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President's Misguided Refugee Policy

By cutting admissions, the US breaks away from a leadership role

The end of the cold war brought hopes that the world's regional conflicts and brush-fire wars, and their attendant human misery, also would diminish. But figures such as Laurent-Desir Kabila have dashed those hopes.

Mr. Kabila leads the rebel force that is driving Zaire's dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, from power. That good deed might have earned him a measure of international goodwill. But late last month, Kabila's forces began to attack Rwandan Hutu refugee camps in eastern Zaire, driving about 100,000 refugees into the forest. They then blocked aid workers from entering the area to investigate and provide relief.

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Sadly, Kabila and his forces are not unique. Their atrocities are but one example of wars and ethnic violence extending from Africa to Asia to Bosnia. As these conflicts have erupted, so have the flows of refugees.

According to the UN, the number of people in need of protection worldwide has grown from 17 million in 1991 to about 26 million today. This includes refugees, internally displaced persons, and returnees.

The picture isn't entirely bleak. Close to home, Central America is a success story. The consolidation of peace and democracy in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua represents a victory for human rights and an end to a decade-long flow of refugees.

But the global increase in refugees presents a new challenge to United States foreign policy, a challenge the Clinton administration has handled in a curious fashion.

A value and a tool

Admitting refugees is an expression of America's basic values. It also is an important foreign policy tool. But under President Clinton, refugee policy seems to be guided not by the global refugee situation, but by an impulse to cut immigration.

The Clinton administration has steadily reduced the annual ceiling for refugee admissions. Its proposed ceiling of 78,000 admissions for 1998 represents a 39 percent cut from the 1990-95 average of 127,000.

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Administration officials say the cuts are appropriate in light of the winding down of Vietnam War-related refugee admissions and reductions in the number of applicants from the former Soviet Union who seek admission on the basis of religious persecution.

But the cuts are a mistake.

During the cold war, many refugees were admitted to the United States because they were former allies or had been persecuted under communism. Today the cold war is over, but refugees remain both a symptom of instability and a potential cause of further instability.

That, apart from the humanitarian motive or the economic benefits refugees bring to America, is why we have a practical interest in supporting international efforts to care for and resettle refugees.

International agencies shelter and feed refugee populations and simultaneously seek "durable solutions" for them: temporary safe haven and return home when possible, local integration in countries of first asylum, or permanent resettlement when safe and voluntary return is not possible.

The key to securing humane treatment for the maximum number of refugees often lies in demonstrating that the burden will be shared among the international community.

Influencing others

In the 1970s, the US's acceptance of Indochinese refugees provided such a demonstration and helped save the lives of thousands of boat people. Without American leadership - which brought the eventual resettlement of more than 1.2 million Indochinese in the US - Australia and New Zealand might not have accepted boat people for resettlement, and Malaysia and the Philippines might not have established camps that provided temporary safe haven.

Today, the Clinton administration's cuts diminish the leadership the US could be exerting on refugee issues.

The administration proposes to accept only 7,000 refugees from all of Africa next year. A higher US admissions ceiling would surely help persuade European countries to accept some of the thousands of Bosnians who have no prospect of returning home. Germany, which has provided temporary haven to more Bosnians than the rest of Europe combined, has in recent weeks begun to return some against their will.

By cutting refugee admissions, the Clinton administration is ignoring last year's congressional votes explicitly opposing reduced refugee admissions. It is also ignoring bipartisan appeals from leaders such as Sen. Spencer Abraham (R) of Michigan, Rep. Donald Payne (D) of New Jersey, and Rep. Christopher Smith (R) of New Jersey. Senator Abraham, the new chairman of the Senate's immigration subcommittee, will take up the issue in the coming weeks when the administration consults Congress before finalizing the 1998 admissions number.

Not all issues of global leadership revolve around war, trade, or high finance. President Clinton should exercise greater leadership on refugee issues. In so doing, he will express our nation's humanitarian values and serve our interest in a more stable world.

* Philip Peters is a senior fellow at the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution in Arlington, Va.

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