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The EU's Thin Line

As Romania and Bulgaria see their Schengen prospects rise and fall, we remember the huge risk the bloc took in accepting Slovakia.

by Dominic Swire 28 February 2011

The process of Romania and Bulgaria’s entry to the Schengen zone, a free travel and trade area of 25, mostly EU, countries has not been smooth. Their original entry date was set for the end of March, but that has been pushed back to sometime probably later in the year. At issue were the security of Bulgaria’s border with Turkey and the security of an EU-wide system that gathers information on policing and immigration in the Schengen zone. Those concerns were linked to the countries’ ability to fight corruption, which some EU members doubted based on experience since Bulgaria and Romania joined the union in 2007. The two countries had some EU funds suspended in 2008 and have continued to face criticism from Brussels for moving slowly to reform their judiciaries and stem corruption. In February, Romanian officials conducted a series of raids on customs checkpoints, arresting dozens of border police officers and customs workers suspected of taking bribes or smuggling. In 2007, Dominic Swire reported from Slovakia’s border with Ukraine on the huge challenges facing that country months before its entry to the Schengen area. This article was originally published on 3 August 2007.

UZHGOROD, Ukraine | The locals call them pidsniezchik, (under snow) after the small flowers that are the first things to poke through the melting snow at the start of spring. The innocent-sounding name, however, has another, more gruesome meaning: dead bodies, or sometimes parts of dead bodies if the animals get there first.

Discovering human remains at the end of winter is not unusual for those living in the mountainous Trans-Carpathian region close to the border between Slovakia and Ukraine. The bodies are those of illegal migrants, often from China or India, who collapse while crossing the treacherous Carpathian landscape trying to reach the European Union.

“It happens every spring,” said Viktor Dzondza, a local government worker in the Ukrainian town of Uzhgorod, close to the Slovak border. “Many come from warm countries in Asia and don’t know what snow is. Often the temperature in the mountains drops to minus-30 degrees in the winter.”

In January, this border will become part of the EU’s front-line defense against the influx of immigrants and criminality coming from the East, as Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, and seven other countries join the Schengen area.

Some worry that the line won’t hold.


The Schengen area was established in 1985 to smooth the movement of people and goods among those countries that belong. Border controls were dropped among member countries, which now number 15, while the area’s external borders were beefed up. On 1 January, the Schengen area will expand to include 25 countries and will stretch from Italy in the south to the Finnish-Russian border in the north and from the Atlantic in the west to the Slovak-Ukrainian border in the east.

Because a significant percentage of the world’s migrants either come from or pass through Ukraine, mostly to Slovakia, this border, nestled in the arch-shaped Carpathian mountain range that stretches from Slovakia through Ukraine and into Romania, will become the last passport check for the thousands of illegals who choose this route into Europe.

The International Organization for Migration estimates that Ukraine is home to the world’s fourth-largest number of migrants, at 6.8 million. Few are there to stay, said Natalia Leshchenko from economic forecasters Global Insight.

“Large numbers of migrants come on transit from eastern and Central Asia and the Caucasus on the way to Western Europe, and especially the UK. Ukraine is on the transit route for illegal migration, and so most people do not stay unless they cannot leave.”

Of those immigrants in Ukraine trying to enter the EU the vast majority head toward Slovakia. The Slovak Bureau of Border and Aliens Police recorded 2,308 illegal crossings to Slovakia from Ukraine in 2006, almost 10 times the number of illegal crossings from Slovakia’s four other bordering countries combined.

Ukraine shares 1,257 kilometers of its border with four EU states – Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. If migrants can reach the EU, they can apply for political asylum provided they can prove they are at risk of persecution in their home country. Many others simply disappear into the illegal job market. It is this fact that makes estimating the exact numbers of illegal migrants crossing the border difficult.

Corinna Milborn, a political scientist and editor-in-chief of the human rights journal liga, estimated that the 2,000 people caught each year traveling through Ukraine represent less than 10 percent of the real number. Once in Europe migrants either claim political asylum or disappear into the illegal work market.

Even with this small capture rate, detention centers in Ukraine are overflowing. One camp near Uzhgorod built for 200 men regularly houses around 400. Another in the nearby town of Chop was designed to hold 70 people yet has housed an average of 200 at any given time so far this year. The immigrants are kept in the camps until there is a sufficient number from the same country of origin to fly them home. Under Ukrainian law, if this cannot be done in six months they are set free. Many simply try their luck a second time. Over the last 15 years, 35,000 illegal immigrants from 59 countries have been captured in Trans-Carpathia and sent home.

And the problem is not limited to people. “The eastern border [of the EU] is closely associated with narcotics, in particular heroin from Afghanistan, which is leaking through into Europe. … All sorts of international criminals are slipping through,” said Stefani Weiss of the Bertelsmann Foundation, a think tank in Germany.


A 2006 EU audit of Slovakia’s eastern border found 168 shortcomings, most stemming from a number of less-than-transparent tenders organized by the previous government. “This meant other work was held up. In total we lost almost two years,” said Alexander Duleba, director of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association think tank.

Many of the concerns about Slovakia’s preparations to join Schengen have centered on its border with Ukraine, in particular the Vysne Nemecke crossing point. Although only 97 kilometers long – significantly shorter than the 526-kilometer Ukraine-Poland border – Slovakia’s border with Ukraine is notoriously difficult to police, as it winds through thick forest and mountainous terrain. Only 20 percent is accessible by car.

The approach to the Vysne Nemecke station by car – crossing on foot is illegal – reveals little of the treacherous landscape. From a distance the Carpathians show nothing of the overhangs and precipices that claim lives and hide smugglers. As the straight road leads gently uphill toward the first border gate, a giant statue of a flag-wielding soldier overlooks the line of trucks waiting to enter Slovakia, which numbered 14 one day in early July.

Sometimes they wait for more than a day. The waiting time for cars is typically up to five hours.

The problem, Duleba said, is that many local people from both sides of the border traffic cheap gas and cigarettes from Ukraine to Slovakia. They are able to do this several times a day due to free long-term visas issued to people living close by, and they are careful not to exceed the maximum allowance. “This is legal trafficking. The customs officials can’t exactly siphon off their petrol or take their cigarettes,” he said.

Joining the line of traffic crawling toward the border point that day was Atilla, an unemployed Slovak in his 30s who said he goes to Ukraine several times a week to buy gasoline, which is 50 percent cheaper than in Slovakia. The gas, he said, was for personal use. Waiting in line for about two hours, he said it used to be a lot worse.

“Today you can wait up to five hours to cross the border, but it used to take up to 10 hours before the new crossing was renovated,” he said.

Part of the reason for the increased speed is an expansion of the lanes running through the Slovak crossing point from two to five. The work was part of a 1-million-euro reconstruction, funded mainly by Brussels.

Now cars pass through an orange and blue building the size of a small aircraft hangar. Somewhere along here vehicles are scanned by a high-tech camera able to detect concealed human bodies and contraband, although there is no obvious sign of when or where this happens. The guards themselves, who are paid twice the average wage in the region, are smartly dressed and diligent.

But precious few renovations have taken place on the Ukrainian side. The drive-through checkpoint looks more like an abandoned fueling station than the edge of a country. Rusty strip lighting and frayed wires hang from the corrugated ceiling.

Trucks from Ukraine are searched for human as well as commercial cargo at a high-tech checkpoint at Vysne Nemecke, Slovakia. Photo by Dominic Swire.


It’s still too early to measure the success of the new Slovak crossing, which reopened in June. But it will take a lot of time, effort, and money to keep the operation running smoothly over the next few years. According to some estimates Slovakia will need to spend 30 million euros just to keep the facility going until 2010.

Boris Divinsky, a Slovak expert at the International Organization for Migration, said the situation is improving. Four to six years ago, he said, the proportion of those arrested while attempting to cross the border illegally was as low as 25 percent.

Back then the UN High Commissioner for Refugees considered Slovakia “a haven of smuggling activities,” he said. “However, since then much has changed in a positive way including a reduction in the number of undocumented migrants traveling through the country, so my estimate today is that over half are apprehended,” Divinsky said.

Statistics show a dramatic decline in the number of recorded illegal border crossings, from 956 in the first half to 2005 to 365 during the same period in 2006. It’s impossible to say, though, if the slide is due to fewer attempts or fewer apprehensions.

There’s little doubt that more professional border guards and high-tech equipment can help stem the flow, but they won’t solve the problem. Until the huge discrepancies between the standard of living in the East and West are addressed, the Carpathian mountains can expect to see a lot more spring flowers in the coming years.

January-June 2006

Legal: 1.1 million*
Illegal: 1,001

Legal: 7 million*
Illegal: 91

Legal: 13.4 million*
Illegal: 12

(Top five countries)
January-June 2006

Moldova: 502
China: 206
India: 172
Russia: 112
Ukraine: 88

Source: Slovak Border Police
Dominic Swire is a journalist in Prague.
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