Afghans wait to leave the Kabul airport on August 16, 2021 | Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP
Afghans wait to leave the Kabul airport on August 16, 2021 | Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP

After the Taliban's takeover, there is an urgent need to find shelter for Afghans airlifted out. Albania has been negotiating with the US on accommodating people who have fled in Tirana. Details are slowly emerging.

Yuri Kim, ambassador of the United States to Albania, has revealed that a contingent of Afghans will be arriving in the Balkan country, without giving a precise figure. "We do not yet have the exact number of the Afghans who will be temporarily sheltered here," she said in a brief statement for the media on August 17.

Unofficial sources told DW that "the first contingent will be around 300-350 people. And, within a few days, we expect about 800 more. We do not know yet how things will progress. It's an ever-evolving situation."

The humanitarian operation is entirely in the hands of the Americans. In Albania, the host is the Foreign Ministry. Sources say the refugees will arrive via direct — rather than transit — flight from Kabul, adhering to the evacuation protocol in similar humanitarian crisis situations. The first Afghans will be housed initially in six student dormitories in Albania's capital, Tirana.

The Qyteti Studenti offer a total capacity of about 7,500 beds. With the start of the new academic year, and depending on developments, official sources say the Afghans will be relocated to hotels in the coastal city of Durres, 30 minutes away from Tirana.

A map of Albania | Source: DW
A map of Albania | Source: DW

A political and moral duty

Albania, a NATO member since 2009, is preparing to host a yet-undetermined number of Afghans whose lives are at risk from the Taliban, who seized power in Afghanistan on Monday.

Former Albanian Ambassador to the US Agim Nesho considers the reception of thousands of Afghan refugees a political and moral duty: "This action is seen as the desire and willingness of small countries like Albania and Kosovo to take responsibility and cooperate with Western countries in the event of a crisis."

He added, however, that "even if we consider the action a fair one, there has been no transparency in making a consensual decision with all state institutions and including public opinion."

Parade on occasion of the celebration of 10 years of NATO membership in Tirana 2016 | Photo: Ministry of Defence Republic of Albania
Parade on occasion of the celebration of 10 years of NATO membership in Tirana 2016 | Photo: Ministry of Defence Republic of Albania

Albania and Kosovo, 'screening' states

Government institutions in Albania have emphasized that people have nothing to fear from the Afghans being brought to Tirana. An unofficial source belonging to a law enforcement agency admitted to DW, however, that the Afghans will only undergo screening on arrival in Albania, Kosovo and the other host countries.

Security expert Redion Qirjazi does not believe that the reception of Afghans will negatively impact Albania's national security. "These citizens are fleeing a deadly threat and a regime that is likely to oppress and persecute them for supporting or cooperating with Allied forces in Afghanistan, or even for the democratic views they may hold," Qirjazi said. "Consequently, their priority is not to export violence, but to seek refuge."

Fear of radicals misplaced

Qirjazi said their arrival and stay in Albania would be monitored and temporary in nature. "This will enable our security agencies, in cooperation with international partners, to gain a better overview of their activities in the country," Qirjazi said. "What's more, the people who will be sheltered in Albania are part of that group considered the most ideologically moderate, with political and religious views similar to those held by most [Muslim] believers around the world."

Ardian Vehbiu, an Albanian publicist living in the United States, said: "Contrary to what you read and hear in the media, those who will be sheltered here are not the Taliban, but the opponents of the Taliban. As you can guess, many of them have many connections in the West, and it would be difficult for them to choose Albania to settle definitively. They would prefer, I believe, to cross the ocean, towards the US and Canada, to communities where they would 'feel at home.'"

The airlifted Afghans will be accommodated in Tirana to start | Photo: DW/L. Arapi
The airlifted Afghans will be accommodated in Tirana to start | Photo: DW/L. Arapi

Can Albania afford the Afghans?

Vehbiu is convinced that Albania will be able to accommodate the Afghan refugees with financial and logistical support from NATO. "Albania will shelter those Afghans who have been helped to come," Vehbiu said. "We should not confuse the mass of Afghans who are terrified of what is happening in their country and want to leave — those we see in the footage from the airport and the streets of Kabul — with those Afghans who will be allowed to leave."

Qirjazi said that, in normal circumstances, Albania has limited capacity for the reception and processing of immigrants or asylum-seekers. He refers to ongoing EU reports that official reception centers have limited logistical and administrative capacity (in terms of both waiting areas and qualified human resources). "In this case, however, it is still unclear whether the reception of this contingent will be done through current official channels or alternative sources will be provided to cope with the flow," he said.

Does Albania stand to gain or lose?

Albania and Kosovo are mainly Muslim countries, yet Nesho does not believe that the religious element played a role in US decision-making. "I do not think either Kosovo or Albania was motivated by the religious element when deciding to accept Afghan refugees," Nesho said. "For Kosovo, the fact that the request came from the US was the deciding factor, especially if we consider the primary and extraordinary role of the US in trying to stop the Serbian genocide against Albanians and their strong support for the national cause. For Albania, which unfortunately is currently only represented by Prime Minister Edi Rama, this action was a chance to court acceptance by the West."

Vehbiu believes the opportunity is a good one: "I see the acceptance of sheltering Afghans by the Rama government as a state obligation to the coalition and NATO and to the United States, which are currently in difficulty. Moreover, Albanian army forces have been operating in Afghanistan for years and have participated in peacekeeping missions, establishing cooperation links with the locals. In addition, it seems humane to me to help people who are seriously endangered. This also because they believed in the mission of the Western coalition in their country. It has been said that the costs of their sheltering here will be covered by NATO, but even if otherwise, Albania's hospitality should not lack, regardless of what motivated the politicians and military leaders directly who agreed to this."

Former Ambassador Nesho sees the situation as potentially reaping political benefits for the Balkan leadership: "It's the autocratic regime in power, rather than Albania, that gains from this. Regimes tend to create a good image and negotiate for themselves, rather than turn these opportunities to the benefit of the Albanian economy and the well-being of the people. The biggest lesson coming from Afghanistan is that corrupt regimes cannot and should not be tolerated, as they bring unbearable crises."

Author: Elona Elezi

First published: August 18, 2021

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