World opens doors more slowly to millions of refugees

Many of the world's more than 9 million refugees are finding a less warm reception than in years past in the countries where they have sought asylum.

* Though most consider themselves to fit the United Nations definition of political refugees as those fleeing because of a ''well-founded fear of persecution'' in their homelands, an increasing number have been turned back by neighboring nations where they seek asylum. Zambia, for instance, has on several occasions forced the return of refugees from Mozambique, Angola, and Zimbabwe. Both Kenya and Tanzania have done the same with each other's dissidents. Often those returning receive stiff prison sentences.

* While the flow of Vietnamese boat people is down to a slim but steady 2,000 a month, attacks on against them by pirates continue in the Gulf of Thailand. In both Thailand and Hong Kong, refugee camp conditions are often purposely kept austere to discourage others from seeking asylum.

* Since the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees was ratified in 1951, more and more nations have signed on, technically recognizing refugees' right to protection. But many are increasingly strict in their own definition of who is and is not eligible for asylum.

This less receptive refugee environment and the general deterioration of conditions have been pointed up in recent months in reports by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the US Committee for Refugees, a nonprofit, educational agency, in its 1984 World Refugee Survey. Yet experts in the field note there has been little public outcry.

''There seems to be a greater tolerance for these kinds of things,'' notes Roger Winter, director of the US Committee for Refugees. ''On balance the treatment of refugees seems to be a lower priority than four or five years ago, and in many cases governments are choosing not to get involved. . . . Western countries are not taking as strong a stand'' as in the recent past.

In Mr. Winter's view the United States is not immune from criticism for its decisions to turn back boatloads of Haitians at sea and to return hundreds of fleeing Salvadoreans to El Salvador. While it accepts applications for political asylum from Salvadoreans and has granted refuge to more than 100 of them, the US takes the view that these asylum-seekers are largely economic migrants rather than political refugees.

The US has also sharply cut back the number of refugees, mostly Indochinese, it will accept for resettlement here. Although Secretary of State George P. Shultz announced several weeks ago that some 10,000 Asian-American children and political prisoners in Vietnam will be taken in by the US over the next few years, a State Department official concedes the numbers will fit within refugee quotas set by the administration each fall.

Although in 1980 the US resettled as many as 200,000 refugees a year, the ceiling for fiscal 1985 was recently set at 70,000. The lower figure is due in part to fewer seeking asylum but may also have roots in a less receptive climate of public opinion. One congressional expert notes there was little if any pressure on Capitol Hill this fall to raise the lower ceiling set by the White House.

''People in general are a bit more tired of refugees. They wish that somehow this would all go away,'' says Winter. He points to a survey taken earlier this year for his agency which suggests that many people tend to lump refugees, immigrants, and illegal aliens in the same category. Some 91 percent of those polled admitted they had no opinion or knew nothing about US admission of refugees. Fifty percent said they believed Mexico was the largest source of US refugees.

Winter pins much of the blame for what he sees as a deteriorating global climate for refugees on such public confusion. He notes that the poll taken for his agency, by asking questions in different ways, also showed that Americans are ''almost instinctively generous.'' And he cites a number of positive trends under way in the US and elsewhere which he hopes will eventually stop the current backslide and continue the steady improvement that had, until recently, been under way for the last three decades:

* Some 200,000 refugees over the last two years have voluntarily returned to their homelands. More than half were from Chad.

* Where substantial relief money supports it, there appears to be a growing trend toward resettlement of refugees in neighboring countries. Over the last five years, Pakistan has taken in some 2.9 million Afghan refugees. Somalia and Sudan, between them, have taken in more than 1 million refugees, largely from Ethiopia. A US State Department official stresses that the US has taken the lead in this regional resettlement effort over the last few years and notes that two-thirds, rather than the previous one-third, of US refugee aid now goes for such help.

* The United States, which played a key role in developing world refugee policy, remains by far the largest financial supporter of relief and assistance programs - although its per capita contribution is lower than those of the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, and Canada. Since 1975 this country has resettled more than 700,000 Indochinese within its boundaries.

The US recently publicly criticized Uganda for violations of human rights which have contributed to an outpouring of refugees from that country. But Winter suggests that the US could and should speak up more often and more forcefully when refugees are mistreated.

Countries have the right to and, indeed, must control immigration, Winter says. But he asserts that the need for international protection of refugees, and for sharing of that burden, requires more imaginative policy choices.

''You can control immigration and still be generous,'' he says. ''The refugee-protection system needs bolstering.''

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