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Fear grows for migrants held in Ukraine’s detention centre

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Concerns have been raised about a European Union-funded migrant detention centre near Ukraine’s Lutsk city which appears to continue to hold an unconfirmed number of migrants despite Russia’s full-scale invasion of the country.

Located in a pine forest in northwest Ukraine near the Belarusian border, the Volyn region’s Zhuravychi Migrant Accommodation Centre is a former army barracks constructed in 1961 that was converted into a migrant detention centre in 2007 with EU funds.

In a joint investigation with Lighthouse Reports, a non-profit organisation based in the Netherlands, Al Jazeera spoke to contacts and relatives of detainees who had been recently released, as well as analysed photos and documents, which verified the detainees’ presence in Ukraine before being placed in the centre.

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The research shows that weeks into the Russian invasion, there were still people from countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan detained in this centre.

Several people were recently released with the support of their embassies, but a source confirmed there were still people who remained there.

The European Commission did not answer questions from Al Jazeera regarding its operation and whether there were plans to help evacuate any remaining people. Ukrainian authorities also did not respond to a request for comment.

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The wife of one detainee who was released last week said there was no air raid shelter for detainees and that guards ran down the street when the siren sounded.

One staff member of a non-governmental organisation said she had been in contact with several detainees in recent weeks. Al Jazeera has seen their ID documents and, in some instances, visas used to enter Ukraine.

The detainees she spoke to said there were other prisoners from Sudan, Pakistan and Bangladesh present. Some of those detained had been apprehended in the months previous to the Russian invasion while trying to cross into EU territory, they said, and were handed back to Ukrainian authorities.

Niamh Ní Bhriain, war and pacification programme coordinator at the Transnational Institute, told Al Jazeera that the centre had been part of EU’s outsourcing of migration detention and that it had allocated 1.7 million euros ($1.8m) for the securitisation of this centre in 2009.

This included the construction of the perimeter security system, a tourniquet system, an electronic door locking system, and security window tapes and bars.

Ní Bhriain said “tens of millions of euros” of EU funds had been made available to Ukraine to “contain migrants outside its borders in detention facilities”.

In the past few years, about 150 people have been held there. Up until recent weeks, about 45 people were detained there, but Al Jazeera could not verify the current number who remain.

Some detainees have been released since the Russian invasion, including several Ethiopian citizens and an Afghan family, but fears remain for those left and there are now calls for the EU to help facilitate their safe passage to the EU.

“It is extremely concerning that migrants and refugees are still locked up in detention centres in war zones, with the risk of being attacked without any possibility to flee,” said Tineke Strik, a member of the European Parliament from the Greens/EFA Group.— Al Jazeera

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