Migrants head to Ukraine to plot EU entry
By Harry de Quetteville in Chop, Ukraine
Last Updated: 1:40am GMT 19/11/2007
Ukraine has become the latest battleground for illegal migrants desperate to get to Britain as the European Union expands its borders ever eastward.
A military barracks in the town of Chop has become home to Lebanese, Iraqis, Moldovans, Russians and others desperate to cross the frontier into the EU.
For them, the promised land is agonisingly close.
The border with Hungary, and with it the EU, is just a few hundred yards to the south. To the west, the EU frontier between Ukraine and Slovakia is no more than a couple of miles away. Only a couple of dozen miles north, Ukraine borders Poland.
However, according to the authorities in Ukraine, the unwilling residents in Chop aren't aiming for Hungary, Slovakia or Poland as their final destination.
“They all want to get to Western Europe. Many want to go to England,” said a senior officer at the camp, who requested anonymity because of military rules.
For the moment, that trip to Western Europe is a fraught journey across well guarded borders. On Dec 21 however, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland are all set to join the EU's borderless Schengen zone. Within its frontiers, border controls will be abolished.
The prospect has already caused uproar in Austria, where the interior minister, Guenther Platter, has suggested setting up internal military checkpoints to compensate.
David Davis, the shadow home secretary, said last night: “The Government must work with EU partners to prevent a surge in illegal immigration when internal border controls are abolished in this country.”
Britain is facing increasing pressure from immigration. There were 591,000 new arrivals last year alone and the Office for National Statistics has predicted there will be 191,000 added to the population through direct immigration every year until 2031.
While frontier posts are being torn down within the new Schengen zone, controls are being dramatically enhanced at its eastern edge.
On the EU side are the re-inforced border police forces of countries such as Slovakia. In the town of Sobrance, nine miles from the border with Ukraine, a high-tech frontier surveillance centre has been built where officers scrutinise plasma screens displaying pictures relayed from thermal imaging cameras.
“The surveillance of this border is crucial,” said Jan Bucek, Slovakia's deputy interior minister. “The EU fears that here's where all the immigrants and terrorists could get in. But we'll stop them.”
Those efforts have been replicated along the outer border of the Schengen zone – in effect creating a new Iron Curtain.
This, however, is not a Soviet barrier to keep out the West, but a European wall against influxes from the east.
But a few hundred metres across the border in Chop, there is little sign of the sophisticated equipment being deployed in the new Schengen zone.
Down a potholed road, beyond a police patrol that locals warn is out only to collect bribes, soldiers in fatigues stream in and out of an iron-gated camp. This is Ukraine's holding centre for illegal immigrants.
“We give them healthcare and nutrition,” said the officer. “Mostly it's young men, but there are some women from Moldova – the majority are smuggled across the border.”
From next month, all illegal migrants detected by surveillance centres such as Sobrance will be returned to their point of entry into the EU usually Ukraine, which already feels overwhelmed by migrants.
“It's a real problem,” said the officer. “We're going to get more and more people.”
At the moment, thousands pass through the camp at Chop every year.
It holds about 100 people at a time, who are held there for a few days before being sent to a similar camp nearby.
Unlike many countries in the EU, Ukraine only approves a tiny fraction of asylum cases, so almost all the camp's residents are ultimately deported.
“It's expensive for us to send them home,” said the officer. “All those plane tickets. But they will keep coming.”