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A Fair Way to Find Refugees Among the Cuban Rafters

US policy toward waves of Vietnamese is a good model

THIS past summer, after trying several unsatisfactory policies to deal with Haitian refugees, the Clinton administration finally hit upon the idea of providing a temporary haven for them at the United States naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In August, when twice as many Cubans began fleeing their country in rafts, President Clinton quickly replicated the program for them. Reversing a policy of three decades that allowed every Cuban rafter to enter its borders, the US now put every rafter behind barbed wire.

It appeared that the administration, for the first time, was treating Cubans and Haitians equally, ending years of patent discrimination against Haitians and preference for Cubans. The new policy, coming in a tough election season marked by a strong anti-immigrant mood, was not generous toward either group, but at least met international legal standards for temporary protection of asylum seekers in mass flight.

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But the elections are now over, and simple solutions must be reexamined. Haiti is the wrong model for dealing with Cuban asylum seekers. The situation inside Haiti was fluid, and the prospects for a quick return of the Haitians from Guantanamo were good. Cuba is static; the chronic repression and economic stagnation that caused most of the Cuban rafters to leave have not improved and are unlikely to in the foreseeable future.

The better model is Vietnam. Another cold-war holdover, Vietnam bears striking similarities to Cuba; the parallels extend to the boat people from both countries. After the first wave of refugees escaping Cuba and Vietnam, the vast majority did not leave in response to a direct threat, but rather as victims of past persecution, chronic restrictions, and divided families. For years, the US accepted the second- and third-wave refugees as automatically as the first.

Finally, however, the US has decided in both cases that there cannot be an unconditional welcome in perpetuity. In 1989, to handle the flow of Vietnamese, the US agreed to participate in a Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA), with the following key components: the refugee-status screening of boat people who arrived after an agreed upon cutoff date; the resettlement of genuine refugees in third countries; and the safe repatriation of nonrefugees to Vietnam.

An orderly procedure for Vietnamese to exit their country was expanded, and Vietnam agreed to allow access to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to monitor the treatment of returnees. Vietnam pledged not to take punitive action or discriminate against them.

The CPA proceeded slowly and not without controversy. Although its creators initially envisioned that all returns of screened-out boat people would be voluntary, the key players came to accept involuntary return. Finally, the CPA succeeded in its aim as a deterrent to massive new boat departures.

How would such a model work for the Cubans? Given the 35-year history of unswerving welcome for all Cubans, the administrative burden of adjudicating more than 30,000 refugee claims, and the considerable cost of maintaining them in the Guantanamo and Panama camps, the US would do well to follow the CPA's use of a cutoff date before starting a new refugee screening procedure.

Thus, all Cubans who were apprehended before Oct. 1, 1994, would be ``paroled'' into the US, and would be screened only to determine if there are grounds, such as criminality, to bar their entry. However, the plan would make clear that future Cuban rafters would not be paroled.

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Thereafter, assuming the US government maintains its policy of high-seas interdictions, any Cubans picked up after the cutoff date would undergo refugee-status determinations at Guantanamo or other processing sites. Only those qualifying as refugees under international law would be resettled in the US or other countries. As with the Vietnamese CPA, refugee screening would involve the UNHCR and a right of appeal against negative decisions. Persons determined not to be refugees would be encouraged to return to Cuba voluntarily. However, assuming that Fidel Castro Ruz, like his Vietnamese counterparts, agrees to their safe return, and that appropriate safeguards are in place, they could eventually be repatriated even involuntarily.

The principal benefit of applying the CPA model to the Cubans is that it would provide a permanent solution. Safe havens are suited only for short-term displacements. When the causes of refugee flows prove intractable and refugees remain stuck in camps, the results are often frustration and violence, already evident in the Cuban camps.

Another benefit of the CPA model is to end the presumption that all Cubans qualify as refugees, one of the anachronisms that has compromised the integrity of the US refugee program. Showing a willingness to determine refugee status fairly and to return nonrefugees would deter those fleeing for economic reasons. Regularizing legal and orderly immigration procedures directly from Cuba - already a component of the US-Cuba migration accord - will also give an outlet to those who might previously have embarked on a dangerous raft journey.

The US policy, if managed properly, ought to be able to discourage a mass influx of the kind that occurred in August, while at the same time respecting human rights including the right to seek asylum from persecution. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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