BUDAPEST — ONE late summer day five years ago, the Communist government of Hungary poked a hole in the Iron Curtain, setting off a migration stampede that Europe is still trying to harness.
Budapest's decision Sept. 11, 1989, allowing thousands of East Germans to cross the Hungarian border into Austria, marked the first time a Warsaw Pact member had broken ranks to permit freedom of travel.
The move effectively meant the end for 20th-century totalitarianism in Central Europe. It provided the East Germans and others with an effective escape route to the West, thus shattering the ability of hard-line Communist regimes to maintain order.
Not surprisingly, soon after the Hungarian action the Berlin Wall fell and Communist governments began to topple like dominoes.
But now, five years later, Hungary has found that when it comes to migration, what goes around comes around.
Communism's demise accelerated economic collapse and created conditions for ethnic conflict. That, in turn, sent war refugees and economic migrants across Europe in search of a more stable life.
As they struggle to overcome recession, Western European nations have responded to the migration explosion by tightening restrictions on immigration. The moves shifted some of this pressure to transit nations, such as Hungary, prompting Budapest to impose restrictions of its own in early May.
Hungarian officials insist they had to take action. Going through the painful process of economic transformation, Hungary at present is far less capable of handling newcomers than the relatively wealthy and stable market democracies of Western Europe.
``Hungary is on the edge of a region that's buffeted by economic turmoil and war,'' says Istvan Balsai, the justice minister, explaining the need for the new immigration restrictions.
``Because the Western countries are closing their lines of immigration, people are now not using Hungary only as a transit point, but they are staying here. Given Hungary's small size, we felt the country is full,'' Mr. Balsai added in an interview with the Monitor.
According to official statistics, Hungary, a nation of about 10.5 million, has given refuge to more than 113,000 foreigners since 1989. In addition to legal immigration, officials are also grappling with illegal immigration. Since 1990, police say at least 60,000 foreigners, mostly from neighboring countries, have entered Hungary illegally. Immigration officials decline to estimate the number of illegal immigrants who have escaped detection.
Ethnic Hungarians return
The overwhelming majority of would-be immigrants have come from the war-torn former Yugoslavia and Romania. Many are ethnic Hungarians, who found themselves living in neighboring nations when Europe's borders were redrawn after the world wars. Hungary, being one of the defeated nations in both wars, lost large chunks of land in the territorial redistributions.
Hungary in 1989 adopted a liberal immigration law with the aim of facilitating the repatriation of ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring nations, especially Romania. ``There was real discrimination in Romania against ethnic Hungarians,'' says Andrea Hrivnak, a counselor at the Hungarian Office of Refugee and Migration Affairs.
``But no one ... could imagine at that time that the refugee influx from Yugoslavia would be so great.''
Ms. Hrivnak says legal immigration to Hungary has now been reduced to practically zero, adding that many who have arrived over the past four years have left. It is the illegals that currently pose the biggest problem.
The stricter laws on entering Hungary are designed to discourage citizens from neighboring states from traveling to Hungary and then staying without permission. All visiting foreigners, starting May 1, must now prove they possessed at least $10 worth of cash for each day they intended to stay.
The tougher legislation, combined with economic factors, are starting to discourage would-be immigrants from coming here.
``The transition to a market economy creates problems.... Hungary is not as attractive for immigrants as it was before,'' Hrivnak says.