Migrants dreaming of EU safety trapped at Ukrainian border

20th June 2009, Comments 0 comments

Like thousands of other illegal migrants, Mohammad Nahik is currently waiting in a Ukrainian detention centre, after being intercepted trying to sneak with his wife and son across this final frontier into the European bloc.

Mukachevo -- Mohammad Nahik limped and sometimes crawled, hampered by his one missing leg, across half a dozen borders from his native Afghanistan as he sought safe haven in the European Union.

But like thousands of other like-minded illegal migrants, he now sits under guard in a Ukrainian detention centre, intercepted trying to sneak with his wife and son across this final frontier into the European bloc.

"I have to be accepted in some country as a refugee because I am not planning to go back. Because my life is in danger there. Because there is nowhere for my son, there is nowhere for my wife there," Nahik said.

This sleepy town in western Ukraine has become the preferred juncture for human traffickers who for a fee try to slip their charges into one of four EU member states nearby: Hungary, Poland, Romania or Slovakia.

The roughly 20-day journey from Afghanistan across the porous borders of the former Soviet Union costs migrants some 10,000-15,000 dollars (7,000-10,600 euros), of which Ukrainian traffickers take as much as a 50 percent cut, according to the Kiev magazine Korrespondent.

In recent years, the number of migrants from Central Asia and the former Soviet Union eyeing life in the EU has grown, while migration from Asia and Africa has dropped, said Viktor Chumak, an analyst with Kiev's Centre for International Studies.

But the crossing into EU territory has become more difficult.

More migrants are being stopped and put in detention centres since security was beefed up on both sides of the border with the enlargement in 2007 of the Schengen visa zone -- within which there are no border identity controls -- to include Ukraine's neighbours.

Last year, the European Union gave Ukraine 30 heat detectors "capable of detecting a mouse from 10 kilometres away (six miles)," said Pavlo Cheremet, a spokesman for the country's border guard.

"Every year, it becomes more and more difficult to cross the border illegally," Cheremet added.

"Schengen countries are deploying more hardware, more heat detectors, more guards," said Ilya Pirchak, who works with a local nongovernmental organization providing aid to migrants.

Chumak said the tighter security measures had forced migrants to seek other, safer routes into the EU.

"The passage through Ukraine has become too risky," Chumak said. "Now the interesting routes for migrants pass through the Balkans, Bulgaria and Romania."

But hundreds of migrants still pack the small rooms of several makeshift Ukrainian detention centres like the one in Mukachevo where Nahik spends his days slumped on a metal cot, staring at the peeling wallpaper.

Ukrainian authorities regularly catch migrants from countries like India, Pakistan and China believed to be trying to sneak into the EU.

In recent years, Ukraine, with help from the EU, has built two dormitories, each with a capacity of 1,000, to hold those intercepted at the border.

Many migrants, like Nahik and his family, have no passports or identity papers. Officials said they could be under guard for several months while awaiting expulsion.

"We left Afghanistan because of death threats" from the Taliban, Nahik explained in English. "My wife played on a volleyball team. They said they would kill her if she didn't stop."

Nahik, whose right leg is missing above the knee, said he had hoped to earn refuge for his family in Austria.

Those who crowd Ukraine's detention centres are not shy of saying they will try to reach the EU again.

Two young Georgian boxers, David and Edik, who preferred not to give their last names, are due to be sent back to Tbilisi after their second failed attempt to sneak into Hungary.

"We will go back to Georgia, then again leave soon for Europe, but by which route is our secret. Otherwise, they'll close the border there too and there will be nowhere left to go," David joked.

Anya Tsukanova/AFP/Expatica

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