps with the good offices of Her Majesty's Government, to bring an end to the suffering of these people, as that is achievable?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right. I was astonished to learn that, as I understand it, there are 250,000 Bihari people in Bangladesh in 66 camps at the moment. As the noble Lord will know, there is already a full agenda for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. If the two governments concerned wish to use the occasion to discuss the problem and seek the good offices of the United Kingdom Government, we shall of course consider the matter with the Commonwealth secretariat.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the non-governmental organisations in Bangladesh have, rightly, one of the best reputations in the aid world? Does she further agree that the previous Administration recognised this and supported Bangladesh as a special case within the aid programme? Can she guarantee to do the same?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I have already indicated that we have given and are giving substantial bilateral aid to Bangladesh. The most substantial contribution has been a £600,000 joint funding scheme grant to the international NGO concerned. That supported the provision of primary education.

As part of the Government's fourth population and health project, we provided further grants of £160,000 to £170,000 for maternal and child health, family planning, nutrition and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases for application in the largest Bihari camps in Dhaka.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, in view of the proposed visit to Bangladesh later this year of the Secretary of State for International Development, will the Minister ensure that the Government build on the warm relations which exist between the United Kingdom and Bangladesh as a result of the policies of poverty reduction and human resource development pioneered by my noble friend Lady Chalker of Wallasey and the ODA in partnership with non-governmental organisations for the Biharis?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House would wish to acknowledge the sterling work done by the noble Baroness in the alleviation of poverty wherever she found it in the world.

I understand that the plans for later in the year of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development have not yet been confirmed. However, I am sure that she will wish to continue the warm relations of which the noble Lord speaks.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, if the Secretary of State for International Development visits Bangladesh, will she also ask to visit the Chittagong Hill Tracts, from which 68,000 Jumma refugees fled from Bangladesh into the state of Tripura in India? Will she ask the Bangladeshi authorities whether they will accept international assistance regarding the current programme of repatriation of a large number of those people to their original homes?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am sure that my right honourable friend will wish to acquaint herself first hand with all the areas of difficulty. Acknowledged abuses in the past have led to the flows of refugees and the security problems in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. We welcome the peace talks being conducted by the Government of Bangladesh and representatives of the refugees. We believe that these indicate that the Government of Bangladesh are keen to resolve this long-standing problem by negotiation, and to repatriate those who still remain in the refugee camps across the border in India.