Trapping Somalis at the gates of Europe
- February 03, 2012
The intrepid William Hague has been visiting Mogadishu in preparation for the international conference on Somalia to be held in London later this month. In the same week in which our helmeted foreign secretary ventured into what he called the world’s ‘most failed state’, Amnesty International reported that riot police entered the Migrant Accommodation Centre in Zhuravichi, Western Ukraine, where nearly seventy mostly Somali asylum seekers have been on hunger strike since 6 January.
What do these events have in common? The answer is more than you might think. This month’s conference is intended to address the ‘root causes’ behind Somalia’s collapse and seek ways of stabilising a country that Western governments regard as a security threat in the form of piracy and – at least in theory – terrorism. But there is another reason why the UK government is so concerned with Somalia: it wants to stop Somalis coming to the UK to seek asylum.
Ever since the Ethiopian invasion of 2006 pushed Somalia into a new round of armed conflict and civil war, European governments have done everything possible to prevent Somali refugees from reaching Europe, and Ukraine has come to play an important but little-known role in achieving this objective.
Most Somali asylum seekers try to reach Europe through the Mediterranean or via the Greek-Turkish border. In the last few years however, a steady trickle have come through Ukraine with the intention of crossing the border into Slovakia and Hungary, in the region known as Transcarpathia, which you can see here within the red circle:
Getting across these borders is no easy matter. The Slovak Border Guard has received a huge injection of EU funding in the last few years, which has transformed their eastern border into one of the most heavily-fortified borders in the EU:
On the other side of the border, Ukraine has become increasingly proactive in stopping migrants coming through its territories and accepting rejected asylum seekers sent back from Slovakia and Hungary – some of whom have not even been screened to assess their claims but are shunted across the frontier by border officials acting on their own authority.
The EU has also provided Ukraine with funding for the construction and refurbishment of immigrant detention centres, whose inmates consist primarily of migrants trying to get to Europe. Like Gaddafi’s Libya, Ukraine acts as an ‘offshore’ buffer zone where migrants can be stopped before they reach the EU, where they would otherwise be legally entitled to appeal for asylum.
Last spring I went to the Ukrainian city of Uzhgorod near the Slovak border while researching my book on borders and migration. I interviewed Somali migrants who had been trapped in Ukraine for more than a year. None of them were working – or even had permission to work. They faced racism from the local population and constant harassment and physical violence by Ukrainian police, who sometimes extract bribes in exchange for not arresting them.
Many had spent months in Ukraine’s notoriously brutal and corrupt detention centres. Since then things have not got any better. Ukraine recently approved a new law doubling the maximum detention period for migrant detainees from six months to a year ‘ for the purposes of deportation’. But as Human Rights Watch points out, Somali migrants in Ukraine are not deported, but released and subsequently re-arrested and detained again:
The arbitrary detention of many or all members of this group mirrors the situation of thousands of asylum seekers in Ukraine who are or have been arbitrarily detained because they have not been provided access to Ukraine”s asylum procedure, have been wrongly excluded from the procedure, or have not been allowed to pursue appeals of negative decisions on their claims
That is why the Somali and Eritrean migrants at Zhuravichi have gone on hunger strike, and the Ukrainian authorities are intent on snuffing it out. Last week, according to Amnesty:
Prior to the arrival of security forces, detainees at the centre had reported that they were being beaten and ill-treated by staff at the centre; that some of them had been placed in an isolation unit, without a bed, for several days; and that they had received anonymous emails and phone calls containing death threats and racist abuse. The anonymous threats included information about the date of birth and date of release of the detainees, suggesting that whoever sent the threats had access to official records. Some detainees who experience health problems have not received adequate medical care.
The harshness of Ukraine’s migrant detention facilities is not simply due to lack of resources. In its willingness to do the European Union’s dirty work, Ukraine has become a migrant trap, where men, women and children are effectively punished for the ‘crime’ of attempting to reach Europe.
These developments are unlikely to receive much attention at this month’s conference on Somalia. For updates on the protests, possibilities for action and information on the situation of migrants in Ukraine more generally, check out the Border Monitoring Project Ukraine (BMPU) website.