Border Crackdown Fails to Deter Albanian Migrants

Korca, Gjirokastra, Konispol and Igumenitsa | 14 April 2010 | By Gjergj Erebara

Balkan Insight investigates the world of Albanian illegal migrants seeking a better life in Greece, who aren’t put off by tougher controls of the frontier.

“In the past two weeks I tried three times to pass the border but each

time the Greek police caught me,” says Admir Cela, stranded penniless outside the Kakavija border pass, trying to hitch a trip back to his hometown of Fier in central Albania

Arrested three days earlier after illegally crossing the border close to Gjiroksatra, Greek police held him and then repatriated him to Albania where he spent a day in detention before being released near the border crossing.

The 17-year-old had hoped to go on foot all the way to Ioaninna, some 55 kilometres from the Albanian border inside Greece. “It’s become very difficult,” said Admir, who first hiked across the border aged only 13, while still in sixth grade.

In the last two years, Albanian authorities have stepped up border patrols in order to curb illegal migration. Tighter border controls are one of the criteria Albania needs to meet in order to achieve visa liberalization with the European Union.

However, despite the increased policing of the border between the two countries, the flow of economic migrants from Albania into Greece has not stopped.

Those who take the dangerous and arduous trip on foot through the mountains say that while the crackdown has made their lives more difficult, it has done little to deter their desire to seek a better life across the border.

Roughly 650,000 Albanian migrants have moved to Greece since the collapse in 1991 of Enver Hoxha’s Stalinist regime in Albania.

During the communist regime, when everyone leaving did so illegally and was considered a traitor, an electrical fence was installed on the border to stop them. Border guards had orders to shoot escapees and the dead bodies of those killed were often paraded through towns to instill terror.

Nearly two decades later, with the electric fence long gone, thousands pass each year through the southern border village of Konispol en route to Greece.

Of all the places along the 297-kilometre land border between the two countries, many illegal migrants consider Konispol the easiest from which to cross into Greece.

Besides being right on the border, the village is only 29 kilometres from the nearest Greek town of Igumenitsa, from where the illegal migrants can catch a bus further inland.

Fazlliu, a 56-year-old-villager from Llakatund, close to the city of Vlora, who has crossed the border on foot many times, said Greek police repatriated him last time on April 7.

After the Albanian police registered his name in the Qafe Bota border post, he was released and returned to Konispol just in time to catch up with the Champions League game between Barcelona and Arsenal on TV at the Baresha hostel.

At 4am the next day he awoke and together with two other guests was getting ready to make his way to the border again to cross into Greece. “It takes up to six hours on foot to arrive near Igumenitsa,” he said, sipping a last espresso before setting off.

The Baresha hostel takes its name from its landlady, though there are no signs to identify it.  At the entrance is a picture of the shrine of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. It contains two simple rooms lined with five beds.

Though landlady Baresha charges only 500 lek (four euro) for a bed for the night, rumours in the village have it that she has become quite well-off on account of the large numbers of immigrants passing through Konsipol.

All seven guests staying at the hostel that night left to cross the following morning illegally into Greece.

Koli, a 48-year-old man from the village of Vllahina, also close to Vlora, together with his wife was another guest at Baresha’s on April 7. He too planned to cross the border illegally into Greece the following morning. Koli had a Greek work permit and residency documents but his wife did not.

“My wife does not have the proper documents to travel to Greece so she has to travel through the mountain and I will accompany her,” he explained.

Borders within borders:

Three roads lead to the village of Konispol. The main one crosses the Vivar canal, which has to be passed by a raft in order to proceed further.

Both Albanian and Greek police on both sides of the border commonly use roadblocks to stop immigrants. The Albanian police stop all cars headed to the border area and ask to see people’s documents.

Some migrants die, trying to avoid these checks. In October 2008, five migrants drowned in the nearby lake of Butrint when two small boats attempting to sidestep a police roadblock at the ramp across the Vivar canal capsized.

Because police control the whole length of the road that leads to Konispol, few taxi drivers will risk driving migrants there, so they often are forced to walk as much as ten kilometres on foot to reach the village.  Unannounced spot checks of hotels in the area are common not only in Konispol but in other border towns like Gjirokastra and Korca.

“We won’t drive illegal emigrants to Konispol because if the police find them without documents we will end up spending the night in jail,” Fatmir Izeti, a taxi-driver from the resort town of Saranda, explained.

According to Izeti, their services are often replaced by those of corrupt police officers who after finishing their shifts will ferry migrants to the border for around 100 euro, three times the normal fare, although the majority of migrants cannot afford it and prefer to walk.

Laura Totraku, a spokesperson of the General Directorate of Police, declined to comment on claims that some police are involved in transporting migrants to the border crossing.

But Izeti, the Saranda taxi-driver who claimed corrupt cops were ruining his business, said he sympathised with the dilemma facing would-be emigrants.

They “not only have to walk for days in the Greek mountains but are also forced to walk for hours in the mountains of their own country”, he said.

According to Frontex, the EU border control agency, the Greek frontier with Albania is one of worst affected land borders in Europe in terms of illegal migration.

In 2009 Greek police extradited over 50,000 Albanians who had crossed the border illegally, according to the Albanian Ministry of Interior. Albanian border guards stopped another 20,000 from attempting to cross.

In an effort to meet EU visa liberalization requirements, Tirana continues to invest training and equipment into the border police to curb the migratory flow.

“Today we have modern binoculars with heat detectors that can spot a person in the middle of the night,” said Edurat Caka, head of border police and migration in Gjirokastra, showing examples of the tools at his disposal.

Although illegal migration is a crime and under article 97 of Albania’s penal code offenders can be jailed for up to two years, Albanian police admit that they only refer cases to prosecutors if they involve organised human smuggling.

“Most migrants are interviewed in order to identify the trafficking networks and later released,” Ferdinant Gjeta, head of border police in Korca, in southwest Albania, said. “We only file criminal complaints to prosecutors in the cases of organized trafficking.”

According to Gjeta, Albanian migrants passing the land border into Greece through the mountains seldom rely on trafficking networks.

Despite the new equipment and the increased efforts to stop migration, Gjeta admits that effective control of the border is still beyond their reach.

“In the region of Korca alone we have 60 kilometres of border, passable throughout the year, so stopping illegal migration from economic migrants is next to impossible,” Gjeta said.

Times had changed. “The communist regime could do it,” he admitted, “but that was not through effective control of the border but rather through sheer violence and repression”.

Gjergj Erebara is a reporter with the daily newspaper Shqip. The investigation was supported by the Danish association of investigative journalism, FUJ, under its SCOOP programme.

Published on Balkan Insight on 14 April 2010

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