HUNDREDS of East Germans who hoped the dismantling of barbed wire fencing along the border between reformist Hungary and Austria meant an easy escape to the West have had an unpleasant surprise. They are being arrested by Hungarian border patrols as they cross into Austria, reported to the East German Embassy in Budapest, and sent back home with an incriminating stamp on their passport. There many are arrested again and charged with ``fleeing the republic,'' a crime which can bring up to five years in jail.
The new mood in Hungary has set it on the path toward democracy, brought down long stretches of fencing on its 214-mile western border, and prompted it to sign the UN Convention on Refugees. But that mood has yet to extend to helping East Germans.
In a recent warning to would-be escapers over West Berlin's RIAS radio station, the state secretary in Bonn's interior ministry, Walter Priesnitz, said most people who tried to escape were sent home and arrested. The way to West Germany across the Austro-Hungarian border ``is not like going for a walk,'' he said.
According to the Hungarian news agency MTI, about 550 East Germans had been caught attempting to escape this way in the first six months of this year.
Nevertheless neither the arrests nor the warnings seem to be deterring East Germans from using their summer holidays as a chance to flee. The Austrian authorities say that 400 crossed over since the barbed wire began coming down at the beginning of May. Camping sites near the Austrian border are reported to be crowded with East German families waiting for an opportunity to slip across.
Western diplomats in Budapest say the Hungarians are holding to an unwritten agreement among East-bloc countries not to let each others' citizens out without a specific exit visa. ``They are probably doing it with a heavy heart, but they want to avoid trouble with the East Germans,'' one said. ``If their reforms are to succeed, they don't want to be shot down by a neighboring country.''
Hungary is still tightly bound up in the web of economic, military, and political ties that links the East-bloc countries. A head-on clash with an important member like East Germany could cause trouble and even possible reprisals which would make its reform program even more difficult. Hungary already has a running dispute with Romania over its treatment of the Hungarian minority there. Diplomats believe Hungarian leaders are leery of any more disputes within the bloc.
Since Hungary signed the Convention on Refugees, it has been expected to set up a camp to keep would-be East German escapers while their cases are examined. A spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva said they were looking into the situation but were not yet able to take an official position.
Informed UNHCR sources say, however, that there is a good case under the terms of the agreement for saying Hungary should keep the East Germans rather than send them back. The issue was complicated by the fact that they do not ask for political asylum in Hungary.
Paradoxically, however, it is becoming easier for East Germans to reach the West. Since East German border guards stopped shooting at people escaping across the East-West German border recently, the numbers of people who have scrambled over the fortifications has soared. In June alone it was 140 compared with a total of 192 for the previous five months.
East German authorities are also allowing record numbers of citizens to emigrate legally to West Germany - 44,000 were allowed to go in the first six months of this year, and the West Germans expect the figure to reach 100,000 by the end of the year.
Western sources in East Berlin believe the relaxation may be in response to strong criticism of East Germany's restrictions on its people's movements, as well as a form of safety valve to keep down tension in the country.