The vanishing

30th April 2004 at 01:00
Tighter asylum controls after EU enlargement will push the refugee problem from the old members on to the new. And Slovakia, for one, is far from ready. Ed Holt reports from a camp in Gabcikovo, whose inhabitants 'disappear' into the West in their thousands

At the Gabcikovo refugee camp in south-west Slovakia, just 30 miles from the Austrian border, Satpal is one of 800 inhabitants seeking a better life. He looks down unhappily at his bowl of soup and explains in broken English: "We need help. When will Slovakia join the European Union? Will there be no border with Austria? Austria is OK, I hear?"

Satpal, a young man, travelled from his Indian homeland - but won't say which region he is from, nor how he got here. And like many in the camp from places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Chechnya and Georgia, his first question to strangers is about the West and how easy it is to get there.

From Slovakia, which will join the EU tomorrow, May 1, more than 9,000 refugees "disappeared" into the West last year: they just walked out of the country. That figure represents most of the 10,300 refugees who applied for asylum in Slovakia, the highest number in the country's history, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Only 11 were granted asylum.

The six "open" camps like Gabcikovo are already close to breaking point under the pressure of numbers. UN officials fear a collapse of the system after the country joins the EU, which could lead to thousands more asylum-seekers being smuggled into the UK and Germany by people-traffickers.

Though Slovakia is the worst case, the UNsays that all the new countries risk being overwhelmed when new EU controls send refugees back to the countries in which they originally applied for asylum. Ruud Lubers, UNHigh Commissioner for Refugees, says some of the new states have only 15 or 20 assessors and a decade ago had no asylum system at all. "What is going to happen if thousands of extra asylum-seekers are sent back to them from the inner EUcountries?" he asks."There is a danger the new harmonised procedures will simply collapse in the new border states, leading to more - instead of less - irregular movement between EUcountries."

"It's no wonder people leave here," says Yousef (not his real name), one of scores of refugees queuing for meal tickets before lunch at Gabcikovo.

"Hardly anyone gets asylum. Why would they stay when they know that? This is just a transit country and people come here to get across the border.

They have their ways and contacts."

The camps use lunch tickets as a system of checking on who is still there.

"If people don't come for their tickets we know they're not here anymore," says one of the 12 guards on duty at the camp at any one time.

As Yousef and others head for another queue in the dining hall, they walk along corridors of the crumbling communist-era tower blocks that serve as the camp. The lighting seems permanently dimmed and the furniture in every room is worn and looks at least 30 years-old.

"There's never enough food," he says. "The portions are really small and people are always hungry afterwards. That's another reason people leave.

The portions are a bit bigger today, though, because they knew you were coming." Many of the refugees, as well as some of the guards, agree with him.

The question of leaving comes up in almost every conversation. Even people who insist they are genuine cases, not "economic" migrants, will head to the West if Slovakia does not grant them asylum.

Marila from Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, refuses to talk about her journey to Slovakia. She says some people pay thousands of dollars to people-smugglers to get to the West, but won't confirm whether she did the same. "Some people will not talk. They are afraid it will cause problems. I came alone, though. I have no family," she says, alternating between broken Slovak, Hungarian and Russian.

She says her two brothers died in the conflict and her father was recently beaten to death. "Every day for 10 years I kept saying, 'Tomorrow, tomorrow I will go.' You see your family killed off and so much bloodshed. Now I don't want to sit here and have nothing. I want to teach. I am a language teacher by profession. If they reject my appeal, I will go. I will go far away." She mentions Austria, but does not say whether she is thinking of trying to cross the border.

Two floors beneath her is Angel Rajcinov, a Bulgarian. He has been in the Gabcikovo camp for five months with his wife, Lydia, three-year-old daughter Juliano and nine-month-old Christopher, waiting for the family's asylum claim to be processed. He sits at the small table in their one-bedroom "apartment" and says he has already had one asylum claim rejected - in the Czech Republic - but is hopeful the Slovak authorities will respond differently.

Between puffs on his cigarette, he says he left four other teenage children in Bulgaria when he took his wife and two youngest children out of the country after police began threatening him and beating his family over his "innocent involvement" in a fatal car crash involving a police vehicle. He wants to stay in Slovakia and work, or "We will go far away." When asked if he would head west, he repeats: "We are not economic migrants. We are genuine asylum seekers. I want to work."

Angel, a truck driver in Bulgaria, says that conditions at the camp are not great, with basic amenities and a poor, monotonous diet: "There is hot water only six hours a day. We have to eat rice six days a week."

He and his wife receive 370 Slovak crowns (pound;6) each a month as an allowance, while they receive 280 Slovak crowns (pound;4.50) per month for each child. It's not enough, he says. "The food is in such small quantities that we have to go and buy more. The money goes on that and buying a few sweets for my daughter."

There are also tensions in the camp. Many residents blame the Chechens for anti-social behaviour. Other talk is of Russians making death-threats to guards.

The fear of these people is that after May 1, when tighter EU controls kick in, thousands of people waiting in Slovakia's open asylum centres for their claims to be processed will get fed up with waiting and will be easy targets for traffickers offering to smuggle them into countries such as Germany and the UK.

Camp director Ivan Dracka admits that he and officials at Slovakia's five other refugee camps will face mounting problems on entry into the EU, because the country will start using the Eurodac fingerprint database for asylum seekers. When a person claims asylum in an EU country, their fingerprint is taken and added to a database to enable authorities across Europe to identify if and where a person has originally claimed asylum, and send them back to that country. "Until now, it was often difficult to get any documents or proof that a person had applied for asylum somewhere else first. But with Eurodac, those people will be sent back to Slovakia if they have already applied here," he says.

The UNHCR in Bratislava has warned that this will mean thousands of people will be sent back to Slovakia, into a system that does not have the capacity to cater for them. Zolo Mikes, a spokesperson for the UNHCR office in Bratislava, says: "Normally, the goal of these people is to get to the UK or Germany and, after May 1, if these people are sent back, what could happen is that they will be spilling on to the streets and will try to escape to the West." He fears the system for dealing with refugees will be unable to cope. "It will be a paradise for people-smugglers and a hell for refugees," he says.

The six camps can only cater for roughly 2,000 refugees between them at any time, the UNHCR says. The Slovak Migration Office declined to comment, but Mr Dracka says the authorities must deal with the overcrowding problem.

"The borders with Austria will only disappear when Slovakia joins the Schengen Agreement, which will not be until 2007 or 2010," he says. The Schengen Agreement, which took effect on March 26, 1995, was signed by 15 countries (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden) gradually to abolish security checks at their common borders.

"There will still be a growing interest in Slovakia among refugees, because people will know it is part of the EU," Mr Dracka believes.

He says capacity at the camps must be increased and the police could raise penalties for people-smuggling to stop people getting out. "The criminals get between three-and-a-half and five years for people-smuggling. It's less risky than drug-trafficking." Convicted drugs smugglers can get sentences of up to twice that length.

Meanwhile, outside the small shop in the camp where refugees can buy "luxuries" such as sweets and newspapers, a group of people from India gather round as one of them is asked how he arrived in Slovakia. "I was supposed to get to Italy. I got to Moscow and they beat me, knocked me out, stole my money and stuffed me in a container. I found myself here," he says. "When does Slovakia join the EU?"

People Flow: Migration issues in Europe and data:www.opendemocracy.netdebatesissue-10-96.jsp

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