PAVSHYNO, Ukraine (Reuters) - “Who paid money to be a prisoner?” reads the graffiti on the wall of an illegal migrant detention camp in Ukraine where hundreds of Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Somalians and Vietnamese are being held.
In this former army barracks close to the western town of Mukachevo, Europe’s immigration debate comes to life in the men who paid between $6,000 and $15,000 to smugglers to take them out of their often turbulent countries.
But their dreams of starting a new life in the rich 27-member European Union, by sneaking across Ukraine’s border with four EU states, have been dashed. Now, bored and frustrated, many are just waiting for the chance to try again.
The EU’s eastward expansion has been accompanied by a crackdown on illegal immigration, partly to soothe voters’ fears of a surge in migrants when nine mostly ex-Communist states joined Europe’s passport-free Schengen zone last December.
This month, EU lawmakers ruled that illegal immigrants could be detained for up to 18 months and face a re-entry ban of up to five years, measures that human rights groups said would lead to a “Fortress Europe” mentality.
Though they acknowledge their crossings were illegal, the detainees in Pavshyno said it was unfair to be held so long.
“I am not a criminal. I have some problems in my country, that is why I have to come here. So they give me six months,” said Masum Billal, a 27-year-old Bangladeshi, standing in the camp’s grounds.
Like many from the Indian subcontinent, Billal flew to Moscow with a valid Russian visa, was driven to Ukraine and tried to cross the more than 1,000 km-long (600 mile-long) border with Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia.
The men are held for up to six months as authorities wade through the red tape caused by missing papers, legal statutes, EU rules and correspondence with embassies.
Most of the immigrants have no papers, making embassies reluctant to pay for their deportation. After six months, they must be released under Ukrainian law, and most head straight for the border, said Volodymyr Sheremet, a border service spokesman.
“When the embassy comes and pays to send them home, then we release them. But more often than not, the embassy doesn’t want to pay for these illegals, so that’s the problem,” he said.
The EU estimates there are up to 8 million illegal migrants in the bloc. More than 200,000 were arrested in the first half of 2007 with less than 90,000 expelled. There are no statistics on how many get across Ukraine’s border.
“I would say there are many more that make it across than are being detained, because people continue to go through this route because they are successful,” said Jeffrey Labovitz, head of the Kiev office of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
He said around 7,600 people were detained in 2006 and that the number was similar last year. The border service generally gives lower numbers — just over 3,000 in 2007.
The extension of the Schengen zone to Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Malta, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia created an area of passport-free travel of 24 countries, or 3.6 million sq km (1.4 million sq miles)
EU fears that there would be an influx of illegal migrants once the nine joined Schengen appear to be unfounded so far, according to anecdotal evidence from border guards and the IOM.
But the numbers being detained by Ukraine may rise sharply when a “readmission agreement” with the EU comes into force in two years, allowing EU states to send back illegal migrants that have crossed from Ukraine.
Although not yet in force, it appears the EU’s easternmost states have already started sending migrants back — several detainees at Pavshyno said they were caught in Slovakia, while a Hungarian police official confirmed the practice.
“If they don’t seek refugee status, we hand them back to Ukrainian authorities, if possible,” said Hungarian Police Colonel Karoly Bodnar in Szabolcs-Szatmar-Bereg County.
Sheremet said the EU had provided vehicles with heat-sensors for night patrols and guards’ pay had risen to the equivalent of $400 a month, above the national average wage of $350, which should temper any temptation for corruption.
Under the readmission agreement, the European Commission also gave Ukraine over 30 million euros ($47 million), some of which went towards opening a new detention centre on a crossing point with Poland, with others to be opened soon.
Pavshyno has never been registered as a detention centre, so cannot qualify for state cash. Funding instead comes from the border guards’ budget, just enough to cover shelter and food for the 350 detainees. The barracks was built to hold 250 people.
Using EU cash, the Austrian branch Caritas and local charity NEEKA provide some of the detainees’ needs: food, soap, phone cards, though they say these are worth too little to call home.
The detention building is claustrophobic — four triple bunk beds are squeezed in rooms of 12-16 sq meters (129 to 172 sq ft). Migrants can play cricket or volleyball in a large yard, but their frustration is visible.
“In this camp, there is no life. The food is not good. They cook only potatoes. Three times we only eat potatoes, we have problems with our bellies,” said Bashir Ali, 16, from Somalia. Officials say the sick are taken to a nearby hospital.
Ali said he had his refugee status rejected here after paying $6,000 to reach the EU via Dubai, then Moscow.
“There is a mafia. They say ‘we are helping you’. They take all of my money but I haven’t got anything for it.”
Additional reporting by Kriszta Fenyo and David Chance in Budapest; Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile