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Canada moves quietly to take in Salvadorans rejected by US

Canadian officials aren't anxious to make it known, but they are taking Salvadoran refugees rejected by the United States and resettling them in Canada.

Canada's reticence to make the action public stems from a difference in policy with the US over who qualifies as a refugee. Because of the civil war in El Salvador, Canada is no longer deporting Salvadorans. The US, however, rejects the United Nations' designation of Salvadorans as ''prima facie refugees'' and is deporting them at the rate of about 500 a month.

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''This is a very touchy situation,'' said a Canadian volunteer involved in the action. ''Canada doesn't want to look as if it is pointing the finger at the US or the whole thing could be closed down. We're talking about people's lives if it is closed down.'' In addition, Canada is worried that it will raise false hope among refugees who may not qualify for resettlement.

In recent weeks, 14 Salvadorans in Texas have been granted asylum in Canada and about 40 other applications are pending, according to Kevin Burke of the Canadian consulate in Dallas. Consulates in Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York also have been working with American volunteers to identify refugees who would face torture or murder if sent back by the US to El Salvador, where more than 30 ,000 civilians have disappeared or been killed since 1979. Such refugees qualify for asylum under the United Nations Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Canada calls them simply ''convention refugees.''

''Basically, this is a matter of protection,'' said a spokesman for the Canadian Employment and Immigration Commission, who asked not to be named. ''Groups in the US are pressing for a change in US policy toward Salvadorans and the question is to protect the refugees while this is going on. We don't want our actions seen as an indirect comment on US practice--the US has its own policy. From our discussions with the INS (US--Immigration and Naturalization Service), it appears they are finding few, if any, -convention refugees and they are continuing to deport to El Salvador. Our experience with the same people has been quite different. It's a difference in the application of principles.''

Until recently, Canada's support of Salvadorans was not backed up by action. In 1981, Canada didn't come close to meeting its self-imposed quota of 1,000 refugees from Central America. For the most part, this -inaction was due to a belief that refugees would be better off staying closer to El Salvador (Mexico, the Honduras) rather than--moving thousands of miles and resettling in Canada.

However, at a meeting in Montreal last November of Canadian refugee support groups, it was pointed out that there are literally thousands of refugees currently in the US who already made the decision to resettle and now face deportation as illegal aliens. The support groups pressured the Canadian government to rethink its policy and in January Canadian governmental officials met with American church groups in New York City to work out a way to start moving endangered Salvadorans into Canada.

So far, the INS has cooperated with the Canadian effort, granting access to federal detention centers where Salvadorans are held. Everyone connected with the action is anxious not to offend the US State Department and bring the entire effort to a crashing halt before it gets off the ground.

Canada only will resettle refugees who will be self-sufficient within a year, but volunteer organizations such as the Canadian Friends Service Committee plan to sponsor those who probably will take longer to get on their feet, such as people who are illiterate or unaccompanied minors.

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Although the Canadian effort is ambitious, it will hardly make a dent in the Salvadoran refugee problem. ''We're like a mosquito flying around an elephant,'' said one--Canadian official. American church groups--working with Canada on the resettlement--action are urging the US State Department to grant Salvadorans temporary asylum until the situation in El Salvador quiets down. They say that only a change in US policy will make a significant difference in the refugee's plight.

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