KIEV, Ukraine -- Migrants and asylum seekers, including children, risk abusive treatment and arbitrary detention at the hands of Ukrainian border guards and police, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
Some migrants recounted how officials tortured them, including with electric shocks, after they were apprehended trying to cross into the European Union or following their deportation from Slovakia and Hungary.
The 124-page report, "Buffeted in the Borderland: The Treatment of Asylum Seekers and Migrants in Ukraine," is based on interviews with 161 refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers in Ukraine, Slovakia, and Hungary. It shows that although some conditions in migration detention facilities have improved, Ukraine subjects many migrants to inhuman and degrading treatment and has been unable or unwilling to provide effective protection for refugees and asylum seekers.
"EU states are returning people to Ukraine to face abuse," said Bill Frelick, Refugee Program director at Human Rights Watch and a co-author of the report. "Despite a readmission deal and money the EU has poured in, Ukraine apparently isn't up to the task of respecting the migrants' rights and protecting refugees."
The readmission agreement between the EU and Ukraine that came into force on January 1, 2010, provides for the return of third-country nationals who enter the EU from Ukraine. In recent years, the EU has spent millions of Euros to improve Ukraine's migration and asylum system.
But Human Rights Watch noted that neither the agreement nor that funding absolve EU member states of their obligations under the EU charter of fundamental rights to provide access to asylum and not to return people to face torture or ill-treatment or of the EU members' responsibilities toward unaccompanied children.
More than half of the migrants interviewed who had been returned from Slovakia and Hungary said that they were beaten or subjected to ill-treatment in Ukraine. Most had tried to seek asylum in Hungary or Slovakia, but said their claims had been ignored and they were quickly expelled. Both countries also expelled unaccompanied children.
Readmission agreements are a cornerstone of the European Union's so-called externalization strategy for asylum and migration. The core of this strategy is to stop the flow of migrants and asylum seekers into the EU by shifting the burden and responsibility for migrants and refugees to neighboring countries they pass through.
"The EU should suspend its readmission agreement until Ukraine demonstrates its capacity to provide a fair hearing for asylum seekers, to treat migrants humanely, and to guarantee effective protection for refugees and vulnerable individuals," Frelick said.
While Human Rights Watch did not document evidence that would suggest torture of migrants is routine in Ukraine, those interviewed said it does occur. An Iraqi man spoke of his interrogation after his arrest by Ukrainian border guards in late April:
The treatment was savage. They beat us and kicked us and abused us verbally. They also electric shocked me. They shocked me on my ears. I admitted that I wanted to cross the border and that we were smuggled.... I felt my heart was going to stop. I was sitting on a chair. I just admitted everything, but they didn't stop torturing me.
Many migrants who were not tortured nevertheless alleged that they were subjected to beatings, food deprivation, or other inhuman or degrading treatment. All of these abuses take place in a climate of impunity, Human Rights Watch found, with victims fearful of reporting the abuse and perpetrators not held to account.
Although conditions of migrant detention in Ukraine, such as severe overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, appear to have improved since the publication in 2005 of a Human Rights Watch report about Ukraine, "On the Margins: Rights Violations against Migrants and Asylum Seekers at the New Eastern Border of the European Union," serious problems in migration detention remain.
They include ill-treatment, lack of access to the asylum procedure, detention of children, co-mingling of men with unrelated women and of children with adults, corruption, and the arbitrary and disproportionate use of migrant detention in general.
From August 2009 through August 2010, Ukraine was unable to recognize or provide protection to refugees because the asylum system was paralyzed by a political standoff. Although asylum processing has resumed, the system remains dysfunctional, Human Rights Watch said.
Because so many asylum seekers said they had to bribe migration officials to file asylum applications, get an interpreter for the asylum interview, or obtain required documentation, Human Rights Watch called on the authorities to investigate allegations of corruption and ensure appropriate disciplinary or criminal sanctions.
Human Rights Watch found that State Border Guard Service officials frequently fail to submit applications from detained asylum seekers to the Regional Migration Service, which conducts asylum interviews. The number of people released from border guard-controlled temporary holding facilities because their asylum applications had been accepted by the regional migration service fell dramatically, from 1,114 in 2008 to 202 in 2009.
Asylum seekers interviewed by Human Rights Watch complained that the Regional Migration Service's asylum interviews were superficial, that interpreters were often unqualified, and that the interviewers were sometimes harsh and judgmental. An Afghan who appeared to have a plausible claim said that his interviewer told him during the interview, "One hundred percent of you will be rejected."
The asylum system also has major legal gaps. Ukrainian law does not provide for protection of those who flee generalized violence and war or for trafficking victims. Only two Somalis and one unaccompanied child are known to have been granted refugee status, and children are barred from entering asylum procedures altogether in some regions of the country.
Unaccompanied children face particular obstacles to getting needed documentation and access to the asylum procedure because they can only file a claim with a legal representative, and the authorities in some regions refuse to appoint legal representatives for them. Decision-making is slow, and many children become adults before their applications are decided, which works against their claims.
Worse, border guards may detain children for weeks in a jail-like facility euphemistically called a "dormitory." Border guard officials put children's safety at risk by detaining them in this dormitory jointly with unrelated adults, including girls with boys and men, Human Rights Watch found.
"Despite the abysmal treatment these children receive in Ukraine, both Slovakia and Hungary have summarily returned unaccompanied children," said Simone Troller, senior children's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch and a co-author of the report. "In practice, they are returned on the same basis as adults, without considering their vulnerability and lack of protection in Ukraine."
A 17-year-old unaccompanied Afghan boy described his experience in Ukraine after being deported from Slovakia:
We passed the Slovakia border, but we were caught. We asked the police to help us. After one day and one night we were deported....I could not understand the paper I signed.... I'm scared to talk about Ukrainian soldiers at the border. They beat us a lot. They beat us to speak Russian. As soon as they took us they started beating us.... It was nighttime.... We walked to another room. A man in civilian clothes was just beating me. "How did you pass the border?" He took us one at a time. He kicked me and also hit me with a police stick and punched me for an hour, beating me the whole time. At first it was just him, then three or four others in uniform hit.
Despite a six-month limit on migration detention, severely overworked Ukrainian courts are usually not able to review cases in that time frame. In several instances, migrants said they were issued a six-month detention order but were never presented before a judge or given an opportunity to challenge their detention.
Many, including children, reported that border guards threatened to keep them detained for the full six months unless they paid a bribe.
Nothing in Ukrainian law prohibits the authorities from re-arresting migrants shortly after release and detaining them for another six months. Human Rights Watch met a number of migrants who had been detained multiple times. A 23-year-old Pakistani detainee at the Zhuravychi Migrant Accommodation Center said:
They just open the gates and tell you to leave. We are 40 kilometers from Luts'k. When we Pakistanis come out of jail, there are mafia people [waiting outside] with a list. They ask for US$1,500 and if we pay they will help and if not they will tear up our documents and we will go back for another six months of detention.