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Helping the World's homeless; Europe's car people' drive to liberty

By Edward GirardetSpecial correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 25, 1980


In Vietnam there were the "boat people," in Cambodia the "bike people," and here in central Europe . . . the "car people." Their bizarre assortment of vehicles lines the courtyard of the Traiskirchen barracks. It might be a used car lot except that each vehicle bears East European license plates.

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For these weathered brick buildings about 30 minutes drive from Vienna are a drab refugee camp. Originally as Austrian military barracks, later used by the Nazis and then by the Soviets, Traiskirchen today is Austria's principal refugee reception center.

Men, women, and children -- some huddled with their families, others in small groups or alone -- wander among the buildings under the sullen skies of a cool autumn day. Roughly 90 percent of these East European refugees are in their 20s and 30s. A number of them have young families.

Theirs cars and a scattering of holiday trailers are a reminder that a high proportion of the East Europeans, notably from Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, and Romania, escape during vacation seasons. East Germans and Czechs, for example, whose countries vigilantly restrict travel to the West, can travel as tourists to the Black Sea resorts. Once there, they slip into neighboring Yugoslavia and make their way to Western Europe.

"Leaving by car provokes less suspicion and at least allows one to take along some personal belongings," notes one official.

Although more than 5,000 refugees from 35 different nations passed through Traiskirchen last year, Austria primarily serves as a staging center for East Europeans wishing to emigrate to the West. Refugees wishing to resettle in Italy, France, Switzerland, and West Germany often head there directly and apply for asylum upon arrival.

Austria also functions as the first transit point for Jews leaving the Soviet Union. Last year some 52,000 of them emigrated. An estimated 19,000 went to Israel; most of the rest settled in the United States.

Despite vast increases in numbers of Jews leaving the Soviet Union since 1975 , relief sources report a dropoff in numbers leaving this year. Compared with 1979 figures, only half the number are coming through. Sources blame deteriorating US-Soviet relations, and estimate that fewer than 30,000 will emigrate by the end of 1980.

Apart from Jews, several West European asylum countries have registered significant increases among East bloc refugees. Austria, for example, has noted a 60 percent overall rise since 1978.

France in particular has been witnessing somewhat of a surge in the number of Romanians entering the country illegaly or on tourist visas. "We have reason to believe that the Bucharest government has been letting out people over the past few months in order to create a good impression for the Madrid conference," says Madame Claude Guillon of the Secours Catholique in Paris, referring to the review conference on European security.

who are the East European refugees? Basically they can be divided into three main groups. First, there are the intellectuals and dissidents, a relatively small group who are forced to flee out of fear of imprisonment or internal exile.

These include members of the Charter 77 committee who have been monitoring human rights in Czechoslovakia, as well as musicians and writers in East Germany , and Baptists, Adventists, and Orthodox church members in Romania.

The second and largest group are refugees who leave because they are dissatisfied with economic and social conditions. Many of them tend to be technicians, engineers, doctors, and skilled workers who find they cannot advance professionally.

"If you have initiative and ambition," comments Josef B., a young Czech engineer, "there is no point in living under communism. As far as the government is concerned, if one's initiative does not serve the state, then it must be stifled."

Critics maintain that many of the East Europeans are really economic refugees who come looking for work under the pretext of seeking political asylum. Their passage is similar, the critics say, to the flight of many turks, Pakistanis, and Africans to West Germany for what are believed to be similar reasons.