In the early days of martial law, Poles wishing to escape their country’s repressive regime were kept away from Western embassies by armed police guards at the gates. Now, with the lifting of some restrictions, they can walk freely into the offices of foreign officials. But the relaxation makes little difference. With few exceptions, the answer to an emigration application—from both Polish and Western functionaries—is still a firm rejection. But prospective emigrants may soon get another chance. Poland’s leaders are preparing to lift the exit barriers—a move that could release up to half a million Polish citizens who wish to live in the West. As a result, Western countries could be saddled with what the Canadian Embassy in Warsaw regards as a profound dilemma—what to do with what is potentially the largest influx of East European refugees since the 1956 Hungarian uprising.
It is still unclear when that dilemma will be posed. Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski’s military government is believed to have made the political decision in principle to open the emigration gates, and only some details have yet to be settled. The government has also decided to depart from another East Bloc practice and allow “self-exiles” to keep their citizenship and, eventually, to return to their homeland. But the specific timing of the move has yet to be worked out.
If Jaruzelski allows an exodus, Western diplomats in Warsaw believe he will have engineered a formidable political safety valve: thousands of Solidarity activists and sympathizers and an even greater number of Poles who are simply angered by events and would likely accept the offer. It would also release some of the pressure on the la-
bor pool as Poland faces the prospect of ever-worsening unemployment (Maclean's, April 19).
That, in turn, would put the West on the spot both morally and materially, according to U.S. experts. The agonizing question: should Westerners help an unpopular regime to strengthen its grip on Poland by taking in its overflow of dissidents and its economically desperate?
Western governments were confronted with a similar decision—although on a smaller scale—after authorities declared in February that the 3,500-odd Solidarity activists who were interned following the Dec. 13 army take-over were free to emigrate. The West’s public response was to refuse to accept the emigrants unless they could prove they were freely choosing to leave for personal reasons. Unofficially, Warsaw embassies agreed to issue visas only to detainees who had immediate family members abroad. As a result, only a handful of detainees who have applied—the Canadian Embassy puts the figure in the low hundreds—have reached the West.
However, the Western ploy, intended to avoid taking Jaruzelski’s political prisoners off his hands, would clearly not work if thousands of Poles with exit visas were to besiege embassies in a Havana-style exodus. For humanitarian reasons alone, the United States, Canada and Western European countries would feel compelled to accept the emigrants, whatever the impact on their own unemployment rates. And the damage might be considerable. The potential emigrants would be joining a quarter of a million Poles who have left the country since the first stirrings of Solidarity in August, 1980.
Nevertheless, Solidarity’s clandestine branch in Warsaw last week expressed strong doubts that Jaruzelski’s
offer—if indeed it is made—would be open to all Poles. If it were, the authorities would have to practise selective emigration unless they were willing to lose a large slice of Poland’s educated middle class. And even for a system as desperate for solutions as Jaruzelski’s, that would be too much like suicide.
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