Endless Journey: In the Transit Camps of Ukraine Desperate Europe-Bound Migrants Are Being Warehoused in an Equally Desperate Country. Lily Hyde Reports from One of Globalization's Dead Ends

By Hyde, Lily | New Internationalist, June 2001 | Go to article overview

Endless Journey: In the Transit Camps of Ukraine Desperate Europe-Bound Migrants Are Being Warehoused in an Equally Desperate Country. Lily Hyde Reports from One of Globalization's Dead Ends


Hyde, Lily, New Internationalist


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.

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. …

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