Is Albania the next stop for stranded refugees?
Tirana, Albania – They came in their thousands overnight, wearing tattered clothes, some carrying children. Braving sub-zero temperatures they clambered on foot across the snowy, craggy terrain of the Albanian mountains. Meanwhile, more children died on Europe’s shores as yet another boat carrying around 60 refugees capsized in the Adriatic Sea after colliding with an Italian navy vessel trying to stop it entering Italian waters.
Such reports were commonplace throughout the 1990s as tens of thousands of Albanian refugees fled the collapsing Communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha and subsequent lawlessness in the Adriatic state.
Today, the political landscape in Albania has settled somewhat, yet a little over 100km away on the Greek-Macedonian border tens of thousands of mainly Syrian and Iraqi refugees continue to amass.
The recent closure of the Balkan route and the rapidly escalating humanitarian crisis in Greece is leading many to wonder if Albania is about to see the migration flow divert through its territory, prompting renewed scenes of struggle over land and sea in yet another frontier of Europe.
Entering Albania through Greece, the terrain seems hostile – jagged mountains, sudden abysses and dense woodland stretch out to the horizon and signs along the motorway warn of bears and wolves.
But some observers, like Vassilis Nitsiakos, a professor of history at the University of Ioannina, in northern Greece, think that the 280km border is penetrable to those with the right information.
“I have walked across that border illegally many times. I go with my students,” Nitsiakos laughs. “Last summer we drove 20 minutes to the border near Konitsa in Greece, then after two hours we were in Albania.
“It’s a very historical path, thousands of Albanian migrants have used it and still do, coming to work in Greece by day, and go back to their village at night. We didn’t see any police, nobody cares. It’s an open secret, the authorities tolerate it. So if the refugees today knew about it, they could do it. The question is, do they have a way out of Albania?”
Details continue to be hammered out over the deal reached on Tuesday between the European Union and Ankara, which would see all refugees and migrants reaching the Greek islands returned to Turkey. But, in the meantime, it is inconceivable that the mounting numbers on the Macedonian border could willingly be taken back, or remain in a state of suspended animation, far from their desired destinations in northern Europe.
But even if refugees manage to penetrate Albanian territory, does the impoverished country possess the infrastructure to accommodate them?
For Marie-Helene Verney, speaking to Al Jazeera in UNHCR’s Tirana office, the answer is a resounding no.
“They have military barracks on the southern border – they say they are ready to be used as accommodation but they are not. They are understaffed and under-resourced. There is a real question mark here. Imagine, there are thousands people in Greece and as soon as you look at Albania, after a few hundred the capacity is overwhelmed very quickly.
“Then what happens? The Albanian government has been extremely reluctant to engage publicly in any planning because they say ‘if we talk about it to the media, then refugees will start to come’. But we tell them, ‘they will come whether you plan or not’.”
‘There is humanity … then there is law’
At Karrec, Albania’s only detention centre for ‘irregular migrants’, located at the end of a winding uneven road outside a suburb of the capital Tirana, the tiny scale of the country’s capabilities becomes apparent.
Albania has a re-admission agreement with Greece, where migrants captured across the border can be returned after 14 days. But when Al Jazeera visited the facility it was empty. The only evidence of previous occupants was some abandoned clothes hanging on a washing line and Arabic graffiti scrawled on the walls of the prayer room.
Sitting in his office, centre director Gezim Goci casts a wary eye at a TV broadcasting fuzzy news footage of refugees on the Macedonia border. Rain lashes at the window and thunder shakes the room. Goci starts to reminisce and draw historical comparisons to today’s refugee flows.
“My family is from eastern Albania. During the Kosovo war in 1999 the state was not functioning, so we opened our houses to our brothers coming across the border. And when I see these young people from Syria, I feel for them,” he says.
“But there is humanity, and then there is the law. Back in the times of the dictatorship, there were many armed guards and surveillance on the border, but that was to stop us from leaving!”
Albania’s own history of migration
From 1941 to his death in 1985, Albania was ruled by the Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha. His paranoid belief that foreign powers were intent on invading the country caused him to turn Albania into a pariah state, sealed off from the rest of the world, a North Korea of the Balkans.
One of the visible legacies of his tyranny are the hundreds of thousands of bunkers he ordered to be built throughout the country, from the top of mountains to beaches and downtown squares. Many still remain, but these days enterprising Albanians prefer to blow them up to harvest the steel, while young couples use their intimate confines for romantic assignations.
Albania has a history of multidimensional emigration.
The brutal Hoxha regime and its collapse produced hundreds of thousands of refugees.
A second wave came in 1997, during the country’s transition to a market economy, when vast swaths of the population became impoverished almost overnight as their money disappeared in a system of crooked pyramid investment schemes.
Subsequent suspicion of the government erupted into civil unrest, which became deadly after weapons depots were looted and clashes between police, opposition and armed criminals who took over whole cities left thousands dead.
Despite subsequent political reforms and Albania’s candidate status for membership of the European Union, the country has pockets of poverty and a GDP per capita under $5,000, according to the World Bank.
Ironically, these conditions have forced tens of thousands of Albanians to use the Balkan route themselves to reach northern Europe.
In 2015, Albanians were second only to Syrians in the number of asylum applications lodged in Germany (54,762). Berlin has since deemed Albania safe and begun deporting people back en masse to the predominantly Muslim nation of three million.
Since the escalation of the refugee crisis in Europe last summer, a photo has been circulating on social media. It depicts a large vessel partially obscured by thousands of human bodies with people dangling over the top, climbing up ropes from the port and some even falling into the sea. It has been been said to both depict Syrian refugees in Greece in 2015 and Europeans fleeing World War II for North Africa. In fact, it shows neither.
It is a photo of the notorious Vlora vessel, full of Albanians, docking in the southern Italian port of Bari in 1991.
On a sunny day in March 2016, the sea laps gently on the deserted beach at Zvernec, near the city of Vlora. Police sources told Al Jazeera that in the past two months, two inflatable boats had been found nearby, but could not speculate on their possible intended use.
Alba Cela, the deputy director of the Tirana-based think-tank, the Albanian Institute of International Affairs, says the Adriatic has long been a channel to ferry drugs and cigarettes to Italy, but the chance of profitable human cargo may be too tempting for the gangsters to resist.
“Albania spent a lot of effort fighting speedboat trafficking to Italy and we even had to pass strict laws. For instance, there was a complete moratorium on speedboats for years, even for fun it was not permitted to own one.
“Now if you have refugees trapped here, of course they will rekindle the interest of organised crime organisations to smuggle them to Italy. It would be hard, but not impossible. It is a small coast but it has its own hidden spots that are hard to control. You cannot rule it out.”
The crossing from the Albanian coast to Italy’s southern region of Puglia is 50 miles, significantly further than the distance from Turkey to the Greek islands, which in some parts is barely four miles but has claimed more than 400 lives this year alone.
‘I’m afraid of the sea, but I’m desperate’
Hannah, 21, a Syrian student from Damascus, is currently entering her second week stuck on the Macedonian border. After enduring the worsening conditions in the vastly overcrowded camp only to be told the route is now shut, she says she is exploring other options.
“I might try the Albania way to Italy. I’m afraid of the sea, but I’m desperate. I would try anything. Even another Mediterranean death trip.”
According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, 9,295 refugees and migrants have arrived by sea in Italy during 2016 but almost all left from the North African coast.
Refugee flows are often determined by the size of the trail blazed by those preceding them, which so far in Albania’s case is minimal. According to UNHCR estimates, 1,400 mostly Syrian refugees crossed into Albania in 2014; in 2015 it was 2,600.
There is a widespread perception among many of the refugees questioned by Al Jazeera that entering Albania is a dangerous option, which requires the use of merciless smugglers.
Gentjan Mara, the imam of the Shtish-Tufine mosque in Tirana, has seen the dark side of this perilous route.
After several years living in Syria, including witnessing in 2011 the early eruptions of revolution in Daraa, Mara moved back with his Syrian wife and son to Albania, which hosts a tiny Syrian community of around 35 families.
Last year, Amal, a 56-year old child psychologist made her way through Turkey and Greece after several of her family members were killed by an air strike in Daraa.
On Greece’s northern border her journey to be reunited with her husband in Germany was cut short after the smuggler she used to show her the way demanded more money. When Amal refused, she was pushed into a gorge. She broke both of her legs as she fell.
Mara tells her story: “She crawled into Albania through the woods for hours, but luckily met a shepherd who called for help. She was taken to hospital for extensive surgery, and then we hosted her like family in our house for two months. It’s my personal conviction that, even though Albanians do not have much to offer, they cannot ignore people who need help.”
Amal’s misfortune continued as her efforts to reach Germany through legal methods failed. So she again turned to smugglers. Wheelchair bound, she was led out of Albania through Kosovo and up the Balkan route until finally, exhausted, she arrived in Dusseldorf last month.
Despite last year appearing to favour the idea of welcoming refugees into his country, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama hardened his stance in February. Citing the behaviour of other European countries as an influence, he told local media: “We have neither the conditions, nor the strength, nor the enthusiasm to save the world while others close their borders.”
But for Mara, Syrian refugees fleeing the sixth year of tumultuous conflict are destined to find sanctuary.
“Before the war, Syria was a country which hosted many refugees from all over the world,” he says. “So now Allah will ensure that the Syrians are welcomed elsewhere.”