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Refugees, refugees, refugees

They come from Vietnam, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, and most recently Cuba -- thousands of people leaving their homelands in a 20th-century version of the forced migrations of past eras. But there is a modern twist.

Population displacement is being used as a "political weapon" by governments today, says Victor H. Palmieri, US coordinator for refugee affairs. In Vietnam a year ago, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese were forced to take to the sea -- the "boat people." In Cuba in recent weeks, the boats and emotions of Cuban-Americans have been used by Fidel Castro to purge his country of social misfits and people considered enemies of his regime.

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At a more basic level, Mr. Palmieri said in a Monitor interview, "the problem is a reflection of the destabilizing and unraveling factors in the world order itself. Military adventurism, civil strife, turmoil, famine -- all of these are combining in important ways in various parts of the world to create major population displacements."

Fundamental political problems underlie the refugee situations, says Mr. Palmieri. Often the United States finds itself in the difficult situation of trying to work out its relations with regimes in these countries on the one hand , while trying to give succor, on the other hand, to those fleeing from or displaced from such nations. Special problem areas currently include:

* Afghanistan-Pakistan: Since last year's Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, almost 750,000 Afghans have been camped on Pakistani territory -- in Baluchistan and the northwest frontier provinces -- in settlements managed by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). The US has spent $16 million for food and other assistance.

* Ethiopia: Conflict between Soviet-backed Ethiopia and Somalia over the Ogaden has driven more than 1.4 million people into Somalia. On the other side of Ethiopia, as many as 400,000 people have been driven out of the breakaway province of Eritrea into the Sudan. Famine and drought are magnifying the difficulties. The US is responding through its Food for Peace effort, and an international appeal for funds is being conducted.

Africa, Mr. Palmieri says, is the backdrop for refugee movements on a scale matched almost nowhere else. Factional hostility in Chad recently caused 100, 000 Chadians to cross the river into Cameroon. Until the settlement in Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia), tens of thousands had been living across the border in Zambia and Mozambique. They now are being repatriated.

* Cambodia: Since the Vietnamese invasion 1 1/2 years ago, 3.5 million Cambodians have been displaced, many fleeing to the Thai border. International assistance approaches $300 million. But there currently is the threat of a famine because relief efforts have been hindered by the Vietnamese-sponsored government. Last year's boat people from Vietnam are being resettled from camps in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Hong Kong. The US is taking 14,000 a month.

* Cuba: Disillusionment in Havana, coupled with diplomatic jockeying between Mr. Catro and his Western Hemisphere neighbors, so far has enabled more than 80, 000 Cubans to flee aboard American boats for Key West. Eventually, 100,000 Cuban refugees could arrive. The White House estimates this could cost $300 million in the next four months.

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Mr. Palmieri's task is to, in a sense, put out these refugee fires through US relief efforts and diplomatic negotiations. But "fire prevention" itself is the overall role of US foreign policy, he says.

"To ask what we are trying to do to solve these refugee problems at the source," he says, "is to ask a very fundamental question not only about our foreign policy, but about the role of nation-states in an unstable world order."

Through foreign aid programs and participation in international organizations such as the UN, the US is seeking to develop "the potential for all people to enjoy the basic human rights: the right to food, to medical assistance, to personal security," he explains. But in cases such as Afghanistan, Mr. Palmieri says, the US has decided that not to maintain confrontations is "to lay open even wider areas of the world to the same military adventurism that creates these refugee populations."

For many years, the US refugee program was based on a series of responses to Communist takeovers, which produced sudden massive exoduses from Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Cuba, and -- in the case of the Soviet Jews -- from Russia itself. But under the Refugee Act in 1980, geographical and political restrictions no longer exist. Thus, the way is open to refugees from all over the world regardless of the ideology under which they were being persecuted.

This has given rise to a cry from Haitian refugees who, fleeing the economic and political deprivation under the dictatorship of President Jean-Claude Duvalier ("Baby Doc"), have sailed to Florida. They want treatment by US authorities equal to that given Cubans fleeing Castro's communist regime. In the past year, several hundred Haitians, after examination of their cases by the the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, have been accorded asylum as political refugees. But no blanket determination on how to handle either Cuban or Haitian refugees has been made by the US.

"It is a dilemma in a world of opposing ideologies," says Mr. Palmieri, "as to how to solve refugee problems at the source, when that means solving what are essentially intractable geopolitical issues."

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