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The new walls go up in Europe – archive, 1990 | Refugees

The new walls go up

By Ian Traynor
9 November 1990

Driving from Vienna to Czechoslovakia or Hungary is immeasurably easier now than a month ago. British visitors, like most other west Europeans, can pass through easily, visas no longer required. The Common European Home in action.

But you soon realise that the rules are not the same for everyone, and certainly not for the traffic in the other direction. In the borderlands, exactly a year after the Berlin Wall was breached, there are scenes more reminiscent of the US-Mexico boundary – armed Austrian troops on patrol to keep the eastern aliens out.

In Brussels, the Eurocrats are having shudders as they wonder what to do about the huddled masses of the late 20th century – the “illegals” from the east who are knocking at the door. Freedom of movement, that sine qua non of the European Community, has its limit. The limit is the old iron curtain, which, it turns out, has not been completely dismantled, unless, of course, you are German.

Democratic values, human rights, free elections, and soaring crime rates – all of these are now common currency in east and west. But one year on from the upheavals that transformed the postwar order in Europe, the poverty and indebtedness of the east Europeans are becoming the biggest threat to the new democracy.

“It is particularly important that we overcome together the division into a rich and poor Europe, a grade A and grade B Europe,” the Polish prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, warned this week. He was echoing remarks made a few days earlier by the West German Foreign Minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who stated: “After the fall of the wall of stone and barbed wire, the west faces the question of whether it wants to allow its replacement by a gulf in differing living standards, differing economic development ecological provision and social justice.”

A year after the collapse of communism, the queue – that quintessential symbol of the Soviet system – is getting longer not shorter: queues for sugar, queues for bread. Most of all queues for visas and a ticket to the west.
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Poland fears wave of Soviet refugees: ruined nation would bear brunt of mass exodus

By Ian Traynor in Warsaw
30 November 1990

Ten red arrows dominate a small office in Poland’s Interior Ministry. They also dominate the brooding mind of Colonel Zbigniew Skocylas, a burly, bearded 62-year-old who patrols the office in battle fatigues like a Polish peasant Fidel Castro.

The 10 arrows are stencilled on to a large map of Europe on the wall. Two point from the Leningrad area into Scandinavia, another from Ukraine into Romania. Seven the reason for Col Skocylas’s unease point from the western Soviet Union into Poland.

‘We just want to imagine how the big tide will come,’ says the colonel, a former paratrooper, who came out of retirement a month ago to head the ministry’s new immigration office. It was set up specifically to make contingency arrangements for the feared influx of Russians across Poland’s eastern border if the predicted Soviet famine this winter coincides with liberal travel legislation for Soviet citizens.

‘We expect hundreds of thousands to come to Poland if they are given passports. Just look at the map. The route westward has not changed for centuries Moscow, Warsaw, Berlin, Paris. If the Russians start coming, the overwhelming mass has to come through Polish territory.’

The prospect of a mass exodus is one that no country is relishing, hence the current western drive for winter aid for the Soviet Union. Poland, with its collapsing economy and huge foreign debt, is singularly ill-equipped to cope.

One by-product of a Soviet influx would be to delay further any hope of economic recovery. ‘There are already 60-70,000 Soviet citizens here as ‘tourists’ or traders. If Moscow were to seal the borders, these people would want to stay. Then our situation would be desperate. We could not afford to take 100,000. If the borders are not closed and, as is conceivable, one million Russians come, our budget would be sunk.’

Col Skocylas says Poland could probably accommodate 20-30,000 Soviet migrants. He is drafting contingency plans and organising refugee collecting points. The few dozen barracks soon to be vacated by the departing Red Army could be used.

There could also be a host of bona fide political asylum-seekers. In Ukraine, with its large Polish minority, says the colonel, the struggle between secessionists and centralists could see a crackdown: ‘In that case, many will come here with good refugee arguments.’

Warsaw would also be put in an impossible position if the Polish minority in the Soviet Union, numbering around two million, sought entry and claimed citizenship. Those claiming to be Poles would be likely to exceed the two million.

‘We’ve never had a refugee problem before,’ says the colonel. ‘We thought Poland was the poorest country in Europe.’
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Poland erects new iron curtain to stem flood from the east

By Julian Borger in Terespol
16 February 1993

The line of Ladas, Volgas and old Soviet tourist buses stretches back for miles in each direction from the border post between Terespol in Poland and Brest in Belarus.

The Russian and Belarusian traders crammed into each vehicle are used to waiting up to four days to pass through customs and they have enough food and books to stave off hunger and boredom. They run their engines every so often to keep from freezing.

There is not the slightest doubt the wait is worth it. “In a single trip, I can earn five times what I could in a job in Belarus,” says Galina Mengaleva, who took a tourist bus from Minsk to sell wooden toys and clothing at a Warsaw market. She is going back with fruit for her family and dollars.

This may be one of her last business trips. Ministers from 35 European countries yesterday met in Budapest to agree measures on stemming the flow of illegal migrants through eastern Europe to the west. The Polish government is planning strict restrictions on cross-border traffic that will affect not only people from the former Soviet Union, but also Romanians, Bulgarians and refugees from what was Yugoslavia.

The new measures are, in part, a response to Germany’s plans to limit its refugee intake. Bonn intends to refuse asylum to refugees who travel to Germany through other countries. Poland is worried it will soon have to look after most of the region’s asylum-seekers.

Last year, the country was a conduit for an estimated 100,000 refugees heading for Germany. If the Bundestag approves the new laws, those people could be dumped back in Poland.

According to the Polish press, the German interior ministry has made it clear that closer ties with the European Community depended on the steps Warsaw takes to limit immigration.
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