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Soviet Jews on Hunger Strike in Rome to Demand Entry to U.S. As Refugees

A dozen Soviet Jews were camped outside the U.S. Embassy here Monday, on the fifth day of a hunger strike to protest the refusal of American immigration authorities to allow them to enter the United States as refugees.

The hunger strikers, mostly young people, are spread out on the sidewalk on the fashionable Via Veneto, across the street from the U.S. Embassy.

“They were originally planning a seven-day strike, but now they say they will continue until they get visas,” said a staff member of the Rome office of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which provides temporary housing and other services for the immigrants.

The hunger strikers, who are refusing all food and subsisting only on water, are among more than 400 Soviet Jews whose applications for U.S. refugee status have been rejected twice by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service: once initially and again upon appeal.

They have been joined in their protest by as many as 100 sympathizers carrying banners with slogans such as “Stop Discrimination.”

Tens of thousands of Soviet Jews allowed to leave the Soviet Union under the liberalized policies of Mikhail Gorbachev have been flocking to Rome, where they stay in temporary quarters awaiting U.S. entry visas.

But as their numbers increase — 50,000 Jews may leave the Soviet Union this year, compared to 1,000 three years ago — the United States has tightened its criteria for issuing visas.

FUNDS CUT OFF FOR SOME

In order to qualify for refugee status, immigrants must prove they had a “well-founded fear of persecution” in their country of origin. Until last September, all Soviet Jews were presumed to fall into that category.

Now, each visa request “is considered individually. The ones that don’t meet refugee status requirements don’t get refugee visas,” a U.S. Embassy official here explained.

JDC, which aids the immigrants while they wait for visas, has provided a daily stipend of $6 to each Soviet Jew in Italy.

But under a new policy adopted this summer, it has cut off funds to immigrants who have been refused visas more than once and have been judged by HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, not to be bona fide refugees.

The Jewish assistance agencies are making a concerted effort to persuade the rejected visa applicants to go to Israel.

But they have had little success among the disgruntled Soviets, who have been staging small demonstrations outside the U.S. Embassy for weeks.

The hunger strike is not directed against JDC policy, but only at obtaining visas, according to JDC staff members.

A medical doctor engaged by the agency has been visiting the hunger strikers daily to monitor their condition.

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