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Ukraine: Migrants To West Create Disaster For All Concerned

Thousands of illegal migrants pass through Ukraine each year on their journey to seek a better life in the West. The government has few resources to either help them or deport them, and as a result, most of them languish in the country until they eventually slip through to the West. Correspondent Lily Hyde looks at how Ukraine is struggling with the floods of migrants crossing its territory.

Kyiv, 27 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In halting English, the Chinese woman says her name is May Lin, and she is 23 years old. Her group of 15 migrants was stopped by Ukrainian border guards, and she is now in a detention camp in the West Ukrainian town of Mukachevo.

"I'm very unhappy here," she says. "I miss my boyfriend." She can't or won't explain how she got to Ukraine, but she says she was on her way to England to join her parents. She is one of more than 3,000 illegal migrants detained this year in Ukraine by border guards.

She will spend a few days here while the guards try to question her, but there are no translators who speak Chinese, or even English. Soon she will be put on a train to Kyiv, and no one knows what will happen to her after that.

With borders on seven countries, including three European Union candidate countries, Ukraine is a key link in the routes taken by millions of migrants heading for the West. Vasyl Gubko, head of the border guard's department for illegal migration, spoke to RFE/RL about the scale of the problem.

"Most citizens of Asia and Africa going to Europe go through Ukraine. It's a disaster for our country and for the countries they are going to, as well as for the migrants themselves. You shouldn't think it's easy for them."

The International Organization for Migration estimates there are around half a million illegal migrants in Ukraine, and up to 2 million in Russia. Where earlier they came in twos or threes, now border guards have caught groups of over 100. They travel in secret compartments in buses or trucks, or are armed with sophisticated fake documents and passports.

These people have paid from $3,000 to $10,000 to international organizations to smuggle them to the West. Ukrainians, especially in the depressed western border towns, are cashing in on the flood and finding new jobs as guides and organizers of illegal border crossings. But the Ukrainian authorities are woefully unable to cope with Ukraine's new role as an international transit hub.

Unlike neighboring Belarus, where President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has simply announced his country will let through migrants heading for Europe, Ukraine is trying to stop them. Border guards halted over 14,500 last year. But the authorities simply don't know what to do with the illegals. They have nowhere to keep them, no resources to question them, and they can't afford to send them home.

Most are sent to a hostel or a dismal tent camp provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which also provides food and basic health care. But after a few days here, the migrants are turned loose to find their own way home, as no one provides the funds to deport them.

As a result, they stay in Ukraine until they can find enough money to once again attempt the border crossing. Border guards have seen the same faces five or 10 times. Border guard official Gubko said:

"We law enforcement authorities don't have the money to keep them. They speak strange languages like Urdu and we can't communicate with them at all, we have no language specialists. We understand their situation -- sometimes they can get stuck in transit countries for several years, having families, babies on the way."

The West has done little to help Ukraine stop migrants. The EU has poured money into border management of its candidate countries Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary. But Ukraine has received no aid, although Gubko says the migrants are, ultimately, the West's problem.

"This problem of illegal migrants is of mutual interest to us and for the West. It isn't profitable from the political or economic side, even socially, for Ukraine to be a springboard for illegal migration. We understand that it's already happened, and as time goes on, more and more illegal migrants who can't get to the West will stay in Ukraine. It will be our problem -- it is already. But from the other side, we get these illegal migrants because they are trying to go to Germany, France, England. Here we are taking on their problems. Very often we stop people who don't even know what country they are in, who don't know such a country as Ukraine exists before we stop them."

The International Organization for Migration is trying to persuade the West to pay attention to Ukraine -- but by focusing on its eastern border with Russia and Belarus, rather than its Western borders. J. Stephen Cook is the IOM's top official in Ukraine. He explains why the IOM considers this strategy more effective.

"The West's strategy and the EU strategy has been to put in huge resources into the candidate countries. But if you want to make that investment effective, then you need to expand your perimeter defenses -- and those are Ukraine's. Because once they get into Ukraine, it doesn't matter how much money you put into the borders of the candidate country, these people are going to get through one way or another because Ukraine doesn't have the capacity to get rid of them. They can stop them temporarily at their western border, but they have no capacity for detention and they have even less capacity for deportation, so they are just recycled. So every illegal migrant that gets into Ukraine never leaves until they eventually get to the West."

The IOM already has several eastern border projects which Cook says have been successful in at least diverting the flow of migrants to other areas.

Russia, however, has yet to show interest -- as Russia also lacks the resources to deal with illegal migrants, it would prefer that those migrants get to Ukraine.