East's refugees bring problems to Western Europe

November 25, 1990|By Boston Globe

VIENNA, Austria -- They come at night, slipping through the forests that divide Hungary from Austria. Or they try to come by plane, hoping to evade the border guards who now watch the airport. Sometimes they hide in the trunks of cars.

"If I had waited for a passport, it would have taken one, maybe two years," said Nicolae Dragan, 21, a refugee from Romania, who last Christmas fought with the Romanian Army that helped overthrew Nicolae Ceausescu.

"I want a new life," he said, but he now languishes in a refugee camp here after traveling from Romania to Hungary to Austria.

Last year's heroes have become this year's headache.

Across Eastern Europe, a widening stream of refugees from the former East Bloc countries and the Soviet Union is threatening to overrun borders and sink the emerging democracies under a flood of desperate people fleeing economic hardship and ethnic violence.

In the first nine months of this year, Romania has issued 2.7 million passports; thousands of Romanians in Hungary on tourist visas are overstaying their visits. Tens of thousands of Poles claiming German ancestry are pouring across the Polish border into Germany.

And there is fear that once the Soviet Union makes travel easier in the next few months, 4 million to 6 million Soviet citizens could begin the trek west, too.

On Oct. 31, a mob of ethnic Romanians in the Soviet republic of Moldava attacked Soviet border guards who blocked their way to Romania.

"What we are seeing is a people's migration, like in the Middle Ages when the Germanic people moved west and destroyed the Roman Empire," said Peter Jankowitsch, a former Austrian foreign minister and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in Austria's Parliament. "How many Poles will stay in Poland? How many Romanians will stay in Romania? And, one day, how many will stay in the Ukraine?"

"A lot of my friends will come," said a 26-year-old Soviet journalist from Moscow, who slipped across the border from Czechoslovakia into Austria recently. "They will come west to look for jobs, to earn money, to be able to send something back home."

Here in Austria, where last May the first hole was ripped in the Iron Curtain, allowing Hungarians and then East Germans to move freely across the border, the surge in immigrants has led the government to stuff that hole with paper.

Poles and Romanians now need visas to enter Austria, and Austria has begun shipping back any who come here illegally. The arrival of tens of thousands of immigrants has rekindled an ugly strain of xenophobia and racism in Austria. In October, a right-wing party nearly doubled its vote in national elections in a campaign directed in part against immigrants and rising crime, with the slogan, "Vienna must not become Chicago."

In Germany, anger against Poles and Gypsies is swelling, with calls to cut back on Germany's generous refugee programs. Germany is not an "immigration country," according to the ruling Christian Democratic Party.

Even Finland, which for decades prided itself on its artful relationship with its neighbor the Soviet Union, is worried. Diplomats joke that the only thing that may stop Finland from being swamped by Soviet refugees is that Soviet paper mills can only produce enough paper to print 2 million passports a year.

The sweep of refugees across Eastern Europe is one of the unintended consequences of last year's revolutions. Freedom to emigrate was one of the rights that the West championed for Eastern Europeans and Soviets. But now that Romanians and Poles, Russians and Gypsies, are using their freedom to vote with their feet, many in Western Europe are having second thoughts.

Vienna is just a day's car ride from the Soviet Union. Berlin is 45 minutes from the Polish border. Austria shares a border with both Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

"Last year at this time, when Romanian refugees arrived, people opened their arms wide to accept them," said Annemarie Haschka, an official with Caritas, a Roman Catholic refugee organization. "Now that there are so many Romanians, they are treated the worst."

Austria has reached the limits of its patience, saying its economy can absorb no more immigrants looking for work.

"How many tailors can you have in a street?" asked Chancellor Franz Vranitzky. "Ten? Twenty? Fifty? If it goes higher than that, those who opened tailor shops will suffer, even if they just opened them a few years before. . . . You get resistance from the old population and you get protests, and those can rise to a point at which, as a government, you can no longer cope."

In Germany too, immigration is a key issue. Germans fear an influx of up to 2 million Russians, Poles and Romanians who can claim German ancestry and therefore are guaranteed citizenship under the German constitution. Short of changing the constitution, many Germans want to make sure no other immigrants can settle in Germany.

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