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Slovakia on EU migration frontline

“I’m from an orphanage, I have no family, no home, nothing in Russia. I want to go to Europe,” says Ivan.

Slovak border guard with vehicle Slovak guards patrol a sparsely populated, wooded border

His determination to get there is impressive. He has already been thrown out of Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – but keeps trying to get back into the European Union.

In his latest attempt, he was caught on the Ukrainian border and is now in a holding camp in the frontier town of Chop, phlegmatically awaiting deportation back to Russia yet again.

Ukraine is a major transit route for hundreds of thousands of migrants from the former Soviet Union, the Middle East and Asia, who are fleeing poverty and conflict in the hope of making it to the promised land of the EU.

Ukraine borders four EU member states. At the end of this year, three of them – Poland, Hungary and Slovakia – will join the Schengen area of free movement. From then on, anyone crossing their eastern borders will not face any more passport checks in mainland Europe.

Medical help

The European Union has been strengthening the frontier to try to ensure migrants cannot breach what is supposed to be a new “iron curtain” in the East.

Ukrainian border post Ukraine is struggling to cope with illegal migrants
But when people are caught on their treacherous journey through the hills, Ukraine ends up dealing with them.

“When we catch them, many of them are exhausted and sick. We provide medical treatment, give them clothing and food. This isn’t just Ukraine’s problem – on our side, we’re doing the best we can but we really need help,” says Bogdan Chaika, who runs the camp at Chop.

Some migrants ask to be returned home immediately, but most go on to request asylum in Ukraine. They are held in refugee camps for up to six months, but then are released and must fend for themselves, with no accommodation or benefits from the state.

But no-one we met had any intention of remaining in Ukraine. The minute they leave the camps, they will seek new ways to try again to enter the EU.

“Ukraine is just like Afghanistan, I want to be free – everything a German guy has, I want to have it too. That’s my dream. I’ll keep trying again and again,” says one man, who says he spent three months travelling overland from Afghanistan.

Border tensions

Many of the migrants say they were caught inside Slovakia, and requested asylum there, but were ejected over the border. The Slovak government insists people who claim asylum there are processed by their officials. But sources in Ukraine say the vast majority of the detainees have been dumped there by the Slovak authorities.

Slovakia map
The EU is funding the building of two more camps on the Ukrainian side of the border.

But charities have expressed serious concerns about Ukraine’s ability to maintain even the most basic standards on asylum. Just 4% of claims are approved, compared to around 18% in the UK and more than 50% in some other EU countries.

Across the border in Slovakia, the EU has been pouring millions of euros into trying to make the frontier impenetrable.

A year ago, the European Commission and several of Slovakia’s western neighbours expressed serious concerns about its security.

But now Slovakia claims it has a guard for every 10 metres of border, and has a hi-tech camera system to detect people moving through the dense forests and rivers that stretch across the frontier.

“The new technology has really improved things,” says Frantisek Roba, who has been out on patrol on one of the border service’s new quad bikes. “It’s much better now – but some people still get through – you can’t catch them all.”

Austria cautious

Visiting the new border recently, Austria’s Interior Minister Guenther Platter said he was reassured by Slovakia’s progress. But his country will keep some security measures in place.

Slovak quad bike With EU help Slovakia has equipped guards with quad bikes
“We will continue with spot checks on our border with Slovakia because it’s important to keep a safety belt in place and we need time to judge how the security situation develops.”

However, Slovakia’s Deputy Prime Minister Robert Kalinak said Europe should feel safe with his country in control of its borders.

“We take on this responsibility for all European citizens and I think the numbers of illegal migration will decrease. This border is one of the most modern of the European Union.”

However modern the border, it may not be able to contend with the magnetic pull Europe exerts over people from poor nations.

Ivan, for one, will be back again. And for him, Slovakia’s entry into Schengen is just an added attraction.

“It’s going to be so much easier to move around Europe. Now, all you need is to cross one border and then you can gallop around Europe!”

Catherine Miller’s report was broadcast on The World Tonight, BBC Radio 4, at 2200 BST on Monday 22 October. You can listen again online at The World Tonight

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