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Indochina's refugees and US law

Thousands remain homeless after fleeing Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. Recently their concerns were heightened by stories that Thailand might stop providing a temporary haven for many of them. Now Thailand officials are said to be willing to continue to accept refugees. Part of the credit seems due to the promise of a speeded flow of refugees to the United States. This in turn is an example of reinterpretation of law to meet a humanitarian challenge.

A slowdown in filling US quotas had been attributed in part to the 1980 law on refugees. Under it, not all those fleeing Cambodia, Vietnam, or Laos would qualify as refugees. Now, according to a reported agreement between the State and Justice Departments, they would be presumed to be refugees because of the totalitarian regimes left behind.

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Americans would not be so hard-hearted as to split hairs over who is a refugee among those making the difficult and sometimes dangerous move of leaving countries where the US was once striving to expand freedom. But they will have to face the question of whether Indochina should indefinitely remain a special case.

The 1980 law deliberately turned away from previous legislation that considered those who fled communist countries or the Middle East to be by definition refugees. In line with the United Nations, the test now was to be whether persons were unwilling or unable to return to their home countries, whatever these might be, because of persecution on account of race, nationality, political beliefs, or religion.

Refugee status would not be conferred, for example, simply for economic hardship. This issue has come up sharply in screening Haitians seeking refuge in the US. Some argue they are often prompted more by poverty than persecution. Some argue that the Haitians, no less than the Indochinese, would have persecution to fear if forced to return to the jurisdiction of a repressive regime.

Many of the Indochinese "refugees," indeed, have never been refugees by strictest definition. Yet the political and economic hardships they sought to leave behind -- and their homeless condition -- constitute a challenge to conscience that cannot be ignored.

America has not ignored it. Having admitted almost half a million refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, the US tops the list of nations giving permanent asylum.

The challenge does not end on arrival. Inspiring stories can be told of Indochinese success and contribution to American life. But states are concerned about how to take care of the destitute, now that special federal welfare has been ended for refugees in the country for three years or more. Assimilation has not always been easy, especially for some of the less educated rural refugees who have followed the first largely urbanized wave.

Much patience, generosity, and good will must continue to be exercised in the transition from Indochina's tragic turmoil -- and to a time when the refugee law's ideal of consistent application for all countries of origin can be achieved.

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