Czech border guards rely on luck Few: Four men and a dog patrol a 10-mile stretch of the Czech border. Only a small fraction of an estimated 20,000 illegal immigrants get caught.

Sun Journal

October 29, 1998|By DAVID ROCKS | DAVID ROCKS,Special to The Sun

STARY HROZENKOV, Czech Republic -- With only the stars in the cloudless night sky to guide him, Vit Blaho picks his way along the low ridge separating the Czech Republic from Slovakia, his eyes trained on the woods to either side, his ears alert to any unusual sounds.

"It's pretty much just luck if we manage to find anyone," the 32-year-old border guard sighs as he patrols the 10-mile stretch of frontier his station is assigned to cover. "There are lots of them," he says of the illegal immigrants he's meant to intercept, "and not very many of us."

In fact, on this chilly night there are only four: Blaho walks the rocky ridge-top path by himself, while his partner keeps an eye on a Jeep road a half-mile away. A two-man canine patrol lower in the valley follows the trained nose of a German shepherd.

"We need at least seven patrols to cover this part of the border," Blaho says, gazing out into the dark night. "But it's rare that we even have two."

And that worries those charged with stopping the flood of economic migrants looking to clean houses, mow lawns or hammer nails in Paris, London, Frankfurt, Germany, or Prague, the Czech capital. At least 10,000 people a month illegally cross from central and eastern Europe into western Europe, according to Migration News Sheet of Brussels, Belgium.

Most border formalities between European Union member states were removed in 1993, meaning that illegal immigration must be stopped at the outer boundary of the union. That frontier is now the eastern borders of Germany and Austria, where border police have budgets and equipment to match their countries' economic strength.

Their responsibility

As the union expands sometime in the next decade, however, protecting its borders will become the responsibility of the poorer and less-organized countries of central and eastern Europe -- the Czech Republic, Estonia, Poland, Hungary and Slovenia. EU authorities fear that the new members' borders will be too porous.

"We think there's considerable work to be done," says David Ringrose, deputy chief of the EU's delegation in Prague.

While the problems of patrolling the eastern borders of Poland and Hungary will no doubt create substantial headaches, the border between the Czech Republic and Slovakia presents a unique problem. Six years ago, it didn't exist. During the 74 years of the Czechoslovak federation, it was regarded as an internal boundary, like the line between Maryland and Pennsylvania. There were no security forces along the rivers, ridges and meadows that five years ago became the frontier between the independent Czech and Slovak republics.

Today, the roads and paths that crisscross the area are the main route of entry for illegal immigrants to the Czech Republic. In 1997, nearly 2,500 people from Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and points farther afield were detained while illegally crossing the Czech-Slovak border. This year's totals are running about 20 percent ahead of last year's. Most officials estimate that only 5 percent to 10 percent of those who make the crossing are caught -- which means that perhaps 1,500 to 2,500 people per month get through.

Maj. Josef Kubanik, who heads enforcement on the toughest section, a 22-mile stretch that includes Stary Hrozenkov, knows why. A bear of a man who wears his shirt unbuttoned almost to the waist, Kubanik cites inadequacies in staffing and equipment.

Batteries on the radios the patrols carry are so old they run out half-way through a shift. Only six vehicles are available, and each allotted just 40 gallons of gasoline per month -- about a week's worth of driving. Kubanik's headquarters has no holding cell for the immigrants his agents manage to intercept. "We don't even have enough money for toilet paper," he says, "so we have to bring our own."

German patrols, by contrast, have electronic detection systems, helicopters, four-wheel-drive vehicles -- and enough gasoline to operate them.

Broken spider webs

Kubanik's men -- most of whom come from local villages and have years of experience in the woods and hills around Stary Hrozenkov -- rely on instinct and centuries-old methods of detection, taking their cues from broken spider webs, spooked animals or snapped twigs.

The guides -- mostly local Czechs and Slovaks -- who lead illegal immigrants across the border outman and outgun the police. Many have cellular telephones, radios and vans that can carry 30 or more people per trip. On nights when they want to move immigrants, they simply track the police patrols and then find an unmanned route across the border.

"The criminals are always a step ahead of us," Kubanik says with a gesture toward the map sitting above his desk. "They figure out a new route, some new method. And then we have to catch up with them, so they figure out something even newer. It's like a game, but a dangerous one."

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