As the May 1, 2004 date for the European Union's ambitious enlargement approaches, the bloc's Eastern candidates are multiplying efforts to stem the flow of mainly Asian illegal immigrants through their borders.
Every year tens of thousands of people, from as far away as India, Pakistan, Chechnya, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iraq, China and Vietnam, seek to cross the borders in countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia.
Fleeing political and economic instability and war, they are lucrative prey for highly organized traffickers operating at the often porous borders of the EU's future members, providing a headache for the authorities there.
Andrzej Wojcik, spokesman of the Polish border guard in the eastern region of Bug, said the numbers are increasing.
Poland, the EU's biggest candidate country with a population of 38 million, is also an attractive destination for people from neighboring Ukraine and Belarus, who take advantage of their chance to spend three months there without a visa to get better paid work across the border.
In Slovakia police say that so far this year they have intercepted a total of 13,056 people seeking to reach EU members Germany and Austria.
In the first 10 months of 2000, Slovenia, once a part of Yugoslavia which lies on a key route from the Balkans, says it stopped more than 6,200 illegal immigrants.
In the EU's more distant future members, like the Baltic state of Lithuania, only dozens of people are arrested, Rokas Pukinskas, an analyst of the border guard said.
Aware of its responsibilities, Poland, which will form the EU's external frontier with the outer world after enlargement, is working all out to meet the union's tough standards.
Poland has to have a border post every 25 kilometers - that means a total of 232 crossing points.
What's more, it will have to recruit around 1,000 extra border guards next year.
"We are equipping ourselves with the most sophisticated material," border guard spokesman Wojciech Lechowski said, mentioning machines to detect body heat.
Polish Interior Minister Krzysztof Janik said that by Dec. 31, 2003, Poland would be "98 percent in line with European standards."
It all adds up to a financial strain: It will cost 100 million euros in 2003 for Poland to do what is needed, with money coming from government coffers, the EU and neighboring Germany.
"We estimate the overall investments that Slovenia will have to make in order to fully enter into the Schengen area by 2006 at some 320 million euros," the deputy director general of Slovenia's police Marko Gasperlin said.
Accession to the EU in May 2004 will not entail automatic membership of the Schengen accord, which has been signed by most of the current EU members.
New countries will have to prove themselves for three years before joining the arrangement.
On top of the heavy border-revamp programs, EU candidate nations also have to deal with people who try to illegally cross their borders.
"First we try to send them back [from where they came] and manage [to do so] in 70 percent of cases," Slovenia's Gasperlin said.
The story is the same in other EU candidates. However, in 2001, out of 11,064 administrative expulsions ordered in the Czech Republic only 2,258 actually took place.
The others ask for refugee status, a tactic recommended by traffickers.
Slovakia's immigration office said that the number of asylum seekers increased more than fivefold between 2000 and 2001, up to 8,151 from 1,556 people.
At the end of a tough journey of several months, would-be immigrants are unwilling to abandon their quest to reach the West at the last hurdle.
After waiting for an answer on their asylum request for a year, if they get a negative response, they simply slip discreetly into Germany, Poland said.