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East Germans Flee to West in Record Numbers

August 16, 1989

BERLIN (AP) _ A sense of hopelessness has driven a record number of East Germans across newly porous borders to the West this year.

Private and government agencies who help resettle refugees say they expect about 100,000 East Germans to make it to West Germany by the end of the year.

The number of despairing East Germans climbing, crawling and catapulting their way across the border has swelled to a rate unparalleled since the flood of escapees 30 years ago. That exodus was dammed by the construction of the Berlin Wall on Aug. 13, 1961.

And those braving the heavily fortified borders are now joined by a new breed of escapees who obtain legal permission to travel abroad then refuse to return.

″It is a sense that grows stronger each day among East Germans that they have no hope, no perspectives for better days as long as the current regime is in power,″ said Rainer Hildebrandt, director of the August 13th Society that aids East German refugees.

″The fact that 50 percent of those escaping now are under the age of 24 is testimony to the general despair felt there.″

About 10,000 East Germans with legal tourist visas have sought asylum in West Berlin so far this year, and at least 70,000 legal emigres are expected by the end of the year.

A West German official who spoke on condition of anonymity said at least 200 East Germans are seeking asylum at West German embassies in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Berlin.

″We advise against this method as there are continuing dangers involved, and there is simply no way to accommodate people at the representation s,″ the official said.

In Budapest, Hungary, where an estimated 130 East Germans are seeking refugee status and access to West Germany, authorities have hinted that they may recognize a right to asylum, but no decisions have been made.

West Germany’s deputy minister for Inter-German Relations, Walter Priesnitz, said recently that East Germans should not try to leave without proper documents through Hungary, which also has a communist government.

In the course of democratic reform, Hungary has dismantled nearly half of the 160-mile barbed-wire border separating it from the West.

Officials in Austria have been approached for help by 237 East Germans who fled across the border since the Hungarians began dismantling the barbed wire in May. But they estimate up to six times that number have gone directly to the West German Embassy in Vienna after arriving via Hungary.

Judith Toth, the Hungarian Interior Ministry official responsible for refugee affairs, has said a special refugee camp will be erected in Budapest for those seeking asylum. But until then, those seeking refuge at the West German Embassy now may be forced to return to East Germany.

Detlef Kuehn, president of the Institute for Inter-German Affairs in West Germany, told The Associated Press that the West German government advises East Germans to seek legal means of emigrating, but he acknowledged that the majority of applicants must wait years.

″It is hopelessness that is driving so many here,″ Kuehn said. ″There are no limits on the number of East Germans that we will take in. But we have no interest in depopulating East Germany.″

One East Berliner, who did not want his name used, said East Germans are turning to Hungary as an escape route because the prospects for reform in their own nation seem ever dimmer as Erich Honecker remains the Communist Party leader.

″Erich Honecker is apparently a very healthy man, and as long as he is alive we will have the status quo,″ he said.

″But right now we have a terrible situation because nobody knows what the reality is. It is naivete and wishful thinking that makes people seek help in another socialist country.″

East German officials declined the discuss the isssue.

″These matters remain very sensitive, as you know,″ said Herman Thost, a Foreign Ministry official in East Berlin who deals with press relations.

Honecker has told visiting West German officials his government has repealed long-standing orders to shoot those trying to escape, except in cases where other lives are threatened. No shootings have been reported since February despite a rising rate of escapes.

The August 13th Society calculates that at least 189 East Germans were killed in failed escape attempts since the Berlin Wall was built.

At least 350 escapes have been recorded this year up to mid-July over the wall and across the heavily fortified borders with the rest of West Germany.

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