During the first months of 2021, Kosovo’s border police repatriated 1530 migrants from the Middle East and Africa back to Albania after crossing the border illegally, while thousands more have travelled and moved on to Europe undetected.
According to data from Frontex, the EU’s border guards, in the first 10 months of the year, 48,500 illegal border crossings were detected through the so-called ‘Western Balkan route’. In October, more than 9,000 were identified, an increase of 140% on the year earlier. Furthermore, 40% of migrants who entered the EU illegally came via the Western Balkans in the same month.
Over the last two years, Albania has become a prime corridor of transit for migrants and people smugglers with EU aspirations. Coordinated networks of Moroccan, Kurdish, and Albanian criminals have transported thousands of migrants, predominantly from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, from the border with Greece and sometimes North Macedonia to Kosovo and Montenegro.
From there, the journey continues to the edge of the European Union, where they attempt to apply for asylum or sneak across the border to work and live illegally.
Some, however, make their way. If you visit the outskirts of Tirana or Shkoder at any time of day, you can see groups of wary Middle Eastern men trundling along the highway with bags slung over their shoulders.
BIRN, a Balkan investigative reporting platform, said that taxi drivers in Tirana will often frequent areas where migrants can be found, offering them transit to the borders for between EUR 50-EUR 100. Taxi drivers that spoke to BIRN on condition of anonymity said the travel demand is increasing every day.
They also reported that some travel to Albania with a visa from their respective embassies and then travel illegally to Europe.
An Albanian national who was interviewed by Exit.al on several occasions due to his involvement in migrant smuggling said business is picking up again after a summer lull.
“It was quieter in the summer, there were some arrests, so people stopped, but now they are starting again. There are a lot of requests,” he explained.
The man told Exit that migrants could pay for a ‘package’ to come from Thessaloniki in Greece, across the Albanian border, and onwards to Kosovo. When picked up by one of his drivers in Albania, he explains he makes sure they are given food and water.
Then the journey continues to Tirana. He explains there have been deals made with police from certain areas to ensure safe passage along specific stretches of road. In cases where there are not, the traffickers get creative.
“I drop them off, drive on past the checkpoint, and then send one of the groups my location on WhatsApp. Then I wait and load them up again,” he explains.
Once in the capital, they are taken to a “safe house” in a suburb where they have time to shower and rest before continuing their journey. Every handover between drivers includes sending locations and photo’s of the migrants to prove everything is in order. Payment is made through Western Union, and the smugglers accost youths on the street to retrieve the cash for them.
While arrests are frequent in the Albanian media, the statistics show that many are passing through undetected. Belarus might be weaponising migrants at the border with Poland, but almost 50,000 migrants in ten months from a region of EU-hopeful member states, is also a cause for concern.