Region: Zeroing in on border smuggling
Underground tunnel in Slovakia sheds light on EU border policy
Posted: August 8, 2012
A Romanian customs officer squats in a warehouse filled with smuggled cigarettes at customs headquarters in Suceava, 480 km northeast of Bucharest. On the eastern border of the European Union, the fight against contraband cigarettes from Ukraine, Moldova and Russia, as well as member states like Poland, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia, is intensifying as price hikes in Western Europe have made trafficking even more lucrative.
The discovery July 18 of a smuggling tunnel linking a private house in the Ukrainian city of Uzhgorod to a warehouse between the Slovak villages of Vyšné Nemecké and Nižné Nemecké made headlines around the world. The tunnel breached the European Union's external frontier as it ran for 700 meters at depths of between 3 and 6 meters and, to the delight of reporters and fans of The Great Escape, came complete with tracks and a trolley for moving large quantities of cigarettes.
Slovak authorities were impressed by both the size of the seizure (13,100 cartons, dodging an excise duty of 350,000 euros) and the shutting down of a significant smuggling tunnel estimated to have caused revenue losses of up to 50 million euros.
The country's finance minister, Peter Kažimír, also lost no opportunity to dramatize the situation, claiming, "It is as if it has been cut out of a movie from the Mexican-American border," linking it to one of the most heavily policed frontiers in the world.
The media, too, got in on the act, with both The Guardian and The Economist highlighting in dramatic tones the speculative statement from Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák that the tunnel could also have been used to smuggle people into the EU.
Since the 2004 EU accession of eight postcommunist countries in Central and Eastern Europe, and especially since it became clear they would join the Schengen zone, pressure has mounted on the states that maintain the EU's eastern frontier. As Poland, Slovakia and Hungary (which all have borders to the non-EU east) prepared to join, the West European media was full of menacing stories about the impending deluge of job-threatening, benefit-hungry Eastern hordes who threatened to destabilize and undermine just about everything that Europeans hold dear.
The rigorous conditions for joining the Schengen zone meant this was never likely to be the case. The new member states took their responsibility seriously, as evidenced in the Polish Border Guard slogan "Safe Poland. Safe Europe."
This was backed up by a significant influx of EU money from the External Borders Fund, which provided infrastructure and equipment necessary for modern border management. However, most of the rhetoric that focused on moving people and the supposed dangers that they present largely missed the point, while showing much about the lingering prejudices within the EU and its member states.
Protecting the 'Green Border'
The EU now has a population greater than 500 million, the numbers of people detected trying to illegally cross the eastern 'Green Border' - the strip of land between the border crossing points - is staggeringly low. Only 1,043 such cases were reported in 2010, falling to 990 cases in 2011. The overall number of detected illegal border crossings to the EU in this manner was 104,051 in 2010 and 140,980 in 2011, with the vast majority at the southern and southeast borders, with the increase reflecting the desperate circumstances of many North Africans following the collapse of regimes in the region.
Neither the EU nor the Polish border guard considers this to be a significant number, but false exaggeration of the numbers of irregular migrants living within the EU continues to direct Continental discourse. The figure most often used (8 million or 1.6 percent of the EU population) was invented by French journalists in 2005 and subsequently became received wisdom. The real numbers, according to migration research institute ICMPD in Vienna, are somewhere between 1.8 million and 3.8 million - significantly less than 1 percent of the EU population.
The situation regarding migration is routinely obscured in two ways. Firstly, migration is conflated with cross-border crime, which, with regard to the smuggling of excise goods and cigarettes in particular, is a significant issue at the eastern border, creating a threat to customs revenues.
This illegal trade is driven by the enormous price differentials for cigarettes in the EU and its Eastern Neighborhood - a pack of smokes can cost less than 1 euro in Ukraine, 5 euros in Germany and £7.50 in the United Kingdom. However, smuggling tends to be highly organized, and where this coincides with the movement of people, it does so through the local border traffic, which is entirely separate from those seeking to enter the EU to live or work, even on a short-term basis.
Secondly, the migration picture is repeatedly hijacked by stories of people smuggling and human trafficking, which are also erroneously conflated with each other. The numbers of trafficked individuals at the eastern Schengen border are negligible - the EU agency FRONTEX doesn't even give figures - and it may be that in highlighting the plight of those caught in this form of modern (often sexual) slavery, other migrants have become tarred with the same brush. Similarly, the notion of people smuggling (getting people who want to cross the border across by illicit means) links migration to crime and again is not a major problem at the eastern border.
The predominant issue with regard to both cyclical and longer-term migration from Ukraine to the EU is refusal of entry to those with a visa obtained using false supporting documents or a false reason of stay. This mainly involves people seeking a better life, to improve both their economic and social circumstances by working legally and paying taxes, mainly in tough jobs with long hours. Study after study has shown that migrants don't threaten domestic employment, usually taking the jobs that locals don't want or plugging skills gaps. However, many Ukrainians complain of a "consular sadism" and of dehumanizing procedures for getting visas.
Some in the EU recognize this. The Polish government's progressive policy sees "well-managed legal migration" as the most effective deterrent to irregular migration. This provides a welcome counterpoint to western Europe's reluctant stance on Ukrainian visa facilitation, which has meant that while EU citizens can travel visa-free to Ukraine, the same does not apply in reverse. It also challenges the denigration of the unknown and thus feared 'East.'
This same impulse contributes to the stagnation of Ukraine's EU membership perspective. Further contacts between people are needed to banish this fear of the unknown. The Euro 2012 football championship was a good start, and efforts build this bridge should continue.
Benjamin Tallis can be reached at email@example.com
Benjamin Tallis can be reached at