People smuggling in Albania is carried out through collaboration between Albanian, Moroccan, and Kurdish groups, all residents in the country.
These groups work in conjunction to pick up groups of migrants from the border with Greece and transport them through Albania. The cost for this service is around EUR 250 per migrant for those traveling in groups. For those that wish to travel on their own, the price can be in the thousands of Euros.
A middleman who spoke to Exit explained “We have the contacts, we get the exact locations and we contact the drivers.” His role is to organize drivers, negotiate, arrange the reception of immigrants, and manage all the payments for people in the chain.
Migrants that wish to be transported, will typically go through an “agency” in the Greek city of Ioannina. A fee is paid to the “agent” who connects them with their drivers in Albania. The migrants will then be taken to the Albanian/Greek border where they cross illegally. Prior to crossing, one individual in the group is given the number of the driver who will collect them on the Albanian side. Once they are in Albania, they will make contact and head to an agreed location.
In this recording obtained by Exit, you can hear one migrant informing the Albanian middleman of his progress in Ioannina.
In the next, you can hear another reassuring the middleman that if caught, they will not implicate him in people smuggling.
The driver picks them up, takes a photo or video, and sends it to the “agent” in Greece.
The journey commences, typically in rental vans or cars although construction vehicles are now being used as a way to avoid detection. Another car will typically drive some kilometers ahead to look out for police and roadblocks, and to report back. On occasions where there are such obstacles, the driver will drop the migrants in the countryside and proceed past the police with an empty vehicle. Some kilometers further, he will send the migrants his location and wait for them to catch up.
If they successfully reach Tirana, the driver drops them at an agreed location and sends a photo and location to the “Agent” who then releases the funds via wire transfer. The middleman then uses youths to withdraw the money from the wire transfer office so as to not reveal their identity.
Once in Tirana, the migrants will then proceed to a network of safe-houses in Laprake where they have the opportunity to recuperate before the next leg of the journey.
A driver that was interviewed by Exit said that he received EUR 50 per migrant, per trip. He did three such trips before he was caught by police. His reason for getting involved in this work was the fact he needed money to support his family.
When asked what kind of people are wanting to travel through Albania, he explained they are normal people and include a large number of women and children.
“Men, women, children, lots of women and children,” he said, adding that they are just “normal people” who are fleeing from war in their countries. The driver added that they greatly fear the police and that’s why they pay for transport in the hopes it will reduce the likelihood of them being caught.
Despite crackdowns by police over the last year, a significant number of migrants are still being successfully smuggled through the country from Greece to the borders with Kosovo or Montenegro. Their final destination is an EU member state, typically Italy, Austria, or Hungary. Since 2018, Albania has been host to one of the main corridors of illegal immigration to Europe.
Between 2009 and 2017 there were between 1000 and 3000 migrants apprehended by the police in Albania. After 2017, this increased and the current number of migrants stands at more than 18,800. As per data from 2019, 30% come from Iraq, 28% from Syria, 14% from Morocco, and 9% from Algeria. The rest come from other Middle Eastern and North African countries.
There are currently more irregular migrants in the country, than regular. There are some 15,000 individuals with a residence permit as of 2020, and more than 18,800 irregulars. This does not account for those who are here but have not been identified by the authorities.
In 2019, there were at least 6600 asylum seekers in Albania including some 765 families. Between 2015 and 2017, there were 665 asylum applications, and 71 were approved. Between 2018 and 2020, asylum applications increased to 13,222 of which only 44 were approved.
There are four kinds of the irregular migrant as defined by the authorities; asylum seekers who are kept in asylum centers until their case is decided, victims of trafficking who are kept in specialist centers, irregular migrants who are kept in a closed center, or unaccompanied minors who are housed in social centers.
There are currently only five state centers in the country to home migrants. Some individuals leave these centers and then attempt to travel to EU countries via networks of smugglers who provide transport to certain points, for a fee. These networks are a result of the higher number of migrants seeking to reach EU countries over the last four years.
A middle man involved in coordinating the transport of migrants from the Albanian/Greek border told Exit that some migrants are apprehended by the police, interviewed, and then dropped back over the border, without the knowledge of the Greek authorities. He said these individuals will then keep trying to pass the border and continue with their journey.
Those that can afford to be driven do so, others will transit the country on foot.
Both the driver and the middleman that spoke to Exit said they face difficulties in their work due to police presence, but that despite this, a high number of migrants are still traveling through the country undetected. The middleman indicated and explained that there is an element of police collaboration in some parts of the country, whereby State Police officers will guarantee safe passage through certain areas in return for money. Exit has seen some messages that appear to confirm this, but further verification has not been possible.