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Ukraine could offer terror route to Europe

Marat Nurmagomedov is in hiding in Ukraine after joining IS in syria

John Sparks

Moscow Correspondent

John Sparks

The village of Karata clings precariously to the walls of a river valley in the Russian state of Dagestan.

It is a picturesque spot and we watched as residents worked and prayed and tended to verdant gardens, cut from the sides of the surrounding mountains.

But there is one patch in this community that has clearly gone to seed.

It belongs to a pensioner called Kazim Nurmagomedov and he has not really touched it in the past three years.

Instead he was busy dealing with a family tragedy – a series of traumatic events that began when his youngest son Marat went to Syria to join so-called Islamic State.

Mr Nurmagomedov said it came as a terrible shock.

Marat was married, his wife was pregnant and he was financially comfortable as well. It did not seem to make any sense.

Father of Marat Nurmagomedov who is in hiding in Ukraine after joining IS in syria
Image: Marat’s father says he would not give up trying to bring his son back

“The first few days I was honestly, in total shock. My wife and I didn’t know what to do. The first thing we tried was simply contacting him although we didn’t own a smartphone at the time. When I reached him, my first question was, why did you do this?”

This sense of bewilderment was not Mr Nurmagomedov’s alone.

It was a common feeling in fact, after 30 residents left Karata to join IS in Syria. The authorities did little – but the 62-year-old former businessman took a different approach.

He decided he would go to Syria himself and track his son down.

“Even if I was 80-years-old I would have done the same. It was an emotional thing to do. I needed to understand what he had done.”

In 2013 he slipped into Syria and found his youngest son training with other jihadists in Aleppo. He then tried to persuade Marat and the rest of the unit – to go home.

“I couldn’t change (my son’s) mind during my week in Syria. He’s is not like a computer, he is a human being. They were all convinced that they were doing the right thing, ready to die for Allah and jihad. I could see it in their eyes.”

Mr Nurmagomedov went back to Russia – but he did not give up. Using the Whatsapp messenger on his brand new smartphone, he persuaded his son to leave by reminding him of his wife and child.

That was his “weak point” remarked Kazim.

Still, it took another two years to come up with a plan to smuggle Marat out.

“I devoted all my time to it, meeting people, travelling back and forth, to Turkey, four months in Egypt, Moscow many times. Although I was dreaming of coming here to plant vegetables and flowers with my wife.”

Marat managed to escape with his father’s help but he has not returned to Russia.

Instead, he is living in the shadows, in a rundown spot in southern Ukraine – and we met the softly-spoken 33-year-old in his spartan-looking bedsit.

He told me he could not go home.

Marat Nurmagomedov is in hiding in Ukraine after joining IS in Syria
Image: Marat Nurmagomedov is in hiding in Ukraine after joining IS in Syria

“I am a wanted man in Russia and I will be immediately jailed. In Dagestan, the intelligence services are cruel and tough and there are cases where they killed people or tortured them to death.”

You can find Marat Nurmagomedov’s name is on the Russian government’s ‘active terrorist list’ – number 5035 to be exact – but the bespectacled ex-jihadi says he does not pose a threat to anyone.

“No, of course not. I am not dangerous. It’s against my beliefs. Now, I now understand these people are mistaken and they will go to hell,” he says.

He is not the only former fighter holed up in Ukraine. Community activists and analysts told us that there are 400 to 500 ex-jihadists from Syria and Iraq in hiding there.

The majority it’s thought are Russian-speakers from Russia or Central Asian states. They make their way to Ukraine because they are able to communicate and make arrangements to move on.

“They come here to get passports – Ukraine is a corruption hub,” says writer and columnist Ekaterina Sergatskova.

“If you have real Ukrainian passport then you can then get a biometric passport and you can move to Europe.”

Earlier this month, Ukraine inked a visa-free travel deal with the European Union which allows its citizens to visit most European countries for up to 90 days.

Ukraine’s old-style paper passport has been upgraded, but critics like Ms Sergatskova argue that you can still get a fake one for a couple of thousand dollars from a battalion of corrupt civil servants.

In response, the State Migration Service told Sky News that the new biometric passport features mean that “massive illegal documentation is almost impossible”.

Mural bearing the logo of the Islamic State
Image: There are up to 500 ex-jihadists from Syria and Iraq hiding out in Ukraine

Kazim Nurmagomedov accepts that his youngest son will not return to Karata, and at the moment he is simply trying to keep him out of jail. But that is not the only problem he is dealing with.

The second of his three sons, Shamil Nurmagomedov has spent the past six months in a Russian prison on suspicion of financing terrorism after he sent Marat 200,000 roubles (£2,640) by bank transfer in 2013.

Shamil – who is 5041 on the government’s terror list – is currently awaiting trial.

Certainly, Kazim’s desire to spend time in the garden will remain the stuff of fantasy.

When he is not trying to look after his family, he fields calls from desperate mothers and fathers busy searching for their own children.

In fact we were with him when one couple walked down his overgrown driveway to see him.

Their son left for IS last year and they had not heard from him for months.

The anxious looking pair were hoping the 62-year-old pensioner could provide some contacts and advice, but there was little he could say.

“I am afraid the chances are low,” he told me. “I didn’t want to say it out loud but there is little hope. If they can’t get in contact for a few months he is probably dead.”

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    Migrants in Calais
    Image: About 700 migrants are still thought to be in the Calais region

    The French interior minister has told Sky News the migration crisis in northern France is the UK’s problem as much as it is France’s.

    Gerard Collomb was speaking as he visited Calais – the focal point for migrants – with French President Emmanuel Macron, and ahead of a key Anglo-French summit in London on Thursday.

    “It’s a problem between France and Great Britain,” Mr Collomb said.

    “It’s not just our problem or your problem but we have the same problem with immigration and, as the President said, we must welcome refugees but not welcome all the world.

    “We work together and when we will go (to) London after tomorrow we will talk about that.”

    Speaking to police and security forces in the town, Mr Macron said: “I am here in front of you, two days before a Franco-British summit.

    France's interior minister Gerard Collomb
    Image: France’s interior minister, Gerard Collomb

    “And it is essential to come and experience the reality that you have been living for several months, several years, and to draw the consequences and convey in 48 hours, with Theresa May, several issues that we need to work on in our common management.

    “We must better manage the issue of unaccompanied minors, reinforce the police cooperation in Calais and with the countries of origin and transit, unblock funds to support important projects for the development of the Calais people.”

    Local charities estimate that nearly 1,000 people are still camped out in northern France desperately hoping to get into Britain, despite the demolition of the Calais jungle 15 months ago.

    Francois Macron in Calais
    Image: Francois Macron was warmly received by the people of Calais

    Just hours before the President and interior minister arrived, Sky News witnessed the daily attempt by some of the young migrants to access trucks bound for the UK.

    The demolition of the notorious jungle camp in October 2016, under the orders of Mr Macron’s predecessor Francois Hollande, significantly reduced the number of migrants concentrated in one area.

    However, many just dispersed to smaller camps across northern France.

    Others went to Paris, where numbers have dramatically increased.

    Calais remains a magnet for hundreds of young people determined to reach the UK.

    On Thursday, Mr Macron will call for a five-point plan to help solve the situation. It will include:

    A group of teenagers huddle around the back of a lorry and get in
    Image: A group of teenagers huddle around the back of a lorry and get in

    :: Better control of migratory flows
    :: A better welcome for asylum seekers
    :: Acceleration of the processing of asylum applications
    :: Working at EU level to ensure the laws of expulsion for failed asylum applicants are more effective
    :: Promotion of the integration of refugees

    In 2017, there were 100,000 asylum applications in France, which represents a 17% increase on 2016.

    Anecdotally, most in northern France are from countries like Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan in Africa, as well as a significant proportion from Afghanistan.

    Estimates of the numbers currently in the area vary, largely because they are moving all the time.

    The police have orders to prevent the pitching of tents. The consequence is a continuous game of cat-and-mouse which often leads to violent confrontations.

    Local charity workers, whose constant presence in the area gives them the most up-to-date understanding of the situation, say there are about 700 migrants around Calais and a further 300 or so to the east in Dunkirk.

    Government officials claim the number is smaller, with between 350 and 500 in and around Calais.

    In the hours before Mr Macron’s arrival, Sky News watched a small group of young African men as they attempted to stowaway in a refuelling lorry.

    We filmed from a distance as they ran towards the rear of the Croatian-registered vehicle. Four of them climbed into the rear trailer. The others looked for hiding places under the truck, and then gave up and ran off.

    Mohammas Maroufkhil
    Image: Mohammas Maroufkhil spoke to Sky News about his attempts to enter the UK

    Minutes later, we approached the driver who was aware of the migrants’ presence. He opened the trailer and two heads popped up from between the cargo.

    Abruptly, he shooed them away. Haulage firms are dealing with this on a daily basis.

    The single, privately contracted security guard at the fuel depot watched, apparently powerless.

    The other two young men could not be found but the driver seemed convinced that his vehicle was empty.

    In the woods up the road, not far from the old Jungle camp, we found 24-year-old Zahid Ullah Oryakhil from Afghanistan.

    He took us to see his bed for the night, in the undergrowth under a tarpaulin.

    The £2.3m wall built by the UK to keep out migrants
    Image: The £2.3m wall built by the UK to keep out migrants

    From his bag, under his stash of bread rolls – donated daily by charities – he produced his paperwork.

    Everyone has papers. It’s their proof that they exist. Often there is written testimony too – his has been translated into English by someone he’d met on his journey.

    It outlines his reasons for wanting a new home.

    “Taliban kill my brother,” one section reads.

    Among his papers is a newish document from the French government which states that Zahid’s asylum claim in France has been rejected.

    Sky News filmed as a group of migrants tried to break into a truck

    He has been told to leave France, but he is not forcibly deported.

    Nearby, another Afghan introduced himself as Mohammas Maroufkhil. His Afghan ID, tatty but neatly folded in a plastic bag, says he was born in 1991.

    “In 2010 I did asylum (claim) for the first time in Belgium. For nine years I was in Belgium. I stay in the camps, sometimes I stay with my friends. Always I try to make my life in Belgium because I have a problem in Afghanistan,” he explained.

    He said that he had applied for asylum nine times in Belgium and was rejected every time. After the fifth failed attempt in 2013, he went to what was the Calais Jungle and made it, on a truck, to London.

    Child refugees Calais

    “They deport me from the UK on 24 March 2014 and send me back to Belgium. But I come to Calais again, and I go to England again. I go out of the truck in England. Police catch me. They send me again to Belgium.” he says.

    He then tried for asylum four more times in Belgium and after the most recent attempt, he was given six hours to leave the country.

    He is now back in Calais to try to reach the UK for the third time. He explains that he’s heard rumours that the UK’s decision to leave the EU will increase his chances of asylum in Britain.

    Mohammas and Zahid’s stories demonstrate their determination but also point to a failing system.

    Asylum claims are rejected, in some cases repeatedly, but the claimants are not sent home or helped where they are.

    Volunteer firefighters attempt to extinguish blazing migrant camp in Calais

    Instead they are pushed out of one country to become someone else’s problem. It is happening all the time.

    Not far away from their woodland home is the £2.3m motorway wall which lines the port approach road.

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    Built in 2016 with British money, it was designed to keep the migrants off the trucks. But every day proves that it is useless.

    Down the road, at the end of the wall’s reach, another group shelter from the rain under a bridge. Sodden, miserable and desperate, they wait for their moment.

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