It was a rainy Sunday morning in Shkodra, a city in the north of Albania, not far from the border with Montenegro. Walking down the pedestrianised arterial street of the city, groups of men of apparent Middle Eastern descent sat huddled under trees, glued to their smartphones. Well dressed but forlorn looking, they looked up every so often, searching the passers by with their eyes before shifting their attention back to their devices once again.
They sit waiting for someone to collect them and take them onwards to what they hope will be a better life in a European Union country.
Over the last few months, Albanian police have apprehended tens of individuals involved in transporting third country citizens from Greece to Kosovo or Montenegro, with the promise of moving on to a European Union country. Yet still, the influx of immigrants continues.
Exit was able to meet one of those who had been involved in these activities but who was recently been apprehended by the police. Unwilling to talk to the authorities, they agreed to speak to Exit on the condition of anonymity, after contacting Exit through their anonymous tip line on a burner phone.
With a face covered by a mask and a beanie pulled down over most of their head, they spoke with the southern Albanian dialect. Known to Exit only by the initial “A”, they explained how the process worked.
Most of the immigrants are wealthy or well off, men in their late 20s or early 30s. There are also families amongst them. Their reason for leaving is due to political instability or pressure from the governments in their home country that make it impossible for them to live, conduct their business, or have any kind of a future.
Driven by desperation, they go through an agency in Athens which for a hefty fee, promises transit to the European Union- usually Hungary.
Once entering an agreement with the agency, they are taken to the border of Greece and Albania where they cross on foot through almost impossible terrain.
Within each group of migrants that travels, is one ‘undercover’ migrant who is placed by the agency to make sure everything goes according to plan. This individual is sent a location via WhatsApp and the group heads towards it. This part of the journey can take several days and during that time they are exposed to the elements, be it blistering hot sun, or torrential rain and storms.
Upon reaching the designated location, they are picked up by their connection. Vehicles of choice include vans and people carriers that are usually rented with a fake ID by the Albanian connection. These are rented on a per day basis and are usually accompanied by one to two other vehicles that will travel ahead and behind to warn the van of any police activity.
The immigrants are loaded into the van and given bottles of water and some food such as brioche and other snacks. A photo is taken of them and sent to the agency in Greece to confirm that this section of the journey is complete and that the next will start.
Then the journey to Tirana starts. The source said that there are agreements in place with senior police officials that allow problem-free transit between Korca and certain other points, against payment. They explain that those getting “caught” by the police are often those who haven’t paid their dues to the authorities.
“The ones getting caught are those that think they can do it without paying what’s owed. And the police have to look like they are doing something so they have to arrest a few people,” they told me.
In the case where there are police checkpoints in areas not under the protection of a particular complicit official, the transporters have a preferred method of avoiding capture.
They will unload the migrants up to a kilometer before the checkpoint and direct them through the forrest or hills. The transporter will then drive on, pass the checkpoint with an empty vehicle and stop a few hundred yards past the police. They will then send the location via WhatsApp to one migrant, and wait for them to arrive before loading them up and continuing on their way.
Upon arriving in Tirana, the immigrants are unloaded at a certain point in the city- this location can vary but is usually in the city centre. The transporter will then take a video of the immigrants, showing they are all accounted for and in good health and spirits.. This and their location will be sent to the agency in Greece who will then execute a payment via Western Union or similar.
The transporters will find a young man- just a general member of the public- and pay him around 6000 lek to go and collect the money from the Western Union office in their name.
The immigrants are then told to wait where they were dropped off, until another person comes to collect them.This individual takes them to a ‘safe house’ in the Laprake part of the city. There the migrants will spend a few days and are able to wash, eat, sleep and recuperate until the next leg of their journey.
From there, the same series of events applies again as they are moved north to Kukes or Shkodra and then on foot to the border with Kosovo or Montenegro. Right now, the Kosovo route is the most popular and those going via Morina will be taken to Prishtina, then Belgrade, and then on to the border with Hungary where they are left to continue the journey alone.
The source told Exit that they make around EUR 150 for each migrant after deducting costs such as gas, car rental, paying drivers and lookouts, bribes (on occassion) and food and water for the immigrants.
Of course, the price can be higher if the group that’s travelling is smaller.
“If they are just one or two, they pay more. If they are a group of 10 or 15, they pay less”, they told me.
They explain that the methods of transport are constantly evolving and they are looking for ways to continue the scheme without having to pay most of their profits to the authorities or get caught. Currently, new routes are being looked at and trialed, as are other modes of transport.
The source refusese to divulge what these may be but claim that they are no longer involved in the scheme as they have a court case pending.
In terms of the immigrants that are caught, the source said that police interview them and drop them back at the border with Greece.
“But those that are sent back, are back in Albania less than 24 hours later- they don’t give up,” the source says.
But what about these transporters- who are they?
“They are just normal guys. There are no jobs, no money, we cannot live on EUR 200 or EUR 300 in a month. We have families, parents, children that we have to support. These immigrants would just find another way if we didn’t help. Is better they come with us and we take good care of them, treat them well and with respect than some other route. It’s a service. They get to the EU, we get to feed our families,” he said.