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Refugees and fairness

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IN Asia, Africa, the Near East, and other corners of the world, refugee camps overflow with people hoping for return to a more peaceful homeland, or for acceptance in a new land. For thousands each year, the United States is that new land. But the gates simply aren't open to all refugees who apply. Each year the president and Congress work out ceilings for the numbers of refugees to be accepted from the world's various regions.

Flexibility is built in. In the current fiscal year, for instance, the ceiling for Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was raised by 15,000 as large numbers of Armenians sought refuge. For fiscal year '89, which begins this Saturday, the administration has proposed raising the ceiling for Asian refugees by 15,000, up to 53,000, reflecting the continued stream of refugees from Vietnam. Some hope, cautiously, that this policy will reduce the ranks of ``boat people'' by allowing more to leave their country by safer means.

Humanitarian considerations should be paramount in setting these ceilings. In practice, however, dozens of factors - political, diplomatic, budgetary - enter into the equation. US relations with East Asian allies that give Vietnamese refugees ``first asylum'' have to be weighed. Tough, politically sensitive choices have to be made: Which people are bona fide political refugees and which are economic migrants? The former, by definition, are in danger of losing their lives; the latter are seeking a better life.

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