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.
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.
"To a certain extent they do have a point," remarks a representative of the United Nations Office of High Commissioner for REfugees (UNHCR). "But one must remember that the political system in the East bloc creates many pressures. If you don't join the [Communist] Party, for example, you might find yourself in a professional dead end."
The third group consists of refugees leaving for the West for family reunions , usually with government permission. In many cases this means elderly people or wives and children allowed to join their husbands and fathers who had previously escaped to the West. Soviet Jews, who have been suffering from a systematic, government-sponsored defamation campaign since 1968, are only permitted to emigrate by officially asking to join their families in Israel. Once in Vienna, however, approximately 85 percent choose to resettle in the United States, Australia, and Canada.
Human-rights sources say the situation in the USSR for Jews and other religious groups has steadily deteriorated despite the Helsinki agreement. Physical harassment is widespread. Jewish community leaders in Europe and the United States maintain that restricted professional, educational, and social opportunities have prompted many to seek emigration visas.
Unlike the United State, Western Europe and several East bloc nations have taken in large numbers of Latin American political refugees fleeing oppressive right-wing dictatorships. UNHCR sources point out that political conditions in Latin America have often made it impossible for thousands of students to return home. Many of them have stayed on in their host countries, maintaining their student statuses rather than applying for official asylum.
West Germany, Sweden, France, and Great Britain have absorbed many Chilean refugees, in particular, since 1973. Relief sources estimate that between 15, 000 and 20,000 Chileans were resettled in the first major Latin American wave of the 1970s. Some 3,000 of them, including 50 taken in by the Soviet Union, were resettled in East Germany, Romania, and Hungary.
The second major wave of Latin American refugees began during the mid-1970s with the arrival of Thousands of Argentines, Brazilians, and Uruguayans. Many of them went to Spain and Italy. At the time of writing, several European countries were reporting increases in the number of refugees from Bolivia as well as Chile because of deteriorating conditions in those countries. Over the past few years the UNHCR has reported a gradual voluntary return of Chileans to their homeland.
Like the United State, France has also reported a recent rise in the number of Haitian refugees. Relief sources in Paris say between 100 and 200 Haitians have been coming in by plane every month.
Government attitudes toward them are somewhat ambiguous. Although the country grants them political asylum, it has established new visa restrictions to reduce the influx. "We consider most of them economic refugees," explains one Foreign Ministry official. "But we don't deny that their plight may have been caused by miserable political conditions."
Noting that the unemployment picture has worsened in France over the past five years, relief agencies are finding it difficult to place Haitians in jobs. "Most of them are impoverished, totally illiterate, and completely lost," says a relief official.
Since 1975, West European countries have resettled almost 125,000 Indo-Chinese refugees. The majority have been absorbed by France, West Germany, and Great Britain. But even some smaller countries, such as the Netherlands and Switzerland, have made special efforts to accommodate new arrivals.
Nevertheless some European countries are saying it will be difficult to absorb more. And although most relief officials at a recent resettlement conference in Geneva agreed that integration of Indo-Chinese refugees has on the whole been successful, some fear that a continued influx will stir up social problems.
Relief sources in Southeast Asia and Europe nonetheless feel that countries such as France, West Germany, and Ireland can afford to maintain resettlement programs.