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Jewish World Review June 18, 2001 / 28 Sivan, 5761

Jules Witcover

Jules Witcover
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World Refugee Day -- ON Wednesday, the United Nations will sponsor World Refugee Day, marking the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Refugee Convention, which defined the right to flee one's native country out of a "well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality (or) membership in a particular social group of political opinion."

It is a right that the United States has recognized since the end of World War II, after having scandalously turned away Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany before and during that war, while professing not to know about the Holocaust that claimed an estimated 6 million lives.

The Statue of Liberty's famous invitation to the world's persecuted and homeless has been seized upon by other millions, not all of whom have gained entry to this country. The doors were opened to many refugees after that war, as well as to limited numbers of others in special circumstances, most notably after the failed Hungarian Revolution against Soviet oppression in 1956.

But other factors beyond normal immigration quotas, such as fears of terrorism against American lives and property, have led to much more restrictive policies toward those seeking asylum on grounds of racial, ethnic, religious or political persecution.

Five years ago, Congress changed immigration law to provide for "expedited removal" of asylum applicants by Immigration and Naturalization Service officers at airports and border crossings if a refugee shows up and seeks entry without certain required "valid documents." Refugees by the very nature of their flight often have no such papers, their departure having been entirely voluntary, if you can call threats to their lives as leaving voluntarily.

INS inspectors rather than immigration judges are now able to make life-and-death decisions on the spot, and unless the refugee can make a convincing case verbally for asylum, he or she can be promptly placed back on the arriving plane, boat or other vehicle. Those not shipped out at once often must endure long detention under conditions, critics say, that amount to imprisonment.

Sponsoring human rights groups hope that World Refugee Day will focus public and congressional attention on the problem and bring swift relief. A Refugee Protection Act, sponsored in the last Congress by Republican Sen. Sam Brownback and Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy to provide safeguards against unfair "expedited removal," was not approved. It is about to be reintroduced, with additional sponsors, in the House and Senate.

In the past, however, Congress and the American public have been largely insensitive to refugees, unless they result from an emotionally charged event such as Hungarians in the streets of Budapest throwing rocks at Soviet tanks in the heat of the Cold War.

Then, a Pentagon airlift brought thousands of Hungarians here for resettlement, salving American consciences for not responding to the Hungarian freedom fighters' desperate plea for military help. This and other countries engaged in a bidding contest for the revolt's healthiest and best-educated refugees, but left many of the sick and elderly languishing in makeshift camps in Austria and Italy.

Other refugees, whether boat people from Vietnam or Cuba or escapees from the Balkan and Middle East wars, have more often than not met hostility from Americans fearful of cultural contamination or competition for jobs.

Since 1992, according to the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, the number of refugees admitted to the United States under resettlement programs has fallen by 42 percent. This is at a time, according to the U.S. Committee on Refugees, when the world refugee population is more than 14.5 million, of which 6 million are from the Middle East, 3.3 million from Africa and 1.15 million from Yugoslavia and other European countries.

After the Hungarian refugee exodus, the UN with much international fanfare launched a world refugee year whose optimistic goal was to close all refugee camps and resettle their inhabitants. It proved to be a pipe dream, as more warfare and oppression continued to feed the refugee stream.

World Refugee Day will be lucky to make Americans a bit more aware of the barriers constructed against legitimate seekers of asylum, and build more support for the congressional proposal to refurbish America's tarnished reputation as a haven.

Comment on JWR contributor Jules Witcover's column by clicking here.

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