Poland tightens eastern border as new outpost of EU

Poland and seven other Central European countries will join the European Union in May - and are under pressure to stem illegal immigration from their eastern neighbors

The dense forests of this border area make a perfect cover for illegal migrants coming from the east.

Poland is bracing itself. It will soon become an outpost of the expanding European Union.

Last summer, a native American unit of the US Customs Service helped train Polish border guards to spot the telltale signs of crossings along the "green border" - broken twigs and branches, overturned rocks.

"Everyone wants to get in, legally or not," says Wojciech Woloch, an officer with the Polish Border Guard at Terespol. "A lot of people now see Poland as a stepping stone to other places in the EU. Patrolling is a lot tougher than it used to be, but I think we're ready with the equipment and increased staff."

Fortress Europe

Under pressure from current EU members to seal their eastern borders, Poland and seven other Central European countries that will join the union this May are cracking down to stem the flow of illegal migrants from Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia as well as from regions further afield.

They're rolling out high-tech border controls and strict visa requirements for neighboring lands. Otherwise, the EU says, drug, weapons and human smugglers from Central Asia and elsewhere will find an easy back door into Western Europe.

Over the past two years, the native American Shadow Wolves unit has also trained border guards in Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia in an effort to help these new EU members.

Yet as a result of the increased border vigilance, the EU newcomers are shutting out border regions that share close family and trade ties. What's more, the effort could end up encouraging would-be migrants to take an illegal route to the EU.

"I used to drive to Poland every week to make money for my family, and it was no problem," says Stanislav K. "Now I couldn't even get a visa at the embassy. There's no work for us in Belarus, so what are we to do?"

Just before Christmas, he and two friends - natives of Brest, a city across the Bug River from Terespol - raised nearly $500 from families, friends, and their own savings, and paid a smuggler to help them get across. Now the trio is working in Poland, helping to renovate a Warsaw estate.

"We realize that even with visas, the flow from the east will be difficult to stop," says Jan Wegrzyn, a director in the Polish Interior Ministry.

"Whatever visa requirement or detection device we introduce, foreigners will always find a way around it ... nevertheless, we have to meet the standards of the EU."

EU officials stress that higher standards are necessary before candidate countries can join Schengen, a security system that has lifted internal border controls throughout most of the EU. While travel within the union is mostly passport-free under the Schengen agreement, movement into the EU is strictly controlled. For new member states, tight restrictions for local cross-border trade are also mandated.

For all countries about to join, that's meant a rush to revamp equipment, retrain personnel, and introduce new rules - while struggling to maintain relations with their non-EU neighbors next door.

At Terespol, the largest passenger crossing between Poland and Belarus, border guards self-consciously display brand-new night-vision goggles, mobile heat-sensor units, machines that scan the contents of vehicles, and cameras that can detect a person hiding in a dark place or at night.

Indeed, the EU is pouring hundreds of millions of euros into bringing its new eastern frontier up to snuff, from Slovenia down south to Estonia in the north. It will spend $184 million over the next three years on Hungary alone, helping that country to tighten its borders with four countries that have been left out of the union, at least for now.

Poland, with an almost 800-mile-long eastern border lined with forests, lakes and mountains, is among the EU's greatest security concerns as May nears.

"Are we nervous? Of course we are," says an EU official, who declined to be named.

"Just look at a map," says the official. "There are hundreds of miles of unmanned territory in Poland alone, areas with dense woods to hide in. For smugglers of any kind, this is paradise. And countries to the east - Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Moldova - they have a bad reputation for illegal migration already, even before the EU expands."

Polish authorities estimate that more than a hundred thousand undocumented migrants from the two bordering former Soviet republics of Belarus and Ukraine and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad already live in Poland. Many work at undocumented menial jobs on construction sites in homes and gardens.

In search of a living

"They talk about the drug and the sex businesses being imported from Ukraine, but I just want to make an honest living," says Irina, a young Ukrainian nurse with cropped blond hair.

Irina has cleaned houses and cared for sick Ukrainians in Warsaw for the past three years. She hasn't gone home to see her daughter since August. "I don't know whether I'd get back in again, and I can't afford the risk. In Ukraine, I earned maybe $10 a week if I was lucky, and it wasn't enough to feed my family. Here I can earn four times that amount."

In Poland, all visitors from Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia have had to show visas at the border since Oct. 1.

Even basic tourist visas cost 30 euros ($38) or more and are valid for just three months a year.

A smuggling ring snared

The EU's efforts to crack down on illegal migration at the soon-to-be new borders have seen some results.

In mid-November, Hungarian and Austrian border guards broke two human smuggling rings that had helped an estimated 10,000 people from southeastern Europe migrate illegally into Hungary, then on to Austria, over the past six years.

In Poland, new passport readers detected several hundred faked documents at eastern border crossings in the past 10 months.

But the measures have isolated the EU candidates' ex-Soviet neighbors. That's been particularly problematic for Poland and Hungary, which have large ethnic minorities in those neighboring countries as well as long-standing economic ties.

"All my cousins, my niece, and my nephews all live in Poland," says Helena, a seamstress from rural Belarus. She's been to the Polish Embassy five times in recent months to apply for a visa, but hasn't gotten one yet. "With these new rules, I can only get a visa for a short time, just once in a year, and I have to show I can afford the stay. I feel like this is a new wall for us, one we cannot get through."

Concerned about relations with their non-EU neighbors, Polish government officials have argued at the EU for more lenient visa requirements for local cross-border traffic. In September, the European Commission proposed a new "local visa" for residents of border areas in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus who need to travel short distances into the EU.

Flexible visas?

The new visa, if approved, would be issued for people who have relatives or property on the other side; it would also help facilitate short- distance commercial travel between countries such as Poland and Ukraine.

However, the proposal is controversial among current EU member states, all of which still need to approve the plan. Meanwhile, some analysts say a dangerous division between EU and non-EU is developing nonetheless.

"People on the other side of those borders don't see what's going on at the policy level, or what the concerns [of the EU] are," says Heather Grabbe, a researcher at the Centre for European Reform in London.

"What they care about is whether or not their daily lives have changed as a result of the EU expansion," she says. "And they have. This new border is a big deal for Russia, for Ukraine, for Belarus. It's already disrupted trade and daily cross-border traffic, and it's kept them from seeing their relatives."

Experts at Poland's Institute of Eastern Studies say the country's cross-border trade with Belarus, Ukraine, and Kaliningrad also risks collapsing under the new visa regime. Though the Polish government doesn't track this type of trade, it estimates it totaled 700 million euros in 2002.

Migrants, meanwhile, say they'll take the illegal route into "Fortress Europe" if need be. Already smugglers have set up shop in border towns like Brest to tempt locals eager to get back to the other side. The smugglers are "easy to find," says Helena.

"You just go to the market and ask around, and they appear," she says. "They ask as much as 600 euros ($760) to get just a few kilometers over [the border] in a "fool-proof" way, and about 300 euros ($380) for forged passports," she says.

"I never would have thought of doing something like that before, but if I had the money now, I'd try."

This is part two of an occasional series. The first article ran on Dec. 9, 2003. www.csmonitor.com/2003/1209/p09s01-woeu.html

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