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Austria: New Member Of Schengenland Tightens Borders

Nickelsdorf, Austria, 21 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A new name has been added to the list of geographical and political institutions in a rapidly unifying Europe -- "Schengenland."

By April 1 of this year, it will be a territory stretching from Europe's Atlantic coast to the borders of the former Communist countries of Central Europe. It is an association of nine countries that have already realized the long-held European dream of free movement within its territory without regard for borders.

"Schengenland" takes its name from the Schengen Agreement, signed in 1985 in the Luxembourg town of Schengen. It goes a long way towards fulfilling the vision of a borderless Europe, or, as some people call it, a "United States of Europe" where people, goods and capital can move unhindered by borders and customs.

In a transitional period between last December and this April, Italy and Austria are joining the seven countries that already made up Schengenland -- Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Portugal and Spain.

Their accession to Schengen has brought considerable pressure on Italy and Austria to tighten their borders -- because these are now the external borders of Schengenland. Once a person enters one of these countries, he or she can travel freely -- with no more examination of his or her travel documents -- within the other eight countries. This makes movement easier not only for legal travelers, but also for illegal migrants.

As the panic in Germany and other northern European countries over the influx of Kurdish illegal immigrants into Italy during the last month shows, older Schengen countries are putting pressure on new members Italy and Austria to guard their external borders closely.

Germany has led the pressure for tighter borders because its own relatively liberal immigration policy and generous welfare benefits make it Europe's top destination for asylum seekers.

Austria, the European Union's frontline with the East, with 1,260 kilometers of borders with former Communist countries, is a perfect gateway for illegal migrants traveling from the Third World in hopes of getting to Germany.

Illegal migrants cross Austria's borders from the East on foot at night, or arrive in cars, buses or trains with forged passports. Groups of up to 10 or 15 people at a time have been found in trucks after paying organized criminal human smugglers to take them across the border. Chief countries of origin are Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran.

Last year, Germany -- and the Bavarian authorities whose state borders Austria -- loudly criticized Austria for, they said, not doing enough to stop illegal migrants from traveling across Austria to sneak into Germany.

Austria responded quickly. It invested more than $220 million in securing its borders with non-EU countries against illegal crossings. From now on, it will spend a further $24 million to $32 million each year on such border controls.

Dr. Manfred Matzka, director general of the Austrian Interior Ministry, which has responsibility for border controls, explained in an interview with RFE/RL in Vienna last week the steps Austria has taken to prevent illegal migrants from crossing its borders.

Austria increased the number of border guards significantly, to 5,550, and increased co-operation with the eastern countries -- Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic -- to stop illegal migrants before they even get to Austria's borders. Heavy investments were made in technical equipment for detecting illegal migrants.

Austria's Burgenland border with Hungary is the site of the greatest number of illegal border crossings -- 55 percent of those detected last year. Captain Helmut Marban, of the border guards detachment in Burgenland, details the methods his border guards used last year to catch nearly 5,600 illegal migrants.

They patrol the borders with helicopters and patrol cars. At night the guards use special night-vision binoculars, and heat radiation detectors to spot those stealing across the land border. Motorboats patrol the Danube River and Lake Neusiedl.

Gunther Berger, a border guard at the Nickelsdorf crossing for the past six months, says he catches at least one person a week trying to cross by car with a forged passport. Forged documents are detected with a high-tech document box that uses ultra-violet light and other methods to separate the forgeries from genuine passports.

In what Berger calls his "most spectacular" catch, he detected a dual Romanian-Canadian citizen trying to smuggle four Romanians with forged passports into Austria in his car. The four passengers had their false documents confiscated, and were turned back to Hungary. The Romanian-Canadian ringleader is now facing criminal charges in Austria.

One of the more intriguing high-tech gadgets the border guards use to uncover smuggled humans in trucks is a carbon-dioxide detector that measures the presence of human breath inside the cargo area of the truck. Word has gotten out to the smuggling gangs that all trucks entering Austria are routinely inspected this way, so the truck route is almost never used any more.

At Nickelsdorf, border guard Wolfgang Ullreich demonstrates the carbon-dioxide detector as he inspects a Romanian truck.

The monitor is a small device -- not much bigger than a Walkman -- hung around his neck that provides a digital read-out of the level of carbon dioxide inside. This device is connected to a long metal rod that he inserts into the truck in at least two places. A reading of 70 would reveal human beings hiding inside. The reading for this particular Romanian truck is a mere six -- evidence that it has passed inspection.

Back at the Interior Ministry in Vienna, Dr. Matzka says such high-tech gadgets have paid dividends in detecting more would-be illegal immigrants.

"Information runs very quickly," he says. "Today we install such technical equipment, you can be sure that two days later the other side knows it." He also admits that Austria frequently puts out "disinformation" about the nature of its border controls to deter organized human smugglers.

Such methods appear to be working. Austria recently announced that the number of illegal immigrants arrested along its eastern border went up by 22 percent last year, thanks mainly to better detection.

Says Matzka proudly: "We already did our homework. There is nothing additionally to be done to cope with Schengen standards."