How genuine are refugee claims of persecution?

Though temporarily set back by the conviction in May of 11 activists, the sanctuary movement is regaining momentum: Sanctuary activity has spread to some West European countries in recent months, while refugees continue to be provided with transportation and shelter in the United States.

And a bill to suspend deportation of Salvadorean refugees illegally in the US has considerable support in the House and Senate.

In arguing against the legislation, the Reagan administration has cited a controversial study indicating that most Salvadorean refugees come to the US for economic, not political reasons. Officials say a report by the Intergovernmental Committee for Migration (ICM) shatters the sanctuary movement's claim to legitimacy.

The ICM has run a ``humanitarian assistance'' program at the San Salvador airport since December 1984, explains Gretchen Bolton, ICM chief of mission in Washington, D.C. The project, initiated at the request of the Salvadorean government and funded with $500,000 in US State Department grants, offers temporary transportation, food, and lodging to deportees flown back from the US.

ICM staff members give the returnees form letters, to be mailed back to the organization, in which they can indicate whether they are doing well or having political problems. Out of 4,822 Salvadoreans who were met at the airport between December 1984 and December 1985, less than 1 percent reported being in personal danger, Ms. Bolton says.

She also says that in ICM interviews ``the large majority'' of the deportees said they had gone to the US for economic reasons.

Bolton pointed out that ICM's own literature warns that ``this is not a scientific study.'' Noting that ``you could make all sorts of different interpretations'' of the data, she said: ``We don't endorse other people's interpretations one way or the other.''

It would be inaccurate to conclude from ICM's work that ``there is absolutely no risk in returning to El Salvador,'' says Bolton, who nevertheless insisted that the survey did prove that ``most people say they left the country for economic reasons.''

The ICM report contains a message for the growing sanctuary movement, State Department spokesman Greg Lagana contends. ``The message is that they're wrong in their assumption that there are significant and widespread human rights problems in El Salvador,'' Mr. Lagana says.

Refugee and human rights groups accused the Reagan administration of bestowing undeserved validity upon ICM's findings for its own political purposes.

``The government has lied to the American people about El Salvador from Day 1,'' charged the Rev. Philip Wheaton, coordinator of the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Sanctuary Committee.

He referred to numerous human rights studies which have concluded that as many as 60,000 Salvadoreans, the great majority of them civilians, have been killed since heavy fighting broke out in 1980 between government forces and rebels of the Farabundo Mart'i National Liberation Front. The studies agree that most of those killed died at the hands of the armed forces or paramilitary ``death squads.''

A study by the American Civil Liberties Union found 112 possible victims of persecution from a list of 8,500 Salvadoreans deported from 1981 to 1983. The State Department questions the survey's accuracy, however.

There are between 500,000 and 1 million Salvadorean refugees in the US, according to various estimates. Some 38,000 have been deported since 1980, and less than 3 percent of Salvadorean political asylum requests have been granted, says Beatrice Edwards of the Central American Refugee Center in Washington, D.C. It is administration denial of most asylum requests that has led nearly 300 churches and about 20 synagogues to declare themselves ``sanctuaries'' for Salvadorean refugees, says Mr. Wheaton.

Since the sanctuary movement officially began in March 1982, Wheaton estimates, it has prevented the Immigration and Naturalization Service from apprehending between 1,000 and 1,400 refugees.

Another sign of the escalation of the government-sanctuary confrontation is the convocation of a ``Sanctuary Celebration Weekend'' in Washington, tomorrow through Monday. A rally is scheduled Sunday at the Lincoln Memorial.

The bill that would halt deportation of Salvadorean refugees until the situation in El Salvador stabilizes is strongly opposed by the Reagan administration. The measure, sponsored by US Rep. Joe Moakley (D) of Massachusetts and US Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona, has 175 cosigners in the House and 26 in the Senate.

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