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Endless journey


Ukrainian border guards are used to repeatedly seeing the same faces on the country’s western borders. But they remember the baby: Afghan by blood, but citizen of no country. He was born in a detention camp for illegal migrants after his mother was stopped crossing the border into Slovakia. Two months later, the border guards again saw him; this time carried in a cradle. At five months, he was back in the same detention camp.

He is one of an estimated three million migrants on the soil of the former Soviet Union. Citizens of Afghanistan, China, Vietnam, Iran and Bangladesh all make the epic trek to get here. Ukraine borders six countries, including four which are candidates for membership of the European Union (EU). It is one of the hubs of the overland migration route to Western Europe.

The newly emerged ex-Soviet states have been coined ‘transition’ countries by wealthy governments. It is a glib term for a clutch of countries which are not ‘developed’ yet not ‘developing’. Transitional economies, transitional politics. And in recent years physical transitions as well – the channels through which migrants from most of the rest of the world try to reach Western Europe. The ‘transition’ period of these courageous travellers fleeing political upheavals or deadly poverty can last for years. They cool their heels in Russia or Ukraine or Moldova, making repeated attempts to cross the western borders, are detained by border guards, and are then turned loose to try once again.

Some have been trapped so long in the endless circle of migration that they now have several children born on the road

With an economy already devastated by the attempted adoption of capitalism, Ukraine has little to offer and less to gain from the influx of thousands of citizens of yet poorer countries. Yet Western Europe, with its vastly larger resources, would rather those migrants stayed here, in a ‘permanent’ transition. In an attempt to please the EU, which it hopes one day to join, Ukraine is doing its best to stop migrants crossing its western borders. But it simply does not know what to do with the people it detains.

Find your own way home

There are no resources to deport them, no facilities to house them, no translators to help talk to them. Most are kept for a few days in dismally inadequate conditions and then put on a train to the capital city. They are told ‘find your own way home’. And so the round begins again, with the same faces appearing repeatedly at border crossings. Finally, after perhaps years of surviving in a country where they are not welcome and are offered no opportunities, they might overcome this hurdle and take another step on the way to the West.

Once they came in twos or threes, but now the guards find groups of a hundred, packed into hidden compartments in trucks and buses, or armed with fake documents and passports. The underpaid, under-equipped border guards stopped their first third-country migrant back in 1991, the year Ukraine became independent. By 2000, they were stopping up to 15,000 a year. There have been several tragedies: 27 Afghans were killed when the truck that was carrying them drove into a lake just three kilometres short of the Hungarian border; 21 Bangladeshis were found half-suffocated in a tiny hidden compartment in a refrigerator truck.

Dazed, lost, alien faces

The EU has poured money into border control within its candidate countries: Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. All have licence to send the people they detain back to Ukraine, regardless of whether or not they originate from there. Ukraine itself receives minimal financial support.

In a former army hostel in the west Ukrainian border town of Mukacheve, detained migrants are housed for a few days courtesy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). A local aid organization brings food, basic medicine and toiletries. There are frequently whole families here, especially from Afghanistan. Some have been trapped so long in the endless circle of migration that they now have several children born on the road; children who know no home.

May Lin, a young Chinese woman in the hostel, holds up fingers – 15 – to show how many people travelled in her group. ‘I’m very unhappy here and I miss my boyfriend,’ she bursts out in broken English the moment she sees a new face; it is the only complete sentence she knows. There is no-one here who can speak Chinese. She can’t or won’t explain how she came to Ukraine; her original destination was England.

May Lin believes the men in her group, including her boyfriend, are in a nearby camp for male migrants. In fact they have already been sent away for further investigations by the state security services. It is unlikely she will ever see them again. When she is released from detention no-one knows or cares what will happen to her. Perhaps she will become one of those dazed, lost, alien faces of which the railway and bus stations are full. She is unable to understand a word of what is being said around her. Perhaps she will be picked up by the original people who brought her. Perhaps she will find someone new who is prepared to help her across the border for a fee. But the border guards have already taken any money she might have had left.

Many migrants arriving in Ukraine, especially from Afghanistan, should qualify for refugee status. Very few are accepted as such by Ukraine. The UNHCR is lobbying Ukraine to sign the 51st convention regulating asylum law worldwide, which will have the effect of keeping asylum seekers out of Western Europe. The Ukrainian authorities point out impatiently that they lack the means to pay even below-poverty-line wages on time or deliver meagre pensions to their own citizens. Why should they support impoverished hordes who don’t even want to stay?

Ukraine does not treat its existing refugees well. They are subjected to constant police harassment. Many are afraid to step out of doors. Nearly 1,000 registered refugees, tired of an impossible life in Ukraine, disappeared in 1999 – presumably having crossed the border into Western Europe. Plans by the UNHCR to build a proper refugee camp have been rejected by the local authorities. ‘They want refugees to live badly so they’ll go home,’ is the blunt explanation offered by Ilya Pirchak, an Adventist pastor who organizes aid for migrants in Mukacheve.

But they can’t go home. Ukraine does not give even temporary residence permits to refused asylum seekers. But they also lack the means to send them back to their home country or even to the country they immediately came from. They are simply abandoned to the mercy of venal police and petty social prejudice.

Although EU countries do cautiously admit that immigration may be needed to support their ageing populations, they continue to block migration routes and demonize the traffickers who provide migrants with their only option. The realities of Fortress Europe are in stark contrast to the EU’s portrayal of itself as the home of opportunity and tolerance. This has left not only poor migrants but Ukraine itself in limbo – in the bizarre position of being chivvied along to support Western European exclusiveness, yet given no practical help for its pains.

Sense of grievance

The much-vilified Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko thumbed his nose at the EU when he announced that Belarus would not try to stop any illegal migrants that cross its territory on their way west. Ukraine has not dared take such a step but its sense of grievance over the thankless work grows ever stronger. ‘As time goes on more and more illegal migrants who won’t be able to get to the West will stay in Ukraine, and it will be our problem – it is already,’ complains Vasyl Gubko, head of the border guards department for illegal migration. ‘But the only reason we meet these migrants is because they are trying to go to Germany or France or England. Here we are taking on the problems of these countries. Very often we stop people who even don’t know what country they are in. They don’t even know such a country as Ukraine exists.’

The realities of Fortress Europe are in stark contrast to the EU’s portrayal of itself as the home of opportunity and tolerance

Ukrainians can sympathize with people who have left killing poverty and sold everything to come so far. Many Ukrainians who have to scrape out an existence in their own devastated economy also dream of building a new life in the West. Like the Afghanis, the Bangladeshis and the Sri Lankans, their own passports condemn them to illegal border-crossings – and to illegal work if they ever get into the European Union. But fellow-feeling doesn’t stop locals from exploiting a lucrative new source of income, acting as guides for the often helpless foreigners who end up in their villages. Border guards have many stories about veteran Afghan generals duped as easily as children by local youths who take their money and abandon them in fields at night. But of course the guards have no knowledge of the ones who successfully guide their charges across the border – unless the guards are in on the deal themselves.

Exclusive Western club

Ukraine has already strengthened its eastern border controls and is thus dramatically decreasing the number of migrants detained in the West. This should ease the pressure on Ukraine but will only push the whole issue a step further eastwards – and Russia is no friendlier a place for migrants.

It is easy to criticize the casual callousness with which Russia and Ukraine treat migrants stranded on their territory. But these countries are also victims of the West’s decision to preserve its riches only for those lucky enough to have the right passport. These impoverished former Soviet nations are completely unable to cope with newcomers who bring nothing but the honest desire to work – for in Ukraine and Russia there is no work.

Migrants in Ukraine are treated with barbarity but how much choice is there? Ukrainians too are struggling to survive in a modern and ruthless capitalist world. They too would like a share in the riches of the West. Unfortunately they improve their chances of gaining membership of that exclusive Western club by preventing migrants from other countries getting there first – in the process condemning those migrants to months or even years of misery.

*Lily Hyde* is a freelance journalist based in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.

New Internationalist issue 335 magazine cover This article is from the June 2001 issue of New Internationalist.
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