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Ukraine: Smugglers Cash In On Migrants

  • Lily Hyde

Kyiv, 27 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- For the exhausted group of migrants, it looked like the first sign of a new life. Ukraine's western border lay before them - the strip of plowed earth, the signs, the fence. And not a border guard in sight. On the other side was Poland, a step nearer to the West.

The migrants handed over their money, said good-bye to their Ukrainian guides, began walking and...met a border guard. A Ukrainian one. The border was three kilometers ahead.

The fake border is just one of the tricks used by Ukrainian smugglers cashing in on migrants desperate to reach the West. Usually they abandon their charges in fields or railway stations, or they drive them around in circles and leave them where they started. Then they disappear, often taking with them all the money the runaways from Asia and the Middle East had possessed.

Or they abandon migrants just beyond the Ukrainian border. Last week (Oct. 21) Hungarian border guards found 36 Afghans, including nine children, sitting in a vehicle near the Ukrainian border. The Afghans said that after their driver abandoned them they had stayed put because it was raining and they had no idea where they were. A spokesman for the Hungarian border guards said 20 Indians had been found in the same area just hours earlier.

So far this year Ukrainian border guards have detained 8,500 illegal migrants attempting to cross out of the country on its western borders. Between 1991 and 1996, a total of 38,000 were detained; in 1997 alone 11,000 were stopped.

Nikolai Bancholkha, head of the Uzhgorod border checkpoint in western Ukraine, called illegal migration an acute, fast-growing problem. Bancholkha says it has become a "mass phenomenon", adding that illegal migrants used to travel alone or in pairs but are now frequently found in groups of 50 and 60.

Chinese and Afghan top the list of nationalities crossing the border, along with Sri Lankans, Iranians and Bangladeshis.

Most of the migrants stopped while attempting to move across the border out of Ukraine have current Ukrainian tourist, business or study visas, often obtained through tourist agencies accredited in the country. Others arrive in Ukraine illegally but turn to the State Committee for Nationalities and Migration, which deals with refugees, to get legal documents.

Yelena Malinovska, deputy head of the state committee's department dealing with refugees, said a lot of migrants only want to stay in Ukraine temporarily. She said they often want to establish a legal right to be in Ukraine before attempting to travel further west.

Currently, only about 40 percent of those who apply for refugee status, which allows them to reside in Ukraine legally, are accepted. Authorities have also begun to strip refugees of their legal status when they try to cross the western borders. In the first half of this year, 37 foreigners lost their refugee status for that reason.

Migrants hide in trucks and railway carriages on their way to the border, travel in specially hired buses, or walk on foot during the night, according to the State Borders Committee.

Andrei Kucherov, press spokesman for the committee, said Ukrainian border guards are finding it hard to cope with the increase in illegal border crossings. The guards are given no extra funds to feed migrants at checkpoints or to hire translators to find out what happened so a report can be filed. By law, illegal migrants are supposed to be deported. In reality, Ukraine cannot afford to stick to the law. Kucherov said migrants are just put on the train back to Kyiv under the care of the conductor and told "never to do it again." Many, he said, escape en route and return to the people who promised to help them flee to the West.

Not all of them try again. Some end up at the offices of the International Organization for Migration, which helps disappointed migrants return home. Dmitri Dmitrenko, operations assistant at the migration organization's Kyiv office, said "those who come (to him) have one wish; "to get back home."

Since 1996, the International Organization for Migration's Stranded Migrants in Transit program has repatriated some 200 people to Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The program provides plane tickets and helps migrants obtain Ukrainian exit visas.

Kaman, a young man from Pakistan, spent a year in Ukraine before turning to the migration organization out of desperation. His dream had been to go to Italy, where his classmate had gone a year before. He borrowed money from friends, and he sold his house and possessions to pay $3,500 to a countryman who had promised to help him. Kaman said: "My classmate called from Italy and told me to go with this man," adding "I trusted him totally."

The agent obtained Russian and Ukrainian visas and flew with Kaman to Moscow; from there they took a train to Ukraine. Kaman had thought they would travel to Odessa, where a boat was supposed to take him closer to Italy. Instead, his helper abandoned him at the Kyiv railway station after taking all his remaining money and his passport.

Ever since, Kaman has been relying on the Pakistani community in Kyiv to support him. He said he "can't go out into the street for fear of the police, because (he has) no documents." But when asked what he will do on his return to Pakistan, he looked at the ground. "I don't know myself," he said. "I have no home, no family. I will look for a job, but there are no jobs."

The State Borders Committee's Kucherov says migrants such as Kaman have provided lucrative opportunities for locals in Ukraine's depressed border areas. He said that "for most people living in the border zones, dealing with illegal immigrants is their only source of income". Kucherov said "you can see them in the Lviv railway station. They go up to Asians and Africans and strike a deal right there in the station."

Kucherov said the locals are generally not caught or prosecuted. But the State Borders Committee says that so far this year, more than 300 people, mostly Ukrainians, have been arrested for assisting illegal migrants.