Illegal migrants abused in Ukraine, group says
KIEV, Ukraine—Liban Farah fled violence-torn Somalia with dreams of refuge in the European Union. He made it to new member state Slovakia -- but was arrested and sent back to neighboring Ukraine, where human smugglers had helped him cross the border.
That's when the real horror began, he said. "Hell, really hell," said Farah, 20, describing a nearly three-month ordeal of beatings and abuse by border guards and police.
Migrants and asylum seekers caught in Ukraine en route to the EU or sent back to Ukraine through a deportation program with the EU risk severe abuse that sometimes even amounts to torture, Human Rights Watch said in a report released Thursday.
The EU has spent millions of euros to improve Ukraine's migration and asylum system under a program in which Ukraine accepts back illegal migrants who manage to cross into the EU, in exchange for looser travel rules for Ukrainians headed to EU countries.
"Ukraine apparently isn't up to the task of respecting the migrants' rights and protecting refugees," Human Rights Watch said, adding that victims include children.
The New-York based organization urged Ukrainian authorities to end the "inhuman and degrading treatment" of asylum seekers and called on the EU to suspend its migration pact with Ukraine, which borders EU members Slovakia, Poland and Hungary.
Boris Marchenko, spokesman for the Ukrainian Border Guard Service, said the agency will conduct a thorough investigation based on the report, but called Human Rights Watch findings "subjective and one-sided."
"It's not systemic, it may be just single cases," he told The Associated Press.
Marchenko said border guards sometimes have to resort to force while detaining illegal migrants, for example when two officers are trying to handcuff eight people at the border.
The Interior Ministry declined immediate comment.
Ukraine's top human rights official, Nina Karpachova, agreed with Human Rights Watch findings and called for better protection of refugees' rights.
Farah flew to Moscow and paid Ukrainian smugglers $3,000 (euro2,240) to help him cross into Ukraine and then onto Slovakia, where he was hoping to seek political asylum. He was arrested in Slovakia shortly after he crossed the border.
Upon deportation to Ukraine, he was taken to what looked like a military base near the border. There, Farah said, an interrogator questioned him for six straight hours about his smugglers and smuggling routes, beating him every time Farah gave a negative answer.
"Every time I said 'no' he comes to me and kicks me in my waist and chest really badly, really badly," Farah said over the phone from Germany, where he eventually found refuge.
"He was really careful not to make me bleed, he was kicking me where I cannot bleed, even if i bleed inside, but not outside," so as not to leave evidence of abuse.
Rights groups and asylum seekers allege security forces and smugglers are in cahoots, with border guards taking kickbacks or even actively participating in smuggling, then abusing migrants once they're sent back.
Farah said he is convinced his smugglers had links with border guards because he later recognized a uniformed man at the base as one of his guides.
Dmitro Groisman of the Vinnytsia Rights Group, which specializes in refugee rights, also claimed that many smugglers are directly tied to government bodies. "It's the very same people," Groisman said.
He estimated that up to 500 migrants are smuggled into EU countries each year from Ukraine. The asylum seekers pay the smugglers $3,000-4,000 (euro2,250-3,000), which amounts to up to $2 million (euro1.5) per year.
Several days after the interrogation, Farah said, he was transported to a prison where he and fellow migrants were made to undress and stand naked for nearly half an hour in the presence of female guards.
Farah said prison officials decided to free him ahead of a visit by Human Rights Watch. But his suffering didn't end there. Farah spent 2.5 months living in Uzhhorod, renting a tiny apartment with eight other Somali refugees and, he said, suffering nearly daily police abuse.
He said police would lock them up for 14 hours without feeding them. "When we asked them what we did wrong, they said 'nothing'," Farah said.
Farah eventually obtained a fake passport and flew to Germany, where he applied for asylum. He now lives in a village outside Munich and hopes for a better life, although he misses his mother, two younger brothers and stepfather, left behind in Somalia.
"Ukraine is supposed to be a functioning state, there isn't a war in Ukraine, there is everything that a nation should have," Farah said. "But the situation is really similar to what I experienced in Somalia."