The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

Foreign Secretary (1989)

Mr Major’s Parliamentary Answer on Hong Kong – 25 October 1989

Below is the text of Mr Major’s Parliamentary Answer on Hong Kong, held on 25th October 1989.


Mr. Morley To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs when he next plans to visit Hong Kong; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Major I hope to visit Hong Kong early in the new year. Precise dates have not yet been determined.

Mr. Morley Is the Foreign Secretary somewhat relieved that after the Commonwealth conference’s unanimous agreement to a statement on the position in Hong Kong, no member of the Commonwealth repudiated the statement one hour after making it? As the Foreign Secretary moves more towards the idea of compulsory repatriation, and there is much talk of economic migrants as against refugees, how does the right hon. Gentleman intend to determine between economic migrants and genuine refugees in the case of Hong Kong?

Mr. Major First, on a point of information, the hon. Gentleman may care to know that no communiqué was repudiated – [Interruption] – by the Government. The communiqué was accepted in its entirety and without demur. However, there were four areas in the communiqué on which I expressly declined to agree with my Commonwealth colleagues and the subsequent press statement set out the British position on those areas. In the case of Hong Kong, the international community has accepted for some time that all those screened out as non-refugees should, in due course, be returned to Vietnam. Ultimately, that is the only possible solution.

Sir Peter Blaker May I congratulate my right hon. Friend not only on his appointment, but on securing the statement in the communiqué by the Commonwealth Heads of Government to which he has just referred, relating to the return to Vietnam of those boat people who are determined not to be genuine refugees? How far have my right hon. Friend’s talks about monitoring such returns proceeded with the Government of Vietnam?

Mr. Major Those talks are continuing. I hope that they will be concluded before too long, but, as yet, they are not wholly finished. We are concerned to ensure that when Vietnamese refugees and non-refugees return to Vietnam they are treated properly and fairly and we shall seek to ensure that monitoring arrangements are made to safeguard them.

Mr. Heffer On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker Does the point of order arise out of the question?

Mr. Heffer This is a very important matter, Mr. Speaker. Hon. Members cannot properly hear what is being said. I do not know whether it has anything to do with the new television cameras, but we cannot hear the questions being put to the Minister, or the replies. Hon. Members sitting over here certainly cannot hear. Will you look into this matter, so that we can at least hear what is being said?

Mr. Speaker Perhaps I should ask hon. Members to speak up. I had some difficulty in hearing the last question – [Interruption]. Order. I shall have the microphones looked into.

Mr. Foulkes I do not think that my hon. Friend’s complaint will apply to me. Will the Secretary of State consider giving some assistance to the Government of Vietnam to help with the refugee settlement programme? Will he also do what he can to ensure proper safeguards and monitoring for the return of refugees? Does he understand that although Opposition Members support encouragement and persuasion to return for those not accepted as refugees, we shall strongly oppose forced repatriation? Will he now rule out force as part of his orderly return programme?

Mr. Major I shall take the hon. Gentleman’s final point first. It is becoming increasingly clear that voluntary repatriation cannot provide the comprehensive solution that is necessary. We are seeking to counsel and persuade the Vietnamese boat people to return to Vietnam. We are receiving the full support of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in doing so. I invite the hon. Gentleman to recognise that the problem in Hong Kong is now acute. It is getting worse and cannot be borne much longer. It will soon be necessary to tackle the thorny question of involuntary repatriation. I shall do that as and when it is necessary. I shall most certainly be seeking safeguards for those people who return, because I regard that as a most important matter.

Mr. Lester Will my right hon. Friend agree, before he approves any agreement with the Vietnamese Government, to consider the concerns of many colleagues in the House about the prospect of 33,000 Vietnamese non-refugees being forcibly returned to Vietnam? Will he also undertake to consider our views that any aid should be directed to their resettlement – difficult enough in many communities in Vietnam – and that the United Nations or the European Community should examine much more carefully the rehabilitation of the whole of Vietnam’s infrastructure and development, now that it has changed its policy to one of development and a market economy? Unless we do that, many of us will be deeply worried about reluctant or compulsory repatriation, given that people will be returned to the abject poverty from which they have come.

Mr. Major Vietnam stands a better chance of getting what it wants from the international community if and when it fulfils its international obligations – that point must be understood. The key element is an unequivocal and public commitment by Vietnam to taking back all non-refugees in safety and dignity, and we shall seek that.

I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns; I wish there were an easy alternative, but neither he nor anyone else has yet found one. The whole international community made it perfectly clear at Geneva and elsewhere that it was not prepared to take non-refugees. It is therefore not reasonable to accept that they will have to stay in Hong Kong for ever and I cannot, will not and do not accept that – [Interruption].

Mr. Speaker Order. May I say to those who are asking questions from a sedentary position that that does not help us to hear?