Hanging out to dry behind the EU frontier
Draped over the white walls, beside a snowy sports pitch, the washing provides a splash of colour in Pavsino camp. The shirts and trousers hanging out to dry are just as likely to freeze through in the cold of a Ukrainian winter.
The men, bundled-up in sweaters and long coats against the weather, wander around in rather aimless groups, over-looked by guards in camouflage and grey fur hats.
They’re held in this camp, hidden in the woods near Ukraine’s border with Hungary and Slovakia, because they’ve tried to cross illegally into the European Union, after making their way from their home countries to Ukraine without papers.
There are 364 men held here at the moment. They have all been caught trying to get across into Slovakia and most of them, 60%, actually made it over the border before being caught and sent back.
The Ukrainian authorities say that everyone they catch applies for asylum. Of the thousands of people who have passed through here in the last few years, none has ever been finally granted that official status.
But the law says they have to be given temporary asylum while their case is being investigated, and can’t be held longer than six months. The authorities say once they are released most of them immediately try to make it across the border.
As soon as they catch sight of our camera, they cluster around to tell their stories. The uniformity of their view is striking.
They are all insistent on their right to look for a better life in Europe, and seem supremely undisturbed that their way of making that wish come true is illegal.
All complain about the general situation in their various countries, but none claims that they personally were subjected to specific persecution. They all want to talk mainly about the Ukrainian attitude and about the camp.
The most vocal group, and the largest, are the Somalis. Nuh Hassan Warsame tells me: “I want to go to the European Union but the Ukrainian police caught me and I’ve been here for three months. I like London, England, Britain. I wanted to go from Slovakia to Austria and finally London. It’s a lovely place.” Adding, “I also support Arsenal.”
What would he do if he got to London? I ask. “I am a refugee and I want to build a new life. I want to be a reporter.”
Did he have a job in Somalia?
“No. There’s been a war for years.”
There are men from Vietnam and China although none of them speaks English. There are Indians and a man from Sri Lanka who doesn’t want to talk on camera who says he has left his family behind to prepare a better life for them. Fahad Tariq from Pakistan is pushed forward by his friends to have his say.
“I was twenty kilometres inside Slovakia and they caught me there and they deported me to Ukraine, I don’t know why. I had taken 25 days to get there, by train, cars and walking. I gave them 15,000 dollars for this. There are problems in our country, there is an emergency and I wanted to get into Europe and stay in Germany.
“I want to do business there because I have a lot of money. I can do business here, I have qualifications in accounting. I don’t know why they are doing this.”
Another tale from Karwan Ahmed from Afghanistan.
“I was found in Slovakia, I came from Afghanistan to Kazakhstan, from there to Moscow and from Moscow to Ukraine. I was about 40 kilometres inside the border but the police caught me in the forests.
"As everyone around the world knows, Afghanistan is in a bad situation. We need a life, the facilities that human beings need. I want to go to any country that would make me happy”.
Would you work?
“Of course we would work, we want something to eat. I was working in a shop in Afghanistan. We need a life, need a future.”
While I want to hear their stories, they want to tell me about conditions in the camp. They say the guards and their bosses don’t speak any of their languages and don’t speak the language many of them speak, English. They claim they never get to see the benefit when the charities visit, and complain the food is always cold.
Fahad Tariq says: “They don’t give us good food, good clothes. They are giving us nothing here, even though the charities give money. There are great problems here, No blankets, not hot water, the batteries for heating aren’t working. They’re eating the money themselves, they are not giving anything. We are very, very, very unhappy”.
Food and clothing
The man in charge of the camp, Major Anatoly Zhupanov, says everything the charities give is passed on.
“They get clothing and food from a charity organisation and they get the same food as soldiers in the army. If you’d come here six months ago you wouldn’t recognise it now because the building was in a terrible state and all the money went for repairs.
“The inmates break everything, break the windows and don’t give their clothes back when they leave. They can move around in here freely, they play games, football, volleyball all day.
They get food and they’re just waiting. It’s difficult for them because they are waiting to get their asylum-seeker status. But when they get out, all they do is try to cross the border again.“
The lure of the European Union is not going to end and I can see all Ukraine’s borders becoming choke-points for people who want to leave home and better their situation, whatever the costs and risks.