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.
Making this distinction can be agonizing, because human suffering is involved either way. Political biases come into play, as in the case of refugees from Central America, few of whom are recognized by the US as victims of political repression. But if these definitions aren't maintained, efforts conceived to aid refugees could easily become adjuncts of immigration policy and thus lose their focus.
Then there's the matter of money. This year administration officials were soundly criticized when some of the Soviet Armenians promised refuge in the US were told they couldn't immediately come because there was no money in the federal budget to help them resettle. Next year's boost in some of the ceilings may be an effort to win added funding and preclude such mishaps.
Those ceiling figures for fiscal '89 raise another question, too. Why are Africa and the Near East, two regions of the world that account for two-thirds of its 13 million refugees, given such low numbers? Eastern Europe, by contrast, accounts for a minuscule share of refugees, yet it is given a high ceiling by the US.
The Near East and South Asia region is given a proposed ceiling of 7,000 - 2,000 fewer than this year. Africa fares even worse - a 2,000 ceiling, down from 3,000.
Certainly there's no way the US and other Western countries can offer new homes to more than a fraction of the world's refugees. Any help is a humanitarian service.
But as much as possible, a standard of fairness, of evenhandedness, should guide decisions on which refugees, and how many, are allowed to pursue new lives abroad.