HELPING THE WORLD'S HOMELESS; Sinking new roots in far-off lands
* When they lived in Vientiane, Laos, civil servant Thamma Phiaked and his family did not have enough food. Nor was he allowed to work after the Communist takeover. Now he lives in San Diego and feels that his children at least have a chance for a new future.
* Hmong refugee Vang Doa is looking forward to a life as a farmer in his newly adopted country -- French Guiana. Already he and his family have planted enough of their own rice, bananas, and vegetables for survival. Now he hopes to plant enough for sale on the export market.
* It took Vietnamese Tran Dinh Thuc more than two years to obtain permission for his 7-year-old daughter to leave Saigon. She arrived to join him in Paris last summer on a regular Air France flight, but could speak no French. Now she goes to a local school and is picking up new words every day.m
In a steady stream, many of the world's homeless today are crisscrossing the oceans to put down new roots in alien, often Western, lands.
despite the enormous difficulties of integrating into totally different cultures, resettlement for the most part is working. That is the overriding feeling among relief officials, especially those concerned with the mass resettlement of Indo-Chinese.
Resettlement in distant countries is not the solution that these officials prefer. They would rather see the uprooted wanderers repatriated back to their original homes and villages. Failing that, they would like to see such refugees find new homes in neighboring nations with similar cultures and customs.
But these more ideal solutions are frequently impossible to achieve. Hence they try to make the best of resettling the homeless in more remote, third countries -- a process that makes heavy demands on both refugees and their helpers.
"It is extremely important to prepare a community for the refugee and the refugee for the community; for refugees to successfully adapt to their new environment, they must be made welcome," says Carol Hecklinger, assistant coordinator for domestic programs of the Office of the US Coordinator for Refugee Affairs.
"There is no one single resettlement model," she points out. "Practically every third-asylum country ranging from Sweden to China has adopted a different approach to satisfy its own needs. But the overall end product is self-sufficiency for the refugee."
Basically, there are two types of resettlement procedures. Some countries prefer to keep refugees in special centers, gradually easing them into new life styles. Others try to make refugees self-sufficient as rapidly as possible.
France and Switzerland, for example, have created special "adaptation" hotels to help new arrivals overcome culture shock. Help is offered through language courses, job counseling, work-training programs, and housing and education sessions.
Only then, perhaps months later, do they resettle in different parts of the country. And even then, volunteer groups continue to monitor their needs, particularly in Switzerland.
In the United States, the tendency is to encourage refugees to mesh quickly with the local community and become self-sufficient. Volunteer agencies, which have carried the main load of resettling refugees since World War I, try to smooth the process along.
But, warns an International Rescue Committee official in California, "for a refugee to have a house and a job does not mean he has licked the problems of integration. It's not just a matter of teaching Laotian refugees to speak English or how to shop in a supermarket. These are uprooted people who have gone through severe traumatic experiences from war, persecution, and hunger."
What still remains obscure in many cases is the long-term effect of such refugee resettlement. "Many people tend to think that refugees are immigrants and treat them accordingly," says Wells Klein, executive director of the New York-based US Committee for Refugees. "But they are not immigrants. Refugees have been forced to leave their homelands and are here because they have no choice."
These problems underscore a major and controversial dilemma facing relief organizations today: If resettlement is to be regarded as a permanent solution, should refugees be encouraed to retain their culture or should they be absorbed as quickly as possible into Western society?
Relief agencies remain divided.
"One has got to be realistic," notes a senior Australian relief representative. "One is not doing the refugees any good by being sentimental. New arrivals should be totally immersed into the culture of their adopted country. They have got to be taught the language, new customs, and basically made to understand that it is no good dreaming about a homeland to which they can never return. I know it's burial, but it is the only way."
Others feel that refugees with strong cultural identities are better suited to adjust to new environments. "A lot of attention needs to be paid to the cultural and economic identity of the refugee," says Gilbert Jaeger, a spokesman at the UNHCR-sponsored resettlement workshop in Geneva. "It is not th relinquishing of this cultural identity but the keeping of it that will help him adapt more easily."
Teachers also have found that refugees learn new languages more easily if they know their own well. US schools now teach newly arrived Indo-chinese refugee children first in their own language and then in English. But numerous young Cubans can only speak "Spinglish" -- a mixture of Spanish and English -- because they have never mastered either tongue properly.
Cultural alienation can provoke serious family schisms. Parents are frustrated because they have been unable to adapt quickly; the young are fascinated by their new way of life. Without cultural encouragement, they can lose touch with homeland traditions and become ashamed of their parents.
This poses a second dilemma: Should relief organizations disperse refugees or help them settle in large groups?
A form of suburban ghettoization has already occurred with Cubans in Florida and the Indo-Chinese in California. Despite attempts by the French government to scatter refugees among provincial towns, Paris acts as a powerful magnet to newcomers. Many of them have clustered in different parts of the city.
This type of resettlement, say relief officials, has its attributes and drawbacks. On the one hand, it permits family-oriented groups like the Indo-Chinese to maintain close ties. Isolated families are often depressed and tend to end up migrating a second time to regions with more refugees.
On the other hand, they can prevent integration into the local community. The Siwss are utilizing their experience with the resettling of Tibetan refugees to help deal with the Indo-Chinese. "Each group is small enough to become part of a local community," explains one relief official. "But we ensure that they remain in close contract with each other so as not to feel lost."
Some European and US relief officials believe that projects such as the Hmong settlements in French Guiana should be expanded, particularly for refugees not suited to urbanized Western living. Relief agencies also are discussing possibilities for mass resettlement in Surinam and Guyana.
Some observers stress that eventual repatriation should never be ruled out. Numerous resettled South Americans have been able to return to their homelands. Tibetan refugees in India and Europe are contemplating a journey home -- if Chinese proposals for greater autonomy for the region prove genuine.
Too, many third-asylum countries are finding it difficult to absorb refugees -- even while US relief officials warn that the West may have to accommodate hundreds of thousands of additional Indo-Chinese unless a political solution or local resettlement in Southeast Asia can be worked out.
Countries such as Sweden and Denmark are considered close to saturation. And Britain, the Netherlands, and West Germany are finding that refugee influxes -- combined with immigrants from southern Europe, former colonies, and the developing nations -- have severely tested local tolerance levels, Relief officials fear racial backlashes.
Refugee problems cannot be solved with neatly packaged, instant solutions. Refugees will continue to exist as long as there are war, persecution, injustice , and deplorable economic and social conditions.
While much can be done to alleviate crisis already in existence, more needs to be done to prevent them in the first place. In particular, some observers call for greater efforts to develop a more concerted and effective policy toward solving global problems. They believe it is up to governments and international organizations -- such as the United Nations, the European Parliament, the Organization of American States, the Organization of African unity -- to play more active roles in ending political conflicts.
They see the refugee-creating crisis in Indo-China, Afghanistan, and the Horn of Africa, for instance, as security problems dangerously destabilizing their respective regions and seriously threatening world peace.
Such analysts suggest the following steps to help relieve global refugee crises:
* Governments, international groups, and public opinion should strongly discourage large-scale displacements of people for political, social, racial, or religious purposes.
* Permanent resettlement should not be accepted as the inevitable outcome of a refugee crisis. Indeed resettlement can tend to reduce the pressure on governments to seek political solutions -- as in Southeast Asia. Repatriation should remain a top priority if humanely possible.
* If permanent resettlement becomes necessary, no one nation should shoulder the entire burden. Refugees are an international responsibility to be shared equitably.
* Africa's intricate political, tribal, ethnic, and religious differences, often the result of past colonial boundary decisions, present no easy solutions. But, ideally, Africans should work these problems out on their own -- without interference from East or West.
But because many exoduses are created by a combination of conflict and drought, the West could considerably ease many difficulties by increasing development assistance. The long-term investment it would take to provide stability is negligible compared to what it costs to furnish emergency relief.
* The international community, whether governments, intellectuals, scientists , or ordinary citizens, should persist in its criticism of human rights infringements. One noteworthy example: the condemnation of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at both the United Nations and the Madrid conference currently reviewing the Helsinki accords. Likewise, the international community should loudly condemn repressive practices in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
The human need is great -- and currently growing. Mighty efforts already are being made to alleviate distress. Where repatriation and local resettlement are impossible, more distant resettlement is being made to work in many cases.
But more can yet be done to attack the causes of strife, counter natural disasters, and build new lives and homes for the dispossessed.
Five-year Ratio of resettlement refugees County totals to population Canada 74,0001:324 Australia 44,0001:332 US 595,2001:374 France 68,7001:780 Switzerland 5,3001:1,189 Sweden 6,1001:1,361 Norway 2,3001:1,783 Austria 3,7001:2,027 West Germany 28,3001:2,159$6Britain 23,800 1:2,345 Source: US Committee for Refugees