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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 May, 2005, 13:26 GMT 14:26 UK
Smugglers target Slovakia borders
By Tamsin Smith
BBC News, on the Slovakia-Ukraine border

Cars with fake bumpers, lorries with secret roof panels, vans with false floors. The car park beside the largest police checkpoint along the Slovak-Ukraine border is a graveyard of confiscated vehicles.

Slovak border police carry out routine vehicle checks
Slovak border police carry out routine vehicle checks

It is a testimony to the ingenuity of traffickers and people smugglers.

"We found 38 people hiding inside," says Jurij Lechman, deputy police chief here, opening the rear doors of a foul-smelling transit van carpeted in litter.

"The immigrants inside were told to make their own way over the border through the hills, then this van picked them up on the other side," he said, slamming the door shut. "Of course we can't catch them all though, it's impossible."

When the European Union enlarged last year to include 10 new member countries from central and eastern Europe, Slovakia became the transit country of choice for immigrants and asylum seekers hoping to get to western Europe.

There are now high hopes that the EU's new external border control agency that started work this month will give extra help to police the EU's frontiers.

Clamping down

Based in Warsaw, the agency will offer training, technology and manpower.

"It's in European and international interests to do more to secure the EU's borders," Franco Frattini, EU commissioner for justice and home affairs told the BBC. "We have a lot of work still to do."

Inside the warehouse used for customs and police checks, a long line of rusty cars from the Ukraine waits for hours. Each car is meticulously searched by the Slovakian border police before being waved through.

Yasser, a Syrian asylum seeker
I didn't deliberately come to stay in Slovakia. I want to be in western Europe
Yasser, asylum seeker from Syria

"Doing this bit isn't the problem," says Jurij Lechman, apparently unaffected by the strong petrol fumes from the waiting cars. "We need help and technology to patrol the borders that run through the countryside.

"There's 98km of border between Slovakia and the Ukraine. What are we supposed to do? Stand side by side, holding hands?"

EU enlargement hasn't just piled more pressure on Slovakia's border police, but also on its fledgling asylum system.

Under the EU's Dublin Convention it is the country into which a migrant first enters or claims asylum that must take responsibility for their case and even if the migrant tries to reach another country, he or she can be sent back to this first point of entry.

Whilst asylum applications in the old member states fell last year by over 20%, they increased by 4% in the new member countries and Slovakia had more asylum claims than any other newcomer.

"I came from Syria to the EU to claim asylum," says Yasser, now living in one of Slovakia's open detention centres for immigrants.

'Revolving door'

It is a former army barracks where the grey walls have been brightened up with colourful murals.

"I came nine months ago to Slovakia, then I went to Sweden and they deported me back here. I didn't come deliberately to stay in Slovakia, I want to be in western Europe."

Out of 11,000 asylum applications made last year, two thirds were terminated because applicants simply disappeared, others reappeared if caught in other European countries and sent back.

This is the revolving door the Slovakian government can't stop.

"These people don't give up, some try five times some try seven times," says Bernard Priecel, director of the government migration office. "One Russian went in and out of our asylum system nine times.

"It's a vicious circle, and a fight between the will of the asylum seekers to get to their dream country and the reality of a less than perfect EU asylum system."

Scarce resources

Slovakian authorities can only deport migrants if claims are rejected, but with a meagre staff to process the applications, few ever reach this stage. Last year just 130 claimants were sent back.

"The Dublin Convention is putting more burden on the new countries which are the first entry points," says the UNHCR's representative in Slovakia Pierfrancesco Natta.

"There are far less resources here than in Austria and in Germany so this doesn't help solve the problem."

Slovakian Police chiefs at the border with Ukraine already know what they need from the EU to transform their work.

"We need therma vision, night vision, sensors to detect movement and more manpower and vehicles," says Mr Lechman reeling off a well rehearsed list. "I hope now they take us seriously, but we wrote many wish lists in the past."

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