background: Go West ...

Labour and Transit Migration from and via Transcarpatia, Ukraine

15.Jul.07 - The city of Ushgorod, with about 125 000 inhabitants (1) lies in Transcarpatia, Ukraine, right beside the external EU border between Slovakia and Hungary. For the deterence experts Frontex (2) this is one of the most important "problem zones for illegal immigration”. Transcarpatia is a focal point in a double sense: It’s where tens of thousands of Ukrainian workers originate and the transit site for innumerable refugees and migrants from countries of the Global South.

The discrepancies cannot be missed: Visible signs of massive poverty exist even in the eastern regions of Hungary, yet behind the border crossing the situation is even worse. The state of most of the houses and the clothes people wear lead one to guess that the average income often does not exceed 70, sometimes 120 and seldomly 150 Euros. And that presumably only for those who have managed to secure work at the (as yet?) meagre Maquiladora (3): At the Skoda/VW factory directly behind the border at Chop or at the Japanese-US car supplier Yazaki, a few kilometres further towards Ushgorod. These workbench extensions are branches of the car industry that has extended to Eastern Europe (4) over the last years.

Here in Transcarpatia, not far behind the EU border, a few global players hope for a long-term low wage paradise, where without a doubt the following saying applies: "It’s terrible to be exploited by a transnational corporation, but it’s (often) worse not to be".

This is because people in this region have few alternatives: back when the Soviet Union still existed there was already little industry, the agricultural possibilities are limited by the Carpathians and tourism is as yet not well developed. Many have no other choice but to eke out a living with small trading opportunities or petrol smuggling (5). Or, they can emigrate: to the Czech Republic or to Russia, to Portugal or the USA (6), be it as seasonal labourers, as au-pairs for a few months, as construction workers or as domestic helpers for a few years. And many don’t come back at all, at best for a visit on important family holidays.

Over 40% of the working population of Transcarpatia is employed on a temporary basis or works abroad permanently. In earlier years it was particularly men who left. Today equal numbers of women make this move. Although visas to the West are becoming more and more expensive, they can (still) be organised, thus illegal border crossings for Ukrainians are an exception. But tourist visas are only valid for three months and holders don’t qualify for work. Jobs and the ability to earn money are therefore usually "illegal” from the start and additionally, many people become "overstayers” (7). Nevertheless, through different legalisation campaigns in southern Europe in the last few years (8) many Ukrainians were able to regularise their status. However, this status was always tied to certain conditions, and in the first instance to their workplaces. The reason for this is that everywhere in Europe compliant workers are needed for the different low wage sectors (9). Therefore it’s even more surprising that migrant workers, despite such exploitative conditions, are able to send immense amounts of money to their families in the Ukraine and specifically, in Transcarpatia (10). Like many countries at the lower end of the global wage scale, these transfers, these remittances, have become a central source of income. This is not only apparent in the increasing number of Western Union offices (11) there, but also in how the savings of migrant labour are creating new opportunities: a new shop, the ability to buy a taxi, house renovations or the acquisition of expensive consumer goods such as cars, or the otherwise hardly affordable education of one’s children.

The close proximity to the EU border creates another source of income for many people in this region, one of the poorest of the Ukraine. Illegal border crossing is in high demand, the supposedly mafia-like structures of this business provide jobs in the temporary accomodation and transportation of transit migrants who come primarily from countries bordering the region, such as Moldovia, South East Asia or Africa. It’s an open secret that the military, responsible for controlling the borders, is centrally involved in this business. It’s of particular interest to the EU that Ukrainian border control forces intercept many of the illegal border crossers – as an eastern buffer state comparable with Morokko at the southern border of the EU. With a lot of money, political pressure and the active complicity of international organisations (12) for a number of years now everything is being done to turn the Ukrainian authorities into efficient assistants to the EU migration regime. This goal meets (and at the same time contradicts) a self-interest of the Ukrainian border army. Nobody should get through who hasn’t paid extra. It really does seem to be the case that nobody who turns up without a bribe is able to get through. Quite the opposite: Whoever has enough money and can find "travel agencies” with good contacts, won’t fail at the Ukrainian border. In 2003 there was an exemplary scandal when it was made public that a border army prisoner transport vehicle was used to carry people towards the Slovakian green border. The group of travellers had obviously paid well.

Those who are left behind are those without the necessary resources. And these are increasingly refugees who cannot keep up with this "survival of the fittest”. In the summer of 2004 we met a Palestinian family in Ushgorod who had experienced all of these tortures. First they had been abandoned in a forest by their facilitators and lost all their money. They were then caught by border police and detained for five months. The women were brought to the detention centre in Mukachevo, the men to the now infamous deportation prison Pavshino. A militarised starvation camp in which 250 men were locked up. Most of them from South East Asia, but some also from Africa. Many times a day they were called to be counted, were given appalling food, had no electricty, there were mass dormitories and they were constantly at the mercy of the soldiers. Nothing much has changed in Pavshino since then (13).

The prison in Pavshino is in the middle of the forest. Only once during the five months of their detention, the Palestinian men reported, three Chinese were able to escape. They had dug a tunnel from the kitchen. Other than this, there had been no way out, unless one’s asylum application was perhaps not just received but also dealt with and taken seriously. At that time, in 2004, this was only possible if the UNHCR intervened. Today at least lawyers visit the camp a few times a week. They support the detainees with their applications and pass them on to the relevant authorities.

Pavshino is the reception and deportation camp for the large part of the migrants and refugees who are caught at the border. This may be on the Ukrainian side or in Slovakia, if they managed to reach it. Officially there is a 15 km border area. Whoever is arrested there can, due to the agreements regarding the returning of refugees, be forcefully returned. And the Slovakian border control does not hold back. They’ve returned people who they found during controls or raids much further outside of this area. Who can check?!

Those who are arrested or returned are at first brought to the border town of Chop where nowadays there is a newly renovated prison directly at the border, financed with EU money. An increasing number of illegal border crossers are from Moldovia or Chechnya and because they, due to the fact that They’re citizens of former Soviet republics, are able to travel to the Ukraine without a visa, They’re released again after ten days with nothing more than a fine. They have to return to their country of origin of their own accord within fifteen days. If they try to enter again however, They’re then detained for longer. Nontheless, Chechnyan refugees have apparently been deported by train to Russia and abandoned there (14). Despite this. many of them manage to cross the EU border the second or third time they try. The risk is taken in order to work in the West as a migrant worker and to earn the kind of money in months that it would take one years to earn at home.

Whoever comes from other countries of the Global South and fails at this last border to the EU is also brought to Chop for a short period. After a few days the final stop is Pavshino. From China, India or Vietnam, from Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq or Somalia: about 400 people are interned here at present by order of the EU. The detention sentence is six months, standards like in Germany. And whoever the Ukrainian authorities are able to obtain travel documents for from the relevant embassies, is then deported. The ones who remain are "spat out” again, just like the Palestinian family who again became dependent on money from friends and family to try, this time successfully, to gain access to the West European destination country.

About 5000 persons were arrested at this Ukrainian border between 2005 and 2006, according to official figures. Yet it’s estimated that this is a mere tenth of those who do or want to get through. So, about 50 000 of the 500 000 who overcome the EU borders every year, according to the vague estimation made by Europol a few years back?

Thus one can understand why – from the viewpoint of Frontex officer – Transcarpatia is seen as a real problem zone.

And hopefully this will remain so for many years to come.

h., kein mensch ist illegal/Hanau

(1) In this text, the information and opinions provided stem from two visits to Ushgorod in the summer of 2004 and the end of 2006, collated from conversations and interviews.

(2) Frontex is the name of the European border agency established in 2005 with it’s headquarters in Warsaw. Primarily, it is responsible for the control of the external borders of the EU. Frontex ships now patrol the coast of West Africa in order to intercept Boat people.

(3) Maquiladoras are the world market factories in Mexico directly on the border to the US where the wages are considerably lower than on the other side of the border.

(4) The boom of the car industry in Eastern Europe seems unstoppable, for example Slovakia is already being called the new Detroit. There, just like in the Czech republic, many Ukrainians work in the factories (see also texts in the magazine Wildcat Nos. 76 and 78).

(5) This is proven by the long queues of cars at the border crossing to Hungary where petrol is much more expensive.

(6) At the end of 2006 the following order of emigration countries was determined: Russia, Portugal, USA, Italy, Czech Republic ...

(7) "Overstayer" is the name given to people who enter a country legally but then overstay the term of their visa or don’t leave at all, thus becoming "illegal".

(8) In Spain and Italy there have been regularisation programmes in the last years, as well as in Portugal in 2001/2002, where about 60 000 Ukrainians (!) were legalised. It’s not by accident that since then a strong migration chain to Portugal has developed.

(9) Especially in location bound sectors (construction, agriculture, household and care...) cheap labour is sought in the EU countries, whereby illegalised migrants without rights are targeted.

(10) Estimated figures: It has been calculated that 300 dollars per head are sent back to Transcarpatia every month. This is be more than double the monthly income in this region!

(11) Western Union is the largest and most well-known bank which charges high fees for money transfers. All kinds of Western and Eastern banks do business this way and no small town is now without a branch.

(12) An example is in particular the IOM which, since the 1990s, has been pushing a border and detention regime in the Ukraine in the interests of the EU (see also ).

(13) See also the excellent report by Stefan Duennwald of the Bavarian Refugee Council on the Asylum system and the Pavshino camp in the new edition of the magazine Hinterland [an english transaltion is available on the noborder website]

(14) see (13).