ZITTAU, GERMANY — GERMAN border guard Mario Waniek lifts his binoculars and stares across the Neisse River into the bushes and trees of Poland. He is searching for illegal aliens, but he sees nothing out of the ordinary.
``Earlier, whole families of 20 and 30 people, with mothers and little children, would try and cross the border at once. Now it's just a few people at a time, mostly men,'' he says.
Germany's eastern border has been quiet all summer, usually a peak time for Romanians, Bulgarians, and Yugoslavs to make a run - or a swim - for the Teutonic promised land.
The lack of activity here is welcome news to Germans, who have felt besieged by record numbers of economic refugees presenting themselves as political asylum seekers ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
German border officials attribute the dramatic drop to Germany's tough new asylum law passed Aug. 1. The number of illegal entrants coming across Germany's eastern border dropped 67 percent this spring and summer, from a peak 6,564 caught in February to 2,160 in August, the officials say.
The new law greatly shortens the asylum-seeking process. It allows automatic rejection of applicants who come from ``safe'' countries (where it has been determined political persecution does not exist), or who travel through ``safe third countries'' on the way to Germany.
So, for instance, a Ukrainian caught entering Germany illegally via Poland is handed back to Poland - usually in less than 48 hours - because Poland is now considered a safe third country. Under separate agreements with Romania and Bulgaria, illegal aliens from those ``safe'' countries are flown directly home.
The new trend is welcome, says Klaus Papenfuss, border patrol spokesman in Bavaria. But he still has doubts. Organized smugglers ``smell money,'' he says, and with Germany's tighter laws they expect increased business in illegal aliens. In Bavaria, for instance, 30 percent of illegal entrants paid smugglers to bring them in, and he anticipates that ratio increasing to 50 percent. ``A lot of what happens in this area,'' he says, ``will depend on the smugglers.''