`Compassion Fatigue'

REFUGEES flow northward from Central America and Haiti. They huddle on the borders of Thailand and radiate by sea out from Vietnam. They flee famine and civil war in east Africa, ethnic strife in Sri Lanka, and repression in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Over 14 million people, according to a survey by the US Committee on Refugees, have crossed national borders seeking safety and a better life. One result, sadly, has been what relief workers call ``compassion fatigue.'' The countries of destination for many refugees, including the United States and Western Europe, are making it harder to walk through their doors. Whether at the Texas border or in Hong Kong Harbor, people hoping for refuge are being told to return home.

Why? Often because the sheer numbers are overwhelming. Refugees strain social services; their cultures, religions, and languages sometimes conflict with those in the host country; they often compete with natives for jobs. But these concerns don't justify a turn away from the fundamental commitment to help the desperate and needy - and they certainly don't justify xenophobic calls to slam the door on migrants.

The tool used by immigration officials to control the flow across borders is a legal determination of refugee status. By internationally established definition, refugees are people with a ``well-founded fear of being persecuted'' in their country of origin. This motivation for fleeing, however, is frequently mixed with a desire to escape economic hopelessness, as in Nicaragua, say, or Vietnam. And while many seeking asylum can't cite specific persecutions, they may have ample cause to fear a climate of violence and warfare in their homelands. The formal definition of ``refugee,'' therefore, should not be applied too narrowly.

Sorting out these motivations would strain a Solomon. Few individuals requesting asylum will have had the opportunity, or the know-how, to acquire documents to back up their claims. Most will have only their stories of woe. Many immigration officials - whether in the American Southwest or with the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations - will be tempted to choose the easy way out. Under current conditions, that means ordering an about-face.

But that should not be allowed to happen. Humane treatment and a hearing before fair-minded examiners are the least the world's wandering millions deserve. Better training of immigration examiners is an obvious step. Renewed efforts to address the political and economic turmoil in home countries is another, more fundamental one.

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights assigns to each individual the ``right to seek and enjoy ... asylum from persecution,'' as well as the ``right to leave any country, including his own.'' The world's current press of refugees, far from obscuring those principles, makes them doubly important.

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