US Urged to End Bias in Policy Toward Refugees

Clinton, Congress to decide this month how many refugees will enter US in 1995

TRONG is one of America's chosen few among the world's flood of refugees.

After eight years in a Vietnamese re-education prison, six years in a rural labor camp, and one year in a Hong Kong detention center, the wiry, former US Army employee was granted refugee status by United States officials and sent to Boston in 1991.

Trong, who asked that his last name not be used because his wife and three children are still in Vietnam, is fortunate.

He meets both the United Nations definition of a refugee - someone fleeing his or her country due to a well-founded fear of persecution - and what critics call the US definition - being persecuted in the right country, by the right government, at the right time.

Refugee aid groups say the resettlement of most cold-war-related refugees has created a golden opportunity for the US to redirect outmoded policies that reject thousands of refugees each year for political reasons.

But observers say cuts in the $756 million program are likely, due to congressional concerns about waste and fraud in the program, cutting the US deficit, and solving domestic problems.

This month, Congress and the Clinton administration will decide how many and what kind of refugees will enter the US in 1995.

Refugee-aid groups expect refugee admissions to be cut by roughly 10,000, the third annual decrease in a row, despite the growth of the world's refugee population from 8 million in the late 1970s to 23 million today.

``If the refugee program really has a humanitarian purpose, then it needs to be reexamined,'' says Genet Bekele, an Ethiopian refugee who fled her country's pro-Soviet dictator in 1980. ``There are a lot of countries that abuse human rights, but if they're not on the American government's list, it's not abuse.''

Congress first differentiated between immigrants, who voluntarily leave their countries, and refugees, after World War II. Laws giving refugee status to specific groups, such as Cubans, Vietnamese, and Hungarians, were periodically passed. The US received on average 50,000 refugees a year until the late 1970s when the numbers increased.

In 1980, Congress began setting annual limits on how many refugees could come to the US from different regions of the world. US refugee acceptances dropped from from 207,000 in 1980 to roughly 70,000 through the mid-1980s. They rose again in the late 1980s, and 119,482 refugees were admitted in 1993.

Washington-based Immigration and Refugee Services of America and several other aid groups argue that current US refugee policies favor some groups.

They point out that in 1993, more than 85 percent of refugee applications from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Laos, the former Soviet Union, Vietnam, and Cuba were accepted. Less than 35 percent of applications from Burma, Romania, and Haiti (known for human rights abuses) were accepted.

The US programs also fail to meet the needs or reflect the world's burgeoning refugee population, they say. While more than half of the world's refugees are from Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, the US has taken only 8 percent of its refugees from those regions since 1980.

Critics, including Sen. Alan Simpson (R) Wyoming, say Congress's passage of the Lautenberg amendment in 1989 shows that domestic political groups also affect US refugee policy.

The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (R) of New Jersey, made it easier for Jews, Evangelical Christians, and other religious groups in the former Soviet Union and Vietnam to receive US refugee status.

Observers say the amendment, which will expire in 1996, allowed thousands of Soviet Jews and members of other religious groups to receive refugee status they might not have received under the regular US standard.

``I don't think anyone will deny that domestic political considerations have a strong effect on [US] refugee policy,'' says a State Department official who asked not to be named.

But supporters of the Lautenberg amendment say it is being unfairly targeted. ``We've had disparate laws for different countries in the past,'' says Steven Schlein, Lautenberg's press secretary. There is still ``a right-wing [anti-Semitic] movement led by [Vladimir] Zhirinovsky in Russia.''

Refugee experts also say the US needs to reform its political- asylum system, which allows illegal aliens already here to request refugee status. Asylum requests have jumped from 24,295 in 1984 to 103,964 in 1992.

Critics say some illegal immigrants apply for asylum only because they know it will take up to five years for the overloaded system to decide their cases.

Clinton administration and Republican reform proposals are stalled in Congress and observers say reforming US refugee and asylum policies won't be easy.

``The ideal would be you'd have a perfect method for weighing [one against the other] fear, threat to life, torture, and incarceration,'' says Lawrence Fuchs, vice chairman of the Congress-appointed US Commission on Immigration Reform. ``But you're never really going to have a perfect system.''

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