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February 18, 2015

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Guantanamo of the East’: Ukraine Locks Up Refugees at EU’s Behest

By Maximilian Popp

Photo Gallery: The Eastern Route to EuropePhotos

Brussels is doing all it can to prevent refugees from reaching Fortress Europe, with initiatives like funding the construction of interment centers in Ukraine. Asylum seekers who have spent time there report miserable conditions and abuse.

Hasan Hirsi has been learning German for the last year and a half, and recently even enrolled in a class that meets for five hours a day, from 1 to 6 p.m. Nevertheless, he still has no words to describe what happened to him before his arrival in Germany.

Hirsi, a 21-year-old refugee from Somalia, is huddled on a worn sofa in an apartment in Landau, a small town in southwestern Germany, which he shares with three other Somalian asylum-seekers. He is wearing a gray hoodie and has short, black hair. A retiree from Landau who has volunteered to assist the refugees is sitting next to him. He wants to help Hirsi adjust to his new life in Europe.But Hirsi is finding it difficult to forget the past. Indeed, he still has nightmares about Ukraine, a place where he became stranded for a lengthy stay on his way to Europe. He now refers to the country as “hell.” Staring at the floor, Hirsi says: “It is difficult.” He repeats the same word, “difficult,” in different languages.

After fleeing from Somalia in the summer of 2008, Hirsi tried several times to reach Europe through Ukraine. He was detained once each by Ukrainian and Hungarian border patrols, and twice by police in Slovakia. Ukrainian security forces robbed, beat and tortured him, he says. After being apprehended, he spent almost three years in four different Ukrainian prisons — for committing no crime other thanseeking shelter and protection in Europe.

Most migrants reach Europe through Italy or Greece and many of themdie on the way. A broad coalition, ranging from Pope Francis to German President Joachim Gauck, is demanding better protection for refugees on Europe’s southern border and the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, describes the route across the Mediterranean as the world’s deadliest. But when it comes to the eastern route, and the fate of migrants like Hasan Hirsi, interest has thus far been limited.

SPIEGEL and “Report Mainz,” a program on Germany’s ARD public television network, have now taken a closer look at the stories of refugees who were locked up in Ukrainian prisons for months during their journeys to Europe.

Internment of Undocumented Migrants

The European Union has provided Ukraine with €30 million ($34 million) in funding, which Kiev is using to build and renovate migrant detention centers, along with other facilities where they are housed temporarily. The International Organization for Migration received several million euros to support Ukrainian authorities in such areas as the internment of undocumented migrants. Brussels is apparently hoping that the system will reduce the number of asylum seekers in Europe — without attracting too much attention.

In 2010, the human rights organization Human Rights Watch criticized the EU for investing millions to divert flows of refugees from Europe toward Ukraine, while neglecting to take sufficient steps to ensure the humane treatment of refugees in Ukraine.

The refugee crisis along the eastern edge of Europe could now escalate in the course of the Ukraine conflict. The government in Kiev has its hands full caring for almost a million internally displaced persons fleeing the fighting between government troops and rebels in eastern Ukraine. It is hardly capable of providing for asylum-seekers from the Middle East and African countries, as well, warns Ilya Todorovich, the UNHCR representative in Ukraine.

Hasan Hirsi was 15 when he was forced to leave his home. Militants with the Islamist terrorist group Al-Shabab had attacked his village in southern Somalia and murdered his father, he says, prompting Hirsi and his mother to flee to the capital Mogadishu. “Go. You are not safe in this country,” his mother had begged. She scraped together her savings and borrowed money from relatives and friends to obtain fake documents for her son on the black market in Mogadishu. Hirsi then flew to Moscow and, from there, was taken to Ukraine in a car driven by traffickers.

Hirsi smiles incredulously when he describes his arrival in Kiev. Before fleeing Al-Shabab, he had never left his native village for an extended period, yet now, he was suddenly in the middle of an enormous metropolis. When the traffickers dropped him off at a high-rise housing complex on the city’s outskirts, he had no idea where to go. He spent several days wandering aimlessly through the wide streets, with pedestrians bumping into him and cars rushing by. At night, he slept in parks or under bridges. When he began traveling toward the West, he was detained by police and eventually taken to Pavshino, an internment camp for illegal migrants in western Ukraine.

At the time, Pavshino had a reputation among refugees as the “Guantanamo of the East.” Human rights organizations reported that facilities were overcrowded and hygienic conditions were disastrous. As long ago as 2005, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture was sharply critical of Ukraine for its inhumane and denigrating treatment of refugees. Hirsi spent months in the prison-like camp, where, by his account, he was forced to sleep on the floor and was beaten repeatedly. He was released in the fall of 2008, shortly before Pavshino was closed following international protests. Hirsi joined a group of Somalis headed for the EU border.

Arduous Mountain Route

The western Ukrainian city of Uzhgorod is a transit point for migrants from all over the world. Even last year, despite the conflict in Ukraine, hundreds still tried to reach the EU from Eastern Europe. Refugees often spend months in Uzhgorod, waiting for relatives to send them money for the next part of their journey. For several hundred euros, Ukrainian traffickers take migrants from Uzhgorod across the border to Hungary or Slovakia, usually choosing secret paths through the Carpathian Mountains. Refugees freeze to death almost every winter along the arduous mountain route.

During his first attempt, Hasan Hirsi made it across the Tisza River to Hungary in a boat piloted by traffickers. EU member states are required to examine asylum requests, but countries along its outer borders, like Hungary and Greece, often ignore the regulation and send refugees back to non-EU countries. Hirsi says that he told the Hungarian border guards several times that he intended to apply for asylum in Hungary, but that the officers simply drove him back to Ukraine. The UNHCR is also familiar with such cases of “push-backs” into the EU-Ukrainian border region.

Ukrainian security forces locked Hirsi into a barn near the border, together with dozens of other refugees. His hands shake and his voice falters when he talked about how they were tortured in the detention camp. They were kept in a dark, unheated room, he says and the guards refused to allow them to use the toilet. Many refugees urinated into bottles or onto the floor, and they were given nothing to eat for days at a time. “We were held like animals,” says Hirsi.

When migrants are apprehended in Ukraine, they are usually sent to semi-official detention facilities for a few days before being transferred to prisons. Few refugees have the chance to speak with an attorney.

The border guards interrogated Hirsi several times. Where are you from, they asked? Who smuggled you across the border? If he didn’t respond right away, says Hirsi, they would choke him and hit him in the face with their fists. He also says that his hands and feet were bound with cable ties several times, and he was given electric shocks.

‘Kicked Me in the Neck’

Hirsi cannot prove the allegations against the Ukrainian security forces, but his account coincides with information obtained by human rights organizations. In 2010, Human Rights Watch reported on the abuse and torture of refugees by Ukrainian border guards. “They hit me on the head with a pistol. I was lying on the ground, unconscious. They dragged me through the snow. They kicked me in the neck,” a migrant from Pakistan told the organization.

Several refugees independently told Human Rights Watch that they had been tortured with electric shocks. “They tied me to a chair. They attached electrodes to my ears and gave me electric shocks,” said an Afghan refugee. A Somali complained that Ukrainian security forces had robbed him and threatened to kill him. “Listen carefully. You are in Ukraine now. Not in Germany. Not in England. There is no democracy here,” a Ukrainian reportedly told them during questioning. “If you lie, you will not leave this place alive.”

When contacted, the Ukrainian government stated that it had no reliable evidence of violence against refugees in recent years. The officials noted that border guards are subject to strict supervision by governmental and non-governmental organizations.

Human Rights Watch believes that the refugees’ claims are credible. The accounts are “convincing” and precise, according to the 2010 report. They also coincide with individual observations by another human rights organization, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee.

The European Union has been leaning on neighboring countries like Serbia, Morocco and Turkey for some time in its efforts to repel migrants and refugees. But the outsourcing of the EU’s asylum policy is more advanced along Europe’s eastern edge than anywhere else.

Already in the years from 2000 to 2006, Ukraine received €35 million from an EU fund to support former Soviet states, with the money primarily earmarked to improve security along its borders. According to Human Rights Watch, about three quarters of the money went to private security firms. In 2010, the scope of a so-called readmission agreement between the EU and Ukraine was expanded to include citizens of other countries. Since then, Kiev must take back refugees who entered the EU through Ukraine. In return, the EU has made it easier for Ukrainian citizens to enter Europe.

Refusing to Treat the Refugees

Ali Jaga, a war refugee from Somalia, was arrested in 2009 during an attempt to cross the Ukrainian-Slovak border, only to end up in the same dungeon as Hasan Hirsi. The two men became friends and they later shared a room in Uzhgorod for a few months. “We were like brothers,” says Jaga. But while Hirsi kept trying to reach Europe in the next few years, Jaga gave up after his second failed attempt. “I was afraid of spending the rest of my life in Ukrainian prisons,” he says.

On a recent morning in January, Jaga, 26, is sitting in a café in a town near Uzhgorod. He now lives in an open camp for refugees, together with his wife, who also fled to Ukraine from Somalia, and their young son, who was born in a Ukrainian camp. Refugees live under unbearable conditions in Ukraine, says Jaga, with the food barely sufficient to survive. His son is sick and needs help, says Jaga, but most doctors refuse to treat refugees.

The German human rights organization Pro Asyl describes the Ukrainian asylum system as highly corrupt. “It doesn’t matter if it’s securing release from detention, getting papers or finding a bed in a camp, refugees have a hard time getting any of this in Ukraine without paying bribes,” the report reads. The Ukrainian government counters that it is effectively fighting corruption.

In January 2012, Hasan Hirsi was preparing to die. After his first failed escape attempt, he tried three more times, and each time he was caught and locked away again for several months. Then he joined a hunger strike with several dozen inmates at the Zhuravychi Prison.

Zhuravychi is in a remote area on the border with Belarus in northern Ukraine, 50 kilometers from the city of Luzk. The region is empty, with no structures lining the roads, which are themselves empty of cars. A bumpy dirt track leads past fields, swamps and dead tree trunks into a conifer forest.

The Ukrainian military once used Zhuravychi as a barracks, but today the government houses migrants in the building. Most of the inmates in Zhuravychi are refugees who were caught in an attempt to cross the EU’s external border. They are held in the camp for up to a year, with some landing there more than once. The drastic punishments are intended to deter refugees from attempting to enter the EU, says Marc Speer of the group

Working as a Mechanic

Officially, politicians in Brussels and Kiev don’t refer to camps like Zhuravychi as prisons, but as “accommodations.” Nevertheless, they are internment camps that the refugees are not permitted to leave.

The inmates in Zhuravychi live behind barbed wire and concrete walls, and men in military garb guard the premises. Some of the prisoners, like Hasan Hirsi, fled the wars in Somalia and Afghanistan. Their arrest serves “no legitimate purposes” and constitutes a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, the UNHCR says critically.

In 2011, the EU declared that it intended to secure humanitarian standards for refugees by providing funding for the detention facilities. The European Commission had not commented on the current accusations by the editorial deadline.During the hunger strike, Hirsi ate almost nothing for six weeks. Ultimately, though, he was violently forced to eat, as were the other inmates. When he was released eight months later, he made his way to the border city of Uzhgorod once again. In 2013, he successfully fled to Germany through Slovakia. It was his fifth try, five years after he had left Mogadishu.

The young Somali now plans to finish his schooling in Landau and eventually find work as a mechanic. Hirsi folds his hands. Looking teary-eyed, he says that he has one other wish: That his friend Ali Jaga may one day escape from Ukraine, just as he did.