What happens to Salvadoran refugees?

If more than 20 million Americans fled their homes in fear of their lives, some notice might be taken. But a virtual blackout seems to surround the movements of 10 percent of the people of El Salvador, driven from their homes by a repressive military regime which seems to equate local leadership with enmity to the status quo.

No one has precise figures, but the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has recently estimated as many as 200,000 have fled to other Latin American countries, including 70,000 to Mexico. Estimates for those in the United States -- some recent, some escaping from earlier waves of terror -- run from 60,000 to 150,000. When one adds 150,000 made homeless in El Salvador, now either in camps run by the Roman Catholic Church or wandering, one can reach a figure of 500,000, more than 10 percent of a country with a total population of 4,700,000.

While some of thse figures have been reported in the press, there have been few stories of the hundreds of Salvadorans trying to get across the US border and claim political asylum. Reporters, lawyers, and human rights advocates, trying to reach these desperate people, report a series of mysterious disappearances. The Salvadorans are picked up by immigration authorities, asked to sign a voluntary departure form which they do not understand, and are hustled out of the country before anyone hears their plea.

In an effort to get more precise information on the disappearing Salvadorans, a group of interested organizations, including the American Friends Service Committee, is filing a Freedom of Information suit asking INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) and the Department of Justice to provide information on all refugees returned to El Salvador between March 1 and Aug. 1, 1981, and their Salvadoran addresses.

''M and L visited two Salvadoran refugees in the lock-up,'' a volunteer in Tucson reported recently. ''Rosa and Marta were both frightened so they signed G-28s (a form requiring that a legal representative be notified before a refugee can be deported). They also signed retractions of the voluntary departure forms they had been asked to sign on arrival. When the INS office opened the next morning, L was there waiting to file the forms, but she was told the women had already been taken away. She spent the day on the phone trying to locate them. The next day, Rosa's sister in LA called to say that they were back in El Salvador, and had survived arrival.''

Salvadoran refugees fear death on their return. Christmas 1980, there was a report of the killing of several returning refugees at the Comalpa airport. This has never been verified, but reports of killings on arrival, or a few days later , continue to circulate. Since many flee when they hear they are marked on a death list (as was an elementary school principal who fled at Christmas in 1980 and has been speaking on the situation throughout the US), the fear of reprisal on return is not surprising. The Legal Office of the Bishop of San Salvador recently released figures showing 9,250 civilians murdered between January and June.

The immigration workers and jailers who handle the Salvadoran refugees are not unaware of their fears. ''How could I be with these people every day and not know?'' one woman asked. And another remarked bitterly that the US would grant asylum to ''any Cuban jailbird or Russian ballerina'' but he had yet to see a Salvadoran request for asylum approved.

There is a Catch-22 to all such asylum hearings. What is needed is an affidavit from other Salvadorans attesting to torture or death threats to the person involved, or in like situations. But since so many of the Salvadorans are here illegally, or have left family behind, such affidavits are hard to come by. The speed with which new arrivals are whisked back to El Salvador makes the situation more complex.

Many believe there is administration pressure to deal swiftly with the Salvadoran refugees, and think it stems from a policy dilemma for the Reagan administration. Under the UN Protocols of 1980, which the US signed, any refugee who fears persecution is eligible for asylum. But for the US to acknowledge that Salvadorans do face persecution would undermine the argument for continued economic and military aid for the present junta.

The Salvadorans coming over the border at present are only a relative handful , the tip of an iceberg. But if the American people were to hear their stories, they might begin to inquire about the conditions in El Salvador which are creating this movement of peoples. This is the real reason for the information blackout, and it is why the Rosas and Martas and Joses and Jaimes keep disappearing from the jails and detention centers before help can reach them.

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