San Francisco. -- In honor of the United Nations' 50th birthday San Francisco is flying U.N. flags showing two hands joined at an angle shielding the lone figure of a refugee. A more accurate symbol would show the U.N. hands slowly descending upon the figure to squeeze it into a wad and toss it back where it came from.
For at least 40,000 Vietnamese boat people now in U.N.-supervised camps and detention centers throughout Southeast Asia, the flag of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees now stands for gagging, tranquilizing and tear-gassing them into submission for a one-way trip back home. And the boat people are merely prototypes for how the world body views some 23 million refugees, not to mention 50 million internally displaced refugees.
What shall we do with these global outcasts?
Once, during the Cold War, many refugees who risked their lives to reach American shores reassured those at the end of the exodus trail that our way of life represented freedom, paradise. Back then Americans readily opened their arms to these poor souls to validate the myth, and to score political points in their constant vigilance against communism.
But that old us-versus-them era is long gone, and America -- resigned to the role of global village chief -- claims to suffer from compassion fatigue. Overnight, refugees and illegal immigrants and migrant workers and even the domestic homeless have melted into an indistinguishable blur. Recoiling from our earlier idealism, Americans tell ourselves homelessness is now an inherent part of the New Disorderly World and something out of our control.
Meanwhile, the delicate task of who gets resettled or rejected, who lives and who dies, we turn over to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which in 1989 developed a screening process -- dubbed a Comprehensive Plan of Action. From the start, the goal was not about fairness but about expediting the forced repatriation of stubborn boat people.
In theory, of course, the U.N. still defines a refugee as someone with a well grounded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinions.
In practice, the U.N. commission has routinely screened out incarcerated Buddhist monks, Montagnards trained by the CIA to fight alongside GIs during the war, and ex-South Vietnamese soldiers who still bear the scars and wounds of the persecution. U.N. officials will tell you that any movement toward resettlement countries is movement in "the wrong direction."
Somewhere in its effort to screen-them-quick-and-send-them-packing, the U.N. has betrayed its own mandate -- to protect and feed the world's outcasts. Once the shepherd who tended to his flock, today the U.N. is the herder -- a hired hand handsomely paid to deliver the herd to the slaughterhouse as early as he can.
Screening officials -- many with interpreters who could barely understand Vietnamese -- are known to demand bribes or sexual favors in return for political-refugee status and a chance at resettlement. Other asylum seekers are screened out without ever having a chance to tell their stories.
To discourage refugees from staying and to encourage "voluntary repatriation," the U.N. refugee commission has recently barred social-service agencies from its camps -- eliminating psychological counseling for unaccompanied minors, basic education, recreation activities and any other semblance of community life behind the barbed wire. Worse, it has looked the other way as Hong Kong authorities release Vietnamese criminal elements -- called "bear heads" -- back into the camps to intimidate anyone who dares to resist forced repatriation.
"The UNHCR is worse than the communists," complains one asylum seeker in Palawan, the Philippines, in an interview with Granta writer Philip Gourevich. "At least the communists didn't destroy the family." The seeker had been screened out while his parents and sister had been screened in and have since resettled in the United States.
In San Francisco, the celebration of the U.N.'s 50th anniversary promises to be an elegant gala. To the global outcasts of the world the music sounds a sour note. The business of protecting refugees has turned into the business of protecting the West from the asylum seekers themselves. Perhaps the U.N. should fly a flag depicting a shield and club -- a more accurate icon of a weary free world.
Andrew Lam, a Vietnam-born writer, wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.