Austrian welcome mat gets a bit tattered as a steady stream of Poles heads West
Standing at the threshold of a large room at the Traiskirchen refugee camp just outside Vienna, an Austrian official remarks: "It used to be the dining room. I've had to turn it into a bedroom, for 80 people -- all sleeping on the floor."
Traiskirchen camp is the main center where Austria has sheltered several hundred thousand refugees from communist Eastern Europe since World War II. Traiskirchen and several much smaller camps scattered around the country can hold a total of about 2,500 at any given time.
As the Polish economic crisis worsens, Austria's ability to fulfill its traditional and generous role as temporary haven or permanent home for political dissidents or other emigres is being put to its most severe test since 1968.
That was the year thousands of Czechoslovaks fled their country after Warsaw Pact armies moved against the Dubcek reform movement. Thousands more, already vacationing in Western countries, stayed abroad.
At least 50,000 were involved. Many came through Austria and settled there, others found sanctuary till they secured immigration permits for the United States and elsewhere.
Today's influx is not comparable, but the numbers leaving crisis-torn Poland via Austria are stretching the Austrian refugee facilities to the breaking point.
The figures tell their own story:
* Currently Austria is sheltering 8,377 refugees. Of these, 5,291 are Poles. (There are more than 1,100 Czechoslovaks and 500 to 600 each from Romania and Hungary.)
* Daily, 100 to 200 Poles -- benefiting from the visa- free travel agreement between Poland and Austria -- arrive.Many stay on.
* Last year the total influx was 10,000. If the present flow is maintained -- and it is likely to increase, especially from Poland, as the sumemr goes on -- this year's total will be at least 20,000.
* Private lodgings, hostels, and pensions are being called into service to provide minimum shelter for those who can't be accommodated in the refugee camps.
A relatively liberal passport policy has made travel easier for Poles than for most others East Europeans.
But this kind of defection marks a break with tradition for them. Even in the worst "Iron Curtain" years Poles could secure permits for Western travel. Most of those who got them made it a point of personal honor to return at the end of a vacation.
"It's my country," a typical young Pole would say. "I'm not going to let 'them' [the authorities] make me leave it!"
The current crisis has changed the mood.More Poles are securing passports, apparently with the determination this time to go West -- and stay. Not -- it seems clear -- from any fear of Soviet intervention (as in Czechoslovakia). In fact, extraordinarily few Poles see that as likely.
The motive is in many cases a feeling of deep despair over the internal crisis itself. Few Poles, indeed -- either average citizens or officials -- exhibit any assured optimism that the economy will improve, let alone recover, in the near future.
The feeling, naturally, is more evident among the younger Poles, school and unverisity leavers, whose prospects are further clouded by official acknowledgement that large-scale layoffs lie ahead and that, within the next year, several hundred thounsand people must find or be trained for new jobs, or take themselves into agriculture.
In geneva, July 1, Austria appealed urgently through the United Nations Office of High Commissioner for Refugees for support from the three major states -- the United States, Canada, and Australia -- that have absorbed most of this human tide from Eastern Europe since World War II.
The initial response has been positive, but it will take time for regulations to be rewritten and quotas to be revised. Canada is to send an immediate delegation for an on-the-spot survey of the situation.
Three smaller European countries, Belgium, Norway, and Sweden, have offered cooperation, and Switzerland have promised financial support for would-be Polish emigrants.
Estimates are that food alone costs about 200 Austrian schillings (about $14) per capital daily. But it is not a matter of funds. Austria receives help from sundry international organizations.
Accommodation is the problem, and the existing facilities can continue to function adequately only if the receiving countries move faster.