WARSAW, NOV. 14 -- Poland and other countries are preparing for a potentially catastrophic tide of Soviet refugees who might flee economic and ethnic strife in the Soviet Union.
Last week, the Polish government created a special office to handle what it warned could be as many as a million Soviet refugees.
"Refugees from a destabilized Soviet Union could appear in our country in enormous numbers, far beyond our technical possibilities to absorb or care for them," said Interior Minister Krzysztof Kozlowski, announcing creation of the ministry. "These could be huge masses of people who will try to escape from hunger or war, or simply to a better life."
Kozlowski said the Polish government was taking its cue from "panicky" forecasts by Scandinavian governments that fear waves of Soviet refugees flooding Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland. The estimates, he said, speak of "many millions" of refugees, numbers so large as to constitute a "migration of nations."
Poland expects to be a magnet for Soviet refugees because it has the longest European border with the Soviet Union. A Polish official suggested the situation was analagous to 1917, when thousands of Russians fled west through Poland trying to escape the Russian Revolution.
Neighboring Hungary already is struggling to cope with more than 100,000 illegal immigrants, mostly ethnic Hungarians from Romania and Soviet citizens from the southwestern parts of the Soviet Union. According to Hungarian officials, most came to Hungary in hopes of continuing on to Western Europe. They have been turned back, however, at the Austrian and German borders, which have been reinforced to keep out illegal immigrants.
The official number of Soviet citizens seeking refuge in Poland is a trickle. The actual number is thought to be much higher, in the range of several hundred to several thousand and climbing.
The new commissioner for refugee affairs, Zbigniew Skoczylas, said the number of Soviet refugees in Poland could reach as many as a million, and warned that the economic effect of such numbers could be calamitous.
"There will be a complete breakdown of the economy if we have a wave of several million," Skoczylas said. "Even if the numbers do not exceed 200,000 to 300,000, we will face big problems."
Many of the illegal immigrants are thought to be people who entered Poland as tourists or small traders and stayed on illegally, hoping to travel on to Western Europe or the United States, according to the government.
At the moment, so many Soviet citizens -- traders, tourists and others -- are trying to leave the country that there is a three-day wait at legal entry points on the Polish border. The Soviet government recently rejected a Polish proposal to reduce the backlog by opening a new border crossing on the Polish-Ukrainian border.
Polish officials at the new Ministry of Refugees said they have no idea when the large Soviet influx might come, but are watching closely reports of severe food shortages in the western Soviet republics, and are concerned that price rises of 31 percent scheduled for Jan. 1 could trigger what one official called an "explosion."
There are an estimated half million Soviet citizens of Polish descent living in the Byelorussian republic alone, and the Polish officials said they could anticipate those people and many others would head for Poland if the situation deteriorated.
"We are not trying to create a problem, but if the problem comes and we are not prepared, this could end tragically," Skoczylas said.
A large influx of Soviet citizens would exacerbate social tensions in Poland, where up to 2 million Poles are likely to be unemployed next year as inefficient state-owned industries are sold off or closed. The cost of supporting one refugee would be higher than the average Polish monthly wage and more than the current rate for unemployment benefits, an official said.
Despite the problems, Poland is not considering closing its borders to a Soviet exodus, Skoczylas said. "We have a moral debt," he said. In the 1980s, Poland saw more than a million of its citizens go west looking for work and a better life. And in 1939, more than 100,000 Poles fleeing the Nazi occupation of Poland were taken in by the Romanian government, which defied its Nazi German allies to do so.