Few problems are as morally trying, and politically complicated, as dealing with the world's torrent of people seeking better lives.
International agreements set standards for treating those fleeing persecution. But asylum policies, even among well-established democracies, can vary widely and be swayed by nativist political impulses.
National immigration policies are difficult balancing acts. Often, one line of thinking wants to guard the door as closely as possible to secure jobs and social stability for those already inside. Another wants an open door to fill jobs that go begging and help spur the economy.
The moral imperative to treat people humanely competes with the political need to appear tough, particularly on illegal immigrants and asylum seekers who may be fleeing poverty more than repression.
Governments wrestling with these challenges span the globe:
*Britain is in the midst of a debate over the treatment of people seeking political asylum. Their annual numbers have grown from a few thousand a little over a decade ago to 70,000 now - with an unprocessed backlog of well over 100,000. The government is implementing tougher rules, including less public support and more detention for refugees.
*Germany, with a newly growing economy and a declining native population, wants to open its doors to more high-tech workers from India. But traditional anti-immigrant passions are aroused, fanned by heavy flows of refugees in recent years.
*Australia has been tightening its policies on asylum seekers in the wake of thousands of seaborne migrants mostly from the Middle East via Indonesia.
*North America faces persistent waves of illegal immigrants and refugees from China and, of course, Latin America. The United States has strived to speed up its overburdened asylum system. Both the US and Canada are trying to crack down on vicious smuggling operations that pack migrants in life-threatening conditions in the holds of container ships.
People smuggling, in fact, thrives from the Mediterranean to the Pacific. It's one measure of how desperate those seeking a new life are.
This desperation should call forth compassion. People must be humanely cared for. But borders and nationality still have meaning. Countries should process asylum applications as efficiently as they can to minimize stays in the limbo of detention centers. Immigration laws should set clear standards for admittance, but allow for flexibility in individual cases.
These balances have probably never been more difficult than in today's post-cold-war world. And never more important.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society