THE OFFICE of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has for decades done the heroic and sorrowful work of caring for the millions--the tens of millions--of people around the world who continue to be forced to flee their homelands. It won its first Nobel Peace Prize for tending to the human debris of World War II in Europe, and it has just won its second for tending to the victims of the political violence that has since become endemic elsewhere. Upheaval seems a permanent fixture of contemporary international life. Desperate people are washed across national frontiers like so much soapy water. This is why it has become necessary to institutionalize a humanitarian response, in the High Commission, and to keep up its public standing, its authority to deal with sovereign governments and its morale by Nobel Prizes.

No single nation can say it has done everything it can to care adequately for the estimated 12 million to 14 million people classified as refugees today or to prevent the generation of refugees, past and future. As impolitic as it may be for the Nobel Committee to say so, however, the fact is that the Soviet Union has a special record. Its policies and its weapons have had a very large part in generating the principal current refugee flows, from Indochina, Ethiopia and Afghanistan, not to speak of Cuba, and it utterly refuses to accept any responsibility for these results. No country today is doing more than the Soviet Union to mock the concept of an international "community"--the very concept that the Office of the High Commissioner, and the several hundred voluntary agencies that work closely with it, have done so much to strengthen.

The United States has long been a bulwark of the work and purpose of the U.N. commission. The Reagan administration is sustaining this tradition. It is providing important funds, and with other governments it is trying to ensure that the commission gets a better grip on the management problems that have arisen in the wake of necessarily rapid recent budget expansion. This should help make the commission an even more effective hand of compassion extended to some of the most wretched people in the world.