The European Union’s​ eastern frontier cuts through Selmentsi, a village on the border of Slovakia and Ukraine. On the Ukrainian side, the road leading to the checkpoint is lined with shops selling fake designer clothes. The villagers serving in the shops slip easily between Hungarian, Russian, Ukrainian and Slovakian, a legacy of the region’s contested history. Once part of the Habsburg Empire, this section of the Carpathian mountains was taken by the Soviet Union in 1945. A glance at a map shows why Stalin coveted it: across a span of just a few hundred kilometres, Transcarpathia borders Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland which is very convenient for an empire looking to keep its satellite states in check.

Smuggling sustains the economy of Transcarpathian villages like Selmentsi. Cheap, Slovak-registered cars in one direction, cigarettes and other contraband in the other, along with a cargo that villagers in Selmentsi refer to as ‘the blacks’: refugees and other undocumented migrants from Somalia, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, the Middle East and beyond. Although far fewer people enter the EU this way than cross the Mediterranean in leaky boats from North Africa or Turkey, this eastern route has long been an area of concern for the planners charged with keeping EU borders secure. In 2008, Ukraine signed a readmission agreement with the EU which was intended to make it easier and quicker for the EU to expel unwanted migrants. Turkey signed a similar agreement in 2013: the idea is that the EU’s neighbours act as a buffer zone, taking on the task of processing and deporting migrants in return for fewer restrictions on the movement around Europe of their own citizens.

Here’s how the arrangement is supposed to work in Transcarpathia: if a person is apprehended without valid travel documents on the EU side of the border, they are given the chance to claim asylum. (Countries that have signed up to international conventions on refugees are obliged to do this.) If they decline, they are handed back to the Ukrainian border police. A local court will then usually sentence them to a year in a special immigration prison – there are two of these, both built with financial support from the EU – for disrespecting Ukraine’s border regulations, after which they will be deported to their country of origin.

Unless, that is, they can’t be deported. Cherko Ali, now 25, fled Mogadishu in January 2008 because he was sick of living in a ruined city where death comes often and arbitrarily. He caught a flight to Dubai, where people smugglers sold him a forged Russian visa and arranged a flight to Moscow. A month later, he was driven to Kharkiv in Ukraine, then to Kiev, then eventually to the border near Selmentsi. It was autumn, and his group – 11 Somalis and three Afghans, men and women – walked in the rain for seven hours across the mountains and into Slovakia. A passing car spotted them and within five minutes a Slovakian police car had arrived. The group were taken to a border checkpoint, where they said they wanted to claim asylum. The Slovak police said fine, we’ll drive you to a reception centre. It was only when they saw Ukrainian flags that they realised they were being taken back across the border.

After being handed over to the Ukrainian border police, they were beaten. We don’t come to Somalia, so don’t come to Ukraine, they were told. Half the group were driven to a detention centre in the nearby town of Chop; the car was too small to take them all, so Cherko Ali and four others spent the night handcuffed to a radiator at the border checkpoint. Later, he was placed in detention, where he applied for asylum in Ukraine: as usually happens, his claim was rejected. But Ukraine doesn’t deport people to Somalia because it’s so dangerous, and so when Cherko Ali was released early in 2010 he was left to fend for himself in a country he had never heard of until the smugglers drove him there from Moscow.

I met Cherko Ali in the offices of a local NGO that provides legal support to refugees in Transcarpathia. He told me his story in the matter-of-fact way that a person develops after months of repeating the same information to a long series of indifferent officials. Although a lieutenant-colonel I spoke to in Ukraine’s state border service maintained that all his officers were trained to treat migrants courteously and according to the law, the NGO’s staff told me that Cherko Ali’s experiences were typical. Human rights activists here and elsewhere in the country have collated numerous reports from refugees who claim that they were lied to by Slovak border guards when they requested asylum, and sent back to Ukraine. These ‘push-backs’ are increasingly common around the edges of the EU.

What becomes of Cherko Ali and the other Somalis Ukraine can’t get rid of? Until recently, they would head for Vinnytsia, a city in the centre of the country used by people smugglers as a staging post for their cargo on the route west. There, the Somalis, some of them unaccompanied minors, would live ten to a two-bed flat, frequently harassed by local police and security services. When a local human rights group began documenting their accounts of mistreatment and posting them on YouTube, its office was raided by police, who charged its founder with ‘distributing pornography’. Now the Somalis have left Vinnytsia, after being told that if they stayed they wouldn’t be eligible for legal support.

As many as several hundred are still in Ukraine, however, either pursuing claims for refugee status there, or trying again to find a way into the EU. In some cases, people have gone through the months-long routine of crossing, capture, detention and release two or even three times. Ukraine’s refugee support groups are now overstretched: just under sixty thousand people are internally displaced, having left their homes in Crimea as a result of Russia’s disputed takeover, or fled the war with separatists in the east. ‘This might be a good opportunity for Ukraine to understand forced migration,’ one official told me.

The day after I met Cherko Ali, I visited him at a temporary accommodation centre for refugees – again, built with EU money – thirty minutes’ drive from the Selmentsi border crossing. The centre is a two-storey barracks, with room for around sixty people. It’s surrounded by a high wall but there’s enough space for vegetable patches and a children’s play area. The inhabitants come from many different countries; everyone I spoke to wanted to reach the European Union either because they had friends or family there or because they felt it would be safer than where they are now. Farhana, a 23-year-old who had travelled from Afghanistan with her eight-year-old son, was frightened that other Afghans would kidnap her and send her back to Kabul because she wasn’t accompanied by a man. Gulshoda, an Uzbek exile, had been living in Germany but left because her daughter’s father was threatening to kill them. The German consulate wouldn’t help her, she said. A journalist from Turkey who fled because he was threatened with arrest wanted to reach a country where other Turkish citizens would not be able to enter easily: he feared being kidnapped. With their three teenage children, he and his wife had tried to cross into Hungary but were refused entry.

I spent some time talking to the Turkish journalist with the help of Gulshoda, who translated our conversation. On a shelf in his bedroom were some of the books he had written: several historical novels, a biography of a Crimean feminist, and a book about beekeeping. ‘I don’t feel I have freedom here,’ he said. ‘We have a roof over our head and I can spend time with my family, but I can’t even leave here to buy a drink or eat a meal by myself. I cannot call this a life.’

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