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African Refugees Pour into Ukraine in Hopes of Safe Passage to Europe

Ukraine's porous borders make it a favoured entry point to the European Union for asylum seekers.

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This article originally appeared at The African Report

A new treaty strengthening EU ties means many more will end up in Ukraine's detention centres and prisons. At a refugee hostel in the Ukrainian town of Mukachevo near the Slovakian border, African refugees live in limbo.

<figcaption>Refugees caught trying to enter the EU await their fate at a Mukachevo detention centre. Photo©YURIY DYACHYSHYN/AFP </figcaption>
Refugees caught trying to enter the EU await their fate at a Mukachevo detention centre. Photo©YURIY DYACHYSHYN/AFP

"I have been here nine months," said a Sudanese man who asked for his name to be withheld. "Nobody has come to help us with the language, there has been no help with jobs."

While conditions seemed clean and rooms were small but not overcrowded, the refugees complained about out-of-date food and a lack of support services.

Ukraine remains an important point of transit for thousands of undocumented migrants and asylum seekers from Africa and Asia who are attempting to enter the EU, which it borders.

Conditions for many have only got worse since the violence in the country earlier this year, and with the government's agreement to act as a tougher surveillance force to protect the EU's eastern frontier.

In September, refugees in Mukachevo told The Africa Report that in the past three months conditions in the hostel had got worse.

Supplies of food and toiletries had been reduced and they were told that this was because aid had been cut.

"If you think there's a way we can make ourselves heard, please help," one implored.

A Somali man named Cherko Ali said that some of them had been given work at a plastics factory close to Mukachevo, but had quit after being subjected to racist abuse.

Other refugees say that when they complained about their conditions, the officials who ran the hostel would threaten to kick them out.

At the nearby State Border Guard base in Chop, in western Ukraine, a lieutenant colonel walks through the door of a squat one-storey building with bars on the windows.

In the entrance hall is a plaque that bears the blue and yellow flag of the EU.

It says the building was refurbished with money from the EU and the Catholic charity Caritas.

There are two corridors leading off from the hallway: one contains cells for women, the other for men.

Incendiary treaty

The cells are clean, neat and empty, although there are currently three people – a Somali man, a woman from Guinea and a Swiss woman of African origin – in residence.

All three were apprehended without the correct documents on Ukraine's border with Slovakia, and they are being held there overnight until they can be taken to court.

Normally, the lieutenant colonel says, he would be happy to take journalists to meet them, but today he cannot – the prosecutor said 'No'.

On 16 September, Ukraine finally ratified its EU Association Agreement, a treaty that promises closer economic and political ties between the continental bloc and its former Soviet neighbour.

It was the post-ponement of this agreement, after pressure from Russia, at the end of last year that led to mass protests, the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych and the subsequent war with Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country.

But while the treaty marked a significant new stage in international relations, Ukraine has for some time been part of the EU's sphere of influence in at least one area: border policy.

Like Morocco and Turkey, which also sit just outside the 28-member inter-governmental organisation, Ukraine is signatory to a readmission agreement designed to make it easier to stop irregular migrants from crossing into the EU.

The agreement with Ukraine, signed in 2008, makes a simple trade-off: in return for fewer restrictions on its own citizens' travel around the EU, Ukraine agrees to take back any migrants who are found to have illegally crossed into the EU from Ukrainian territory.

To accommodate these migrants, EU funds have helped pay for a network of detention centres and immigration prisons that are supposed to meet minimum humanitarian standards.

One of the main groups to be affected by this policy are undocumented migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, many of whom are refugees from Somalia.

For the past decade or more, Ukraine has been a major smuggling route for all sorts of cargo because of its long and difficult-to-patrol borders with four EU member states: Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Poland.

In 2012 a secret tunnel equipped with its own train line was discovered on the Ukraine-Slovakia border, which crosses central Europe's Carpathian mountain range.

Smuggling routes

Many arrive in Ukraine through circuitous routes. Some Somali migrants, for example, would leave their country for a Gulf state such as the United Arab Emirates, then fly to Moscow with false documents or student visas.

From there, smugglers would drive them from Russia to Ukraine and then take them to the border with Slovakia.

The number of people who cross into the EU this way each year – which has included migrants from as far afield as Somalia, Sudan, Guinea, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Vietnam – has been in the low thousands, as opposed to the tens of thousands who go via Turkey or across the Mediterranean.

The readmission agreement and increased border patrols appear to have had some success – officials from the State Border Service report a drop in the number of illegal crossings detected at Ukraine's western borders in the past two years – but it has come at a price.

A 2011 report by the German non- governmental organisation (NGO) Pro Asyl documented multiple incidences of corruption in Ukraine's asylum system, where officials would demand bribes in return for people's release or other preferential treatment.

A year earlier, Human Rights Watch found evidence of torture and arbitrary de- tention of asylum seekers by Ukrainian border guards.

Those seeking some form of humanitarian protection can find themselves trapped in a vicious circle.

Ukrainian law stipulates a mandatory one-year prison sentence for anyone caught trying to cross the border illegally.

This is, in theory, to be followed by deportation to the person's country of origin.

If the person keeps trying to enter the EU and keeps getting caught, they face a potentially endless circuit of capture, imprisonment and release.

Maksym Butkevich of the NGO No Borders told The Africa Report about one Somali man who spent four years in and out of immigration prisons before eventually making it to Germany.

An alternative for refugees is to claim asylum in Ukraine.

There is little state support for asylum seekers and many are at the mercy of smugglers to whom they may owe money.

Vinnytsia, in central Ukraine, used to be a town where Somali immigrants congregated, but many have recently moved to a Kiev suburb.

A few hundred people are housed in refugee hostels in Mukachevo and in the Black Sea port of Odessa.

Ukraine's own refugees

For now, the fate of refugees in Ukraine has been overshadowed by a far larger crisis provoked by the war in eastern Ukraine.

As of September, the Ukrainian government estimated there were 310,000 internally displaced people from both eastern Ukraine and Crimea, the latter of which was annexed by Russia in March.

NGOs that in recent years have worked mainly with non-European refugees have been providing legal support and trying to find accommodation for the internally displaced.

This crisis, too, has affected a different group of migrants from Africa.

The city of Luhansk, a centre of the separatist revolt, has a university that before the conflict was popular with students from Nigeria.

There was talk that some of these students had been kidnapped by separatists or had volunteered for one of the separatist battalions.

Migrant activists in Kiev tell The Africa Report that these rumours are unfounded.

A spokesman for Fab Educational Services, a Lagos-based agency that had arranged student placements in Luhansk, explains that the students moved to safer parts of the country.

In some cases, they had been able to transfer to other universities.

As for the asylum seekers, their situation remains precarious.

As Ukraine draws closer to the EU, its treatment of migrants is likely to be placed under closer scrutiny.

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