Many migrants are stuck in Albania after the borders closed due to measures to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Now an investigation alleges they are reduced to begging to get by | Photo: picture -alliance / dpa/ K. Nietfeld
Many migrants are stuck in Albania after the borders closed due to measures to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Now an investigation alleges they are reduced to begging to get by | Photo: picture -alliance / dpa/ K. Nietfeld

According to an investigation by the magazine Balkan Insight, increasing numbers of migrants in Albania are being left hungry and frightened in state-run facilities. They are reduced to begging on the streets to get by.

"Help we are hungry," a Palestinian asylum seeker wishing to be known as Khaled tells the magazine Balkan Insight (BIRN). According to that magazine, Khaled is a registered asylum seeker and resident at a state-run facility on the outskirts of the Albanian capital, Tirana. Khaled is hoping for "bread, biscuits or canned food," writes the magazine.

At the center, Khaled receives a small amount of bread (enough to fit into half the palm of his hand), he gestures at the magazine's reporters, and some "inedible stew." For the rest, Khaled relies on people’s charity. But in a poor country like Albania, where under-funding and corruption is rife, this can be difficult.

'A transit country'

The UN Refugee Agency describes Albania as a "transit country" for migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. Most don't want to stop there, hoping to reach Italy or richer northern European countries. However, as the Balkan routes have gradually been closed up, more and more migrants have wound up stuck in Albania.

According to UNHCR figures and Albania's own government statistics, 2018 (the latest figures to be published by the Albanian government) saw an increase in the number of migrants entering the country. In fact, the UNHCR notes a "fivefold increase in arrivals in 2018 and a 14 times increase in asylum requests." That said, the numbers still remain far below that of other Mediterranean countries. In 2018, UNHCR registered 5,730 arrivals and 4,378 asylum requests.

BIRN got even more recent figures from the Department of Border and Migration at the State Police. They show that there has been a "ten fold increase since 2017" with police registering 11,344 undocumented migrants detained at the Albanian border. Border patrols at the border between Greece and Albania | Photo: DW/A. Topi

Turning to begging to get by

According to BIRN, Khaled is among hundreds of people housed at the center who have turned to begging in order to sustain themselves. The UNHCR, which supports government initiatives in the center, says it was built to house 180 people - with another 200 places offered in 2018 to help ease the pressure on reception. BIRN says they have been told that the center is far more crowded than that in reality.

They say when they spoke to residents of the center, they heard reports of gangs in the center ruling the roost and stealing food and assaulting other residents. The makeup of the gangs remains unclear but from the subtext of the report it appears to be made up of longer term migrant residents rather than gangs coming in from outside.

Treatment of migrants: 'not fully in line with international standards'

In a 2017 report on the state of play for migrants and the respect for their rights in Albania, the Albanian Helsinki Committee (a human rights group) wrote "the respect of human rights standards for refugees and asylum seekers in Albania is not fully in line with international standards and practices. Our country is estimated to lack the necessary capacity to accommodate refugees and asylum seekers and provide them with basic services such as food, health care, social services, housing, employment, free legal aid, etc."

In 2017, according to the Albanian Helsinki Committee, Albania lacked "a multi-dimensional strategy regarding migration management." The committee noted a "lack of state support towards vulnerable categories [of people]" and said that the migration ministry had, at that time, completely ignored the phenomenon of "illegal" - or undocumented - migration. The report did acknowledge, however, that in the period covered 2012-2017 some things improved, notably because of support from international organizations like International Organization for Migration (IOM), UNHCR and the Catholic charity CARITAS.

In the report, they also highlighted that there were several "reported cases of violence against undocumented foreigners," and that some Iranians had been "violated by the Border and Migration Police in Gjirokastra." The report called for sanctions against the offending officers in question.

Albanian state has an obligation to provide

They said officers should cease to use phrases like "no asylum in Albania" when screening potential asylum seekers and that all should receive more training on how to "offer dignified treatment and respect to every foreigner without prejudice."Frontex will monitor Albania's borders (pictured: two officers from the Netherlands and Bulgaria) | Photo: EPA/VASSIL DONEVThe treatment of unaccompanied minors was also called into question by the report at the time. It noted that courts should "pay particular attention to the punitive measures against minors charged with illegal crossing of the border." It said that sentences at the time were "not in compliance with international conventions ratified by Albania pertaining to migration and children's rights."

In May 2020, Erida Skendaj, executive director of the Albanian Helsinki Committee, told BIRN that the Albanian state "had an obligation from the international conventions it has signed to meet the minimum standards," and even provide migrants with pocket money when they are in a state center.

BIRN said that the Albanian Ministry of the Interior "disputed the allegations [made]."

'Doing our best'

"Our structures at the center are doing their best to serve asylum seekers from morning till night," said Deputy Interior Minister Rovena Voda to BIRN. Voda is responsible for refugee and asylum issues at the ministry. She said that the centers were supplying "not only food but also medical assistance," to migrants.

BIRN said that they had also received a written response from the National Reception Center which admitted that it had had to deal with cases of violence in the center, but these had reportedly been "resolved with the help of the police." BIRN said the center "did not address their questions regarding food provision [to migrants.]"

The greatest numbers of those seeking asylum in Albania come from Syria, "closely followed by Iraq and Morocco," writes BIRN. According to BIRN, Albania spends just "€2.60 per day for each migrant."

'Insufficient food'

The National Ombudsman in Albania inspected the reception center in April 2019 and told BIRN that the "norms for the treatment of people accommodated in this center remain problematic." In April they found that there was "insufficient food," and "shortages of staff to provide medical and social services."

The Ombudsman also told BIRN that the staff shortages were "a particular problem in the afternoons and at night," adding that "requests for more staffing had been ignored by the Interior Ministry."

One Algerian resident at the center told BIRN that he was particularly scared at night. He said he had been robbed upon entering the center and that his attempts to complain to staff had been in vain. "At night, when the lights go out," he said, "the perpetrators, the mafia, attack families and we hear the crying children. It's scary."

Theft and violence

The UNHCR said in a statement to BIRN that it was trying to address some of these problems. "UNHCR is aware of reports of several cases of conflict and theft between residents of the National Reception Center, and has addressed these concerns to the responsible authorities."A member of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (FRONTEX) checks documents at the Albania-Greece crossing border point in Kapshtica near Korce, Albania, on July 23, 2019 | Photo: REUTERS/Florion GogaIn a written response, the center staff told BIRN that the fights and violence reportedly were mere "spats," and said they had been addressed in a "timely manner" by the police.

For now, explains the BIRN investigation, the center's residents remain stuck there - hoping and waiting for the borders to reopen, when - and if - the lockdown restrictions put in place to combat the COVID-19 pandemic are eased or lifted. They all expressed a desire to "leave" as soon as the borders reopened.

Khaled, the Palestinian begging in Tirana, said he was hoping to get to "Italy, France or Spain." He told BIRN: "I just want to work and help my family."

This article was based on an in-depth investigation by Balkan Insight magazine. You can read their report here: https://balkaninsight.com/2020/05/06/violence-and-hunger-stalk-refugees-and-migrants-in-albania/

 

More articles