Australia, Canada, and the United States have stepped up preparations to meet a possible flood of refugees if the situation in Poland deteriorates further. The aim: to reduce any permanent burden that would be felt by Austria and other West European countries where refugees could be expected to arrive first.
When Poland declared martial law Dec. 13, there were already some 26,000 Poles in Austria seeking asylum. Austrian officials say there are another 20,000 to 30,000 in Austria who may ask for asylum, depending on future events in Poland.
Altogether there are some 400,000 Poles scattered throughout West Europe as students, workers, and tourists. Many of them may choose refugee status, according to estimates by Canadian immigration officials. Few new refugees are arriving because Poland sought to seal its borders. But this seal could dissolve if there is a major outbreak of violence or if the Soviet Army intervenes.
Thus Austria has sought assurances from Australia, Canada, and the United States that they would assist. All three have large Polish communities. They are the main destinations favored by emigrants from Poland. They all have proven track records in absorbing refugees, most recently hundreds of thousands from Indochina.
Austrian officials have expressed satisfaction with the greater flexibility already shown by all three countries. But they have cautioned that further increases in refugee intake may be needed in the future.
All three countries have Cabinet-level or departmental reviews of the Polish refugee question in progress.
Even before Polish martial law, the American refugee quota for Eastern Europe had been doubled to 9,000 for the fiscal year Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, 1982. But that is still a small proportion of the 140,000 total. One hundred thousand go to Indochina, 20,000 to the Soviet Union, 5,000 to the Middle East, 3,000 to Africa , and 3,000 to Latin America.
In an emergency these quotas can be reshuffled after discussions with congressional committees, a State Department refugee official explains.
Of the three countries, Australia's preparations have been most publicized.
Immigration officers are on ''standby'' to fly to Vienna, Cologne, and Stockholm, the major points where Polish refugees would gather, according to an immigration official.
Ian MacPhee, Australian minister of immigration and ethnic affairs, said preparations to meet the worsening Polish situation began 18 months ago with the development of contingency plans for dealing with an increasing number of Poles.
Australia increased the number of Polish refugees to be admitted by 1,000, thus raising the country's total yearly intake for refugees from 22,500 to 23, 500. Then, after martial law was declared in Poland, the country abandoned last year's formal system of specific geographic quotas, even though the government still informally calculates that about 3,000 refugees would be East European.
''If it really gets bad, we are prepared to be flexible,'' says one Australian immigration official.
These changes have raised concern among some Vietnamese already in Australia that openings previously designated for future Indochinese refugees may go instead go to Poles. The government has countered this is an unnecessary concern.
Canada has a fixed yearly quota of 6,000 East European refugees, but a government spokesman says it may be raised if necessary. A government working group is said to review the situation daily. One Canadian policy that pleases Austrian officials allows lifting of the quota ceiling for any refugees admitted without government cost. If a relief organization or Polish citizens group pledges support for refugees, they can be admitted on top of the quota.
One factor in favor of the refugees is that so far most are educated white-collar or skilled blue-collar workers of the kind who adapt relatively easily in new countries. Many are in their 20s or 30s. As a result, they are often more easily assimilated than many less skilled refugees from Indochina and other parts of the world.
This means they may not always be dependent for entry under refugee quotas. They may be eligible for acceptance in the category of qualified immigrant or as family reunion cases.