Thousands of illegal immigrants “disappear”, how Albania is turning into a springboard to cross the fence of the European Union

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    During the years 2018-2020, about 13 thousand illegal immigrants, who applied as asylum seekers, “evaporated” without waiting for the start of procedures. Meanwhile, only one Syrian family is currently housed in the Babrru national reception center, adding to suspicions that Albania is being used as a springboard by thousands of migrants aspiring one of the European Union countries.


    Author: Nevila Dervishi

    Muad, a 20-year-old boy from Morocco, who a month ago was brought to the premises of the Great Mosque of Durres, sent a message from Italy. He had succeeded. His almost two-year trekking ordeal in several Western Balkan countries has come to an end.

    “People in Albania were good. They treated us well. They helped us. The police did not bother us either … There was no question of violence …, because in Serbia I was violated extensively … “, Muad told Investigative Network Albania , shortly before starting the journey of hope .

    Muadi, clandestine from Morocco, near the Great Mosque in Durrës

    Muad is just one of thousands of refugees from the Far East, using Albania as a springboard to reach Europe, their promised land.

    All the migrants who used to visit the mosque a month ago are no longer there. The square in front of the mosque is full again, but they are recent newcomers.

    They wander around the port, from where they wait for the chance to escape to European Italy, either by connecting with the traffickers, or to try their luck, secretly getting into the freight trucks that depart by ferries towards the Italian ports.

    “A ticket, which is paid to traffickers, sometimes goes up to 5 thousand euros per person”, – says for INA MEDIA a group of clandestine young people, who are waiting for the right moment.


    Albania, the path to Europe

    “I am from Syria … Please, give me some money to buy bread!”

    Since the first large waves of migrants due to the war in Syria, some of them appeared at traffic lights, begging for money for bread.

    Traffic light Syrians were in fact just the most visible part of an army of thousands of clandestines, a phenomenon that marked a galloping rise in mid-2016.

    Ylli Kumrija, head of the Immigration Sector at the General Directorate of Police, admits to Investigative Network Albania that in recent years the figures of illegal immigration have increased significantly, up to 20 thousand per year.

    “During 2019 we had 11,890 illegal migrants, of which 6,706 asylum seekers. In 2020 we have an increase of 18,843 migrants, of which 2,208 asylum seekers … “, – says the senior director, explaining that in any case they can be subject to treatment in a reception center, of returning to the territory of Greece, voluntary departure or expulsion from the territory.”

    According to official police data, migratory flows have maintained the same trend during 2021. Thus, in the first 9 months, the police have processed more than 15,621 illegal migrants, of whom 90% have crossed and been caught near the land borders with Greece.

    But, the official data seem to be only the tip of the “iceberg” of those who set foot in Albania, as in these figures are calculated only the ones that are processed by the network of the Albanian police.

    Numerous police operations, testimonies, but also videos that they share on social networks, these “illegal visitors” show that there are thousands of others, who manage to enter the depths of the Albanian territory, walking or by various means , for whom the police do not have an official figure.

    “People  (currently located in the Albanian territory) can not be counted, as official figures are needed to say how many there are”, – admits Ylli Kumrija.

    How thousands of migrants “evaporate”

    Although every year the police report that thousands of illegal migrants enter our country, they quickly disappear.

    The most meaningful measure of the “evaporation” of migrants is the number of those in asylum centers.

    Currently, the National Reception Center for Asylum Seekers in Babrru houses only one Syrian family with many members, although its capacity is for 180 people.

    INA MEDIA researched the data and it turns out that more than 13 thousand registered asylum seekers in the years 2018-2020 have evaporated without leaving any trace.

    More specifically, during 2018 there were 4,386 asylum seekers, i.e. those who were registered in the system, in 2019 there were 6,706 and a year later, 2,208.

    But, none of them has waited the long process of verification or provision of relevant documentation and are currently “disappeared” from the territory of Albania.

    The police officer, Ylli Kumrija, justifies the small number of asylum seekers by applying a policy that has made the conditions for admission more difficult.

     “The policies and criteria that must be met to be accepted and thus obtain the status of asylum seeker have become more difficult ,” explains Kumrija.

    According to official data, during 2020 out of 18,843 migrants who passed through the police process, only 2,208 received the status of asylum seekers. The rest, about 16,635, have either returned to Greece or been left inside the Albanian territory, as the accommodation capacities, found only in Gjirokastra and Korca, are minimal – only for 160 people.

    The “disappearance” of the immigrants proves that the Syrians and other foreigners released after being provided with a voluntary departure order, even those who have applied for asylum status, have used their stay in Albania as a springboard to leave towards the states of the European Union.

    Unable to control and block the movement towards Western European countries of both categories, the police have tightened the noose, only where it is easiest – to asylum seekers. The fact is also acknowledged by the leader Ylli Kumrija.

    “In 2019, there were 6,700 migrants who sought asylum, but very few of them remained until the end of the asylum application procedure, because they abused the asylum system. This category used the asylum system to transit … “, – the police officer admits the failure of the asylum scheme.

    The hazy panorama regarding the fate of those who enter Albania, whether those who fall into the police nets and then are released, or those who are not identified at all by the police structures, has significantly increased the market of those who seek rescue to traffickers.

    This is confirmed by the latest report (May 10, 2021) of the Global Initiative Against International Organized Crime (IGC), which states that the migrant trafficking market in the Western Balkans is worth at least 50 million euros a year and that Albania has turned to the favorite point to cross the gates of the European Union.

    According to this report, by enabling the crossing of Greece’s borders with Albania, traffickers benefit from 7.5 to 11.5 million euros per year.

    The Global Initiative Report (10.05.2021) and explaining map

    Migrants consider going to reception centers or other procedures a waste of time, as the goal is Europe.

    To embark on his adventure in Europe, Muad used passenger air travel to Turkey without the need for an entry visa. He benefited from an interim agreement between the two countries for Moroccan students who wanted to study at Turkish universities.

    But Muadi did not intend schooling.

    Upon landing in Istanbul, I started to provide information and find an opportunity to emigrate to Europe, ” Muadi told INA MEDIA .

    Migrants passing through Albanian territory, both those from Asia and those coming from North Africa, mainly tranverse what is called the “southern line of traffic to Western Europe” , which starts from Turkey, continues in Greece, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria and usually ending in Germany.

    Clandestine at the Kapshtica border crossing point

    (photo taken from videos they post on social media.)

    Muad’s journey to the promised land continued on foot and by accident through Greece to the vicinity of Kapshtica, near the border with Albania.

    “I was stuck there for almost two weeks, because the Albanian police caught me and turned me back, but one day I managed to pass. From Korça I came to Tirana in a random car. The driver did not ask me for money, but, obliged, I gave him 60 euros. Others pay traffickers another 200 euros to go from Korça to Tirana, while there are others who do it on foot,” he said of his adventure .


    The generous port of Durres, hope towards Europe

    Upon arrival in Tirana, Muad comes in contact with a large number of migrants who spoke his language, Arabic. In agreement with them he decides to try Germany. Initially he passes to Montenegro, through Shkodra. He recalls the Albanian border police in Hani i Hotit, in a place called Gryka e Shegëve, who asked for 10 euros per person to allow them to continue their journey. After paying and entering Montenegro, the journey continues to Serbia.

    Muad recounts how he managed to cross the border with Hungary twice in a row and that in both cases he was captured and returned. In another case he was sent back, even when he entered Romania.

    Muadi and the author of the article during the interview taken near the Great Mosque in Durrës

    Meanwhile, the winter of 2020 is approaching and the migrant from Morocco decides to return to Kosovo. Here he spends the 5-6 cold months unsuitable for travel. With the departure of the cold, the newest plan in his mind would be to return to Albania and try to cross into Italy through the port of Durres.

    “We felt good among Albanians, they helped us. Sometimes they stop cars and hand us money without asking. Even the mosque here in Durrës always offers food. In order to sleep, we took refuge in premises that are not inhabited or damaged by the earthquake,” he said, while claiming that the police did not mistreat them.

    Migrants from Asia and Africa in the premises of the Great Mosque in Durrës

    The Great Mosque, located in the center of the port city of Durrës, has long been the warm station of migrants aiming for Western Europe.

    After 12 00 there you can find up to 30 illegal immigrants. Groups talk, do small chores, pray, and feed. Everyone’s goal is to find the opportunity to board the ferries to Italy.

    View of the ferry square in the port of Durrës from the point of view of the smugglers

    (photo taken from videos they post on social media.)

    They are mainly from Syria, Pakistan and Afghanistan, but recently more North Africans have appeared, especially Moroccans and Algerians. Most do not have the financial means to pay traffickers, so the only way left is the adventure of smuggling goods into trucks loaded on ferries.

    Abarfi, a Syrian who shows more than others the stress of being in a foreign country, has the same story.

    “I am staying here, because in Serbia I was asked for a lot of money to go to Europe. Here I have talked to many people who can help me. The last one I spoke to asked me for 4,500 euros. I once left the port, but was caught by the police. Then he set me free. Now I’m thinking of trying again. “If I had the opportunity to get a job, I could live here, but it is impossible,” he said, adding that his intention was to go to Germany.

    Jusufi from Morocco confesses that the migrants who are in Durrës trying to leave through the port, are the failed ones or those who have returned, as they have not managed to go to Germany through the traditional lines that cross the entire Balkans.

    “From Turkey I traveled to Greece and then to Albania. I tried several times to get out of here, but I was caught in Bosnia. I was beaten a lot there. Then I came back here again. I live badly here, on the street, but I’m fine. God help me. The mosque helps us, gives us food. There are many people here who offer help to cross the border. Apparently, they really like the money. I found a person asking for 3 thousand euros to help me go to Italy. I am staying here because I think the port is a good chance for me,” – he said.

    Abarfi from Syria (right) and Yusuf from Morocco (left) and the author of the article (center) during the interview in the center of Durrës

    For migrants the golden period of leaving through the port was during the parliamentary election campaign, but fate shone here and there even now.

    There are a large number of videos that various migrants have uploaded on the Internet and illustrate what the Albanian police do not see happening in the port of Durres. Sometimes in English, sometimes in Italian and more often in Arabic, they film themselves at the heights of the buildings in front of the port, sometimes even defining the truck, where, after midnight, they will try to enter.

    “We are trying our luck to go to Italy. We are in Albania and we went up to the 7th floor, we are seeing … We will take advantage of the moment of changing of the guards … We will enter by swimming from there (points by hand) … Then we will cross the barrier that is 2 meters , then we will cross the next obstacle and get inside that truck there … To the one in white. Then, in the evening, around 19:00, we willl board the big ship that goes straight to Italy.”, – is the Italian translation of a migrant’s lecture in one of the videos posted on social media.

    Other videos present them entering or hiding inside trucks parked in the ferry square, as part of an invisible world, but which belongs to the Albanian reality.

    Trafficking, thousands of euros to cross the border

    Hospitality with bread and salt and heart, no obstacles and punishment from the police, different opportunities to go to the most economically developed countries of Western Europe … it seems these are the opportunities that are pushing different clandestines to select the route that passes through the Albanian territory.

    Clandestine traveling through the Albanian territory by bus

    (photo taken from videos they post on social media.)

    According to official police figures, during the 9 months of 2021, in the Albanian territory have been registered about 300 cases of smuggling of migrants, gone for trial on charges of “Assistance in illegal border crossing.”

    Various testimonies of clandestine migrants also speak of figures, already fixed, that traffickers seek against their services.

    Thus, the transport of a migrant from Greek to Albanian land is about 50-60 euros per person. Then, from the entry point in Albania to Tirana, Durres or Shkodra, it costs from 50 to 200 euros. Crossing the border from Kukes to Prizren, depending on the traffickers’ cut, it costs from 50 to 200 euros.

    For transiting to Italy through Albanian territory, traffickers ask for a minimum amount of 5 thousand euros, while for crossing the port of Durres, the figures of traffickers vary from 3 to 4.5 thousand euros.

    Various migrants, who have posted on social networks videos showing how they cross the Albanian borders, how they travel peacefully in cars, vans, buses or how they hide in trucks located in the port of Durres, are bombarded with questions from those interested that also want to reach the European dream. Often the lucky ones, who have ended up in Italy or Germany, are advised to go to communicate privately  for more detailed information.

    At the same time, a considerable number of websites have appeared on the Internet, in Arabic, where data on emigration to Albania are provided, accompanied by the facilities provided by the Albanian legislation. Among other things, to attract customers, applications that have already become a reality are reflected.

    After a month and 20 days of waiting, Muad managed to get in and hide in a freight truck parked in the ferry square.

    According to him, at midnight they were swimming in the sea, in order to approach the ferry square. Afterwards, they crawled to large trucks of goods. Thus, fortunately, Muad arrived in Italy, as he writes in English: Without a smuggler and without money.

    Ky shkrim është pjesë e projektit që mbështetet financiarisht nga Zyra e Mardhënieve me Publikun e Ambasadës së SH.B.A. në Tiranë. Opinionet, gjetjet, konkluzionet dhe rekomandimet e shprehura janë te autor-it/ve dhe nuk përfaqesojnë domosdoshmërisht ato të Departamentit të Shtetit. / This article is part of a project that is financially supported by the Public Relations Office of the US Embassy in Tirana. The opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the Department of State.