When strangers appear

BY now everyone has heard of Tamils, a persecuted ethnic minority in strife-torn Sri Lanka. They progressed from the inside to the front pages of the newspapers over the past week when a couple of lifeboats full of them (155 Tamils in all) appeared, like foundlings on someone's front step, off the coast of Newfoundland. Theirs was quite an odyssey: from Sri Lanka to India in fishing boats; from India into Eastern Europe via Aeroflot, the Soviet airline; into West Germany via East Berlin; and finally to Canada by freighter.

The seafarers' original story was that they had come by freighter from India. The German connection was not confessed to until the Canadian government announced the refugees would be granted permission to remain in Canada for at least a year. With a touching plea for forgiveness ``not only from the Almighty, but from the Canadian people,'' the refugees' spokesman explained that they had been less than fully truthful earlier because of their concern that they would be sent back to West Germany. None of them had permission to settle permanently in Europe; they were afraid of being placed in detention camps if they were returned to Germany.

But Prime Minister Brian Mulroney has declared, ``We are not in the business of turning away refugees,'' and so the Tamils will be allowed to settle in Canada -- assuming checks with the German police turn up no serious criminal records among them.

That is a correct compassionate decision on Canada's part.

This is, alas, the season for traveling -- and not just by those who set out with marked road maps from the automobile club and coloring books for the kids.

To look across the world map is to be reminded of millions of displaced people pushed from their homelands by civil war, political repression, famine, and other ills, often all at the same time. What sort of world is this? we may well ask. There is the influx of Ethiopians into Somalia; the estimated 2 million Central American refugees; Indochinese fleeing their homelands, notably into Thailand; the 3 million Afghans in Pakistan, which has troubles of its own. Jean-Pierre Hock'e, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, took the West to task recently for ``compassion fatigue.''

Meanwhile, the countries where these weary travelers would seek a safe haven try to puzzle out the differences between economic and political refugees, and to decide how much those differences matter. They are torn in many cases between a desire to give a welcome to all comers, on one hand, and concern over just how that openness will affect their societies in the long term, on the other.

The plight of refugees puts a human face on the much-reported fact of global interdependence; an unresolved problem over there is likely to show up -- all too literally -- on doorsteps here, as the people of Newfoundland have discovered. Conversely, all members of the family of nations benefit when the situation in any one of them stabilizes, when democracy takes root and economic opportunities flower to the point where people have confidence in the future of their homeland.

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