On Haitian and Soviet refugees

The Reagan administration seems doggedly determined to be rid of its Haitian refugees by means of forced repatriation. This is to be accomplished by ignoring or refusing to acknowledge that these people have legitimate reason to fear returning home. The fact is the Duvalier regime interprets their flight alone as evidence of disloyalty.

Sad to say, Washington's callousness toward these homeless is not unique in recent American history. At the close of World War II the United States actively participated in a little-known but thoroughly nightmarish drama by returning 2 million unwilling Soviet nationals to their homeland. These former POWs and displaced persons rightly feared they would be labeled traitors back home whether they willingly had helped the Germans or not. The US refused to consider the possibility that the majority might be jailed or executed. Yet that is what happened. Soviet refugees were a nuisance and a bother, just as Haitians are today; and what happened to Soviet citizens or Haitians once home was not and appears not to be America's concern.

Under the terms of an agreement signed at Yalta the US committed itself to returning all Soviet nationals in the West by force if necessary. The involuntary nature of the accord and the desperation of those reluctant to go home rarely came to the public's attention. Today, unlike 1945, Washington is not bound to send Haitians home. But as in 1945 US refugee officials do downplay the desperation and fear that possess their charges at the thought of returning home.

If the plight of Haitian refugees is not unique in recent US history, neither is a Watergate-like coverup. US officials came to be so appalled by the violence and suicidal despair of those being sent back to Russia that, incredibly, they came to deny that force was ever used. For example, in 1949 Gen. Lucius Clay was pleased to note that ''the United States has consistently refused . . . to accept the Russian thesis that citizens of the Soviet Union should be forced to return.'' Finally, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower admitted the use of force but claimed it was quickly halted. Actually, 90 percent of Soviet nationals in the West went home by the end of 1945 before any reservation was placed on the use of force.

Today the Immigration and Naturalization Service is not denying that Haitians will have to be deported against their will, but it does seem to obscure the issue of Soviet-like retaliation in store for returners by repeated references to ''economic refugees,'' a category ineligible for permanent resident status. Since Haiti is such a desperately poor country, people fleeing for political reasons would likely be poor as well. Differentiations between economic and political refugees thus tend to become academic and unreal.

At Fort Dix, N.J., in 1945, Soviet nationals, afraid to go home, rioted in their army barracks-turned-prison. Their violence was not so much directed against their GI guards as against themselves. Three of the 154 men succeeded in hanging themselves; others bared their chests and pleaded with American soldiers to shoot them to save them from a Soviet homecoming. Could the scene be repeated in 1982 with Haitians substituting for Soviet nationals?

Admittedly, no historical analogy is foolproof, but before we return Haitians to a Caribbean dictator we should weigh carefully the possibility that we may repeat some combination of mistakes made at Yalta, at Watergate, and at Fort Dix.

It could be years before we ever discover the fate of Haitians sent home for being poor instead of being fully documented political refugees. After all, most Americans still do not know of US responsibility for sending Soviet citizens home against their will or that millions, once home, faced death or labor camps for nothing.

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