SPECIAL REPORT

THE GREAT ESCAPE

A HUMAN WAVE SEEKS A SAFE HAVEN

ANDREW PHILLIPS September 9 1991
SPECIAL REPORT

THE GREAT ESCAPE

A HUMAN WAVE SEEKS A SAFE HAVEN

ANDREW PHILLIPS September 9 1991

THE GREAT ESCAPE

SPECIAL REPORT

A HUMAN WAVE SEEKS A SAFE HAVEN

They arrive in the dead of night, wading in chest-high water across the shallow Neisse River that divides Germany and Poland, carrying their

clothes in plastic bags held above their heads. They are mainly Polish, Romanian, Bulgarian and Soviet, and all of them are seeking new lives in what for them is the land of opportunity: Germany. Along one of the most heavily crossed sections of the river, a 15-mile stretch between the towns of Gubin and Forst, the grass on the German side of the divide is trampled by the human traffic. Border guards acknowledge that they are overwhelmed. “Between 3:30 and 6:30 a.m. is the time when most of them get across,” explained Uwe Granow, a guard patrolling the river bank. “It’s a game of luck whether we catch them or not.” The illegal migrants sneaking across Germany’s porous eastern border are just part of a human wave moving from Eastern to Western Europe—one that could increase sharply with the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Despite their newfound freedoms, hardpressed residents of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine and other republics could join the westward exodus from economic chaos and political instability. Last year alone, the number of illegal Eastern European immigrants swelled to 1.3 million from 400,000 in 1988— to the increasing alarm of governments and citizens in general from France to Austria. In response, Western European governments are erecting new barriers of border controls and bureaucratic red tape to replace the old politi-

cal walls that once kept hungry Easterners safely at home.

Italy has taken the most dramatic steps, sending home most of the 45,000 desperate Albanians who have fled there on overcrowded ships since March. But the problem is even greater in Germany, the economic magnet for Eastern Europeans. There, about 900,000 immigrants and asylum-seekers are crammed into hostels, refugee camps and even old barracks abandoned by the former East German army. Along the Oder and Neisse rivers to the east, border guards caught 883 people crossing illegally during a three-week period in July. But Ortwin Popp, the German border police director for the vulnerable sector along the Polish and Czechoslovakian frontiers, acknowledges that for every person his officers arrest, nine others succeed in crossing. In early August, Popp added 200 men to his force of 770, and they began patrolling the Neisse around the clock in small speedboats.

That action has increased the number of arrests, but many of those sent back try again a few nights later, often successfully. So many people want to get into Germany that on the Polish side of the frontier, a new group of illegal guides, known in German as Schleppers, now specializes in leading would-be immigrants across the rivers for fees ranging anywhere from $50 to almost $2,000 a head. Still, the crossing is often dangerous. In early July, a 10year-old Romanian gypsy girl named Janina Lucian attempted to wade across with her parents, sister and three brothers. The others

made it safely, but Janina was swept away by the current and drowned.

Like many of those entering Germany illegally, members of the Lucian family claimed political asylum as soon as they arrived. Under Germany’s liberal asylum law, the government has to provide housing and food for them while it studies their application, which often takes two years. Officials sent the Lucians to a disused East German army barracks at the border city of Frankfurt an der Oder, where they are squeezed into one room and share a kitchen with 40 other refugee families. At the end of the process, the Germans grant political asylum to only 2.7 per cent of applicants while paying for the support of all of them. Last year, 193,000 people applied for asylum, and officials predict that the number will exceed 200,000 this year. Said Dieter Hecklemann, Berlin’s senator for internal affairs: “Everyone knows that the great, great majority of these people are not politically persecuted.”

As a result, Germany’s federal government is under increasing pressure to amend Article 16 of the constitution, which enshrined the asylum law. In early August, Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher said that Germany should turn back asylum-seekers from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania because they were no longer fleeing political persecution.

Other European governments are also under pressure from voters and right-wing groups. In Spain, France and Italy, in particular, a sharp rise in nonwhite immigration from North Africa and Asia has heightened public sensitivity to the issue. Britain, too, has experienced a dramatic increase in asylum-seekers from Africa and South Asia, leading Prime Minister John Major to declare at the London economic summit in July: “We must not be wide open to all comers just because Rome, Paris and London are more attractive than Bombay 'or Algiers.” Meanwhile, the 12 European Community nations, as part of their attempt to form a single market by the end of 1992, are trying to harmonize their immigration and visa policies. Faced with rising pressure from both Eastern Europe and the Third World, many analysts say, the EC countries will likely make those common policies increasingly restrictive.

Even before the Soviet Union’s anti-Communist upsurge, many Western European leaders expressed concern about a Soviet law effectively granting its 289 million citizens the freedom to travel abroad beginning in January, 1993. Now, some analysts maintain that with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the country’s individual republics may grant their citizens the right to travel even sooner. British EC parliamentarian Glyn Ford predicted a rush of immigrants from the Soviet Union as the economy worsens. “It is fairly clear that Western Europe is going to close the door,” he said. “So if I lived in the Soviet Union, I would look at it as the last window of opportunity to get out.”

ANDREW PHILLIPS

in London with

MICHAEL KALLENBACH

at the German-Polish

border