The Country of Last Resort
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because desperation is a bad GPS.
Sultana Kuka had never met a Syrian before. She’d heard about them in the news of course. But in October, there they were, sweaty hands shaking as they stared at Kuka with a mix of exhaustion and expectation, waiting for her to tell them what to do. She handed them the asylum seeker application and tried to maintain her composure, but all she could think was, “They are my age; this could be me.”
Ever since, the 22-year-old Albanian with bright blond hair, copious eyeliner and the manners of a police academy standout has been waiting for a chance to test her prescreening skills again. On this freezing Thursday evening, the only thing crossing the border between Albania and Greece is a stray dog. But tomorrow, it could be hundreds of refugees.
More than 1,000 people per day could soon come pouring through this mountainous country of fewer than 3 million, government officials and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees say, throwing Albania into the same storm that other European nations have been weathering for months. Unlike its neighbors, however, Albania has had time to prepare for its potential day of reckoning. It has turned ex-military barracks into shelters, trained law enforcement and readied unused tourist infrastructure. With that kind of head start, the poor, corruption-riddled country might have a chance to teach the EU a lesson in hospitality. Alternatively, officials worry, the arrival of refugees could portend a field day for human smugglers. “It is a highly unpredictable situation. Everything could change from one day to the next,” says Marie-Héléne Verney, a UNHCR representative in Albania.
Over the past year, more than a million people have entered Europe from war zones, civil rights hellholes and economies in dire straits. Host countries are overwhelmed, and transit nations are on the brink of humanitarian mayhem. Germany’s generosity is starting to wear thin. Greece, to Albania’s south, is running out of space to host the 7,000 people arriving daily on its shores. And Macedonia, which sits to the east of Albania, just closed its borders to all asylum seekers not from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan, causing everyone else — from Moroccans to Nigerians — to consider Albania as a possible route.
Albania is nobody’s first choice. Smartphone-savvy refugees and migrants might stay in Greece, where they know they’ll get aid, or try to get their hands on fake Syrian passports to take the faster route through Macedonia. “They won’t come here if they have any other option,” says Verney. Even to its own citizens, Albania is a place of last resort: Today, half of the country’s population lives abroad and many, many others hope to.
And yet, for some refugees, Albania could be a last, best hope.
From his small, gray-walled office in Tirana, Albania’s townlike capital of 418,000 residents, Shemsi Prençi has been working on a contingency plan since April, when the first boatloads arrived in Greece. Prençi works for the Ministry of Internal Affairs, but he’s brought in the border police, European institutions and local nongovernmental organizations to figure out every detail, from new reception centers to bus lines — along with who will pay for it all. “The alarm bell has been ringing on our end for months now,” he says, fluorescent light shining on his sweaty face. “We are ready for when the thousands start to arrive.”
So far, the country’s only asylum reception center, on the outskirts of Tirana, is hosting just 130 officially registered asylum seekers. So while Prençi worries about what he calls “the influx,” the center is tranquil and mostly empty. Three teenagers in sweatpants are chilling in a sun-filled courtyard, and a handful of Afghan men are laughing and watching TV near the dining room.
Not all newcomers to Albania enjoy such peace. The mountains are treacherous and human traffickers merciless. Although officials say they’ve cracked down on human trafficking in recent years, Albania is still dangerous terrain, especially for unsuspecting migrants. Amal Zelmani, a middle-aged Syrian who fled Damascus, thought the Albanian route would be the fastest one to join her husband in Germany. Little did she know that right after crossing the border from Greece, her smuggler would beat her up, break her legs and steal all her money. Zelmani says she would have died in the woods if not for an elderly shepherd who found her while out with his flock. “My whole time in Albania was a nightmare,” she says from Berlin, where she is now reunited with her husband. Overall, the country punches well above its weight in terms of the number of alleged traffickers and trafficking victims, according to a Eurostat report.
Even for those who safely make it to Albania, Europe’s fourth-poorest country has little to offer. Growth is at a meager 2 percent, and the average Albanian earns just $360 a month, a fifth of the European average. It’s no wonder that thousands of Albanians have tried to make a new life in Germany by seeking asylum themselves. Over the first seven months of 2015, about 30,000 Albanians applied for asylum in Germany — second only to the number of Syrians, who filed more than 44,000 applications. Petitions spiked in May, when the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees received more asylum applications from Albanians (4,743) than Syrians (4,224). Now that Berlin has declared Albania a “safe country of origin” and begun repatriating asylum seekers, the numbers of Albanian asylum seekers will likely drop.
Years of dictatorship, unrest and hardship have taught Albanians to see borders as, well, mere suggestions. Which may be good news to refugees, because Albanians don’t fear the foreign. In 1999, the country became a sudden host to some 375,000 Kosovar refugees — rows of scared families carrying what little they could before the bullets got too close. It’s not that different from the images coming out of Lesbos or Idomeni. Back then, Albanians welcomed the newcomers with open arms. And today, many say they would do the same again. “Once you understand that kind of suffering, you’re obligated to help,” says Gianti Mura, the imam of a mosque outside Tirana, who remembers nine Kosovar families living in his home when he was 15 years old.
The Syrian plea is especially close to Mura’s heart. He met his wife while studying in Damascus and is a prominent member of Tirana’s tiny, thriving Syrian community of about 25 families. They often gather at Mura Café to drink black coffee, smoke shisha and discuss ways to bring their extended families to safety. When Zemani, the Syrian refugee, found herself homeless, Mura took her into his home for two months. He’s since turned his small mosque into a safe haven for desperate migrants and refugees.
While the Ministry of Interior Affairs continues to prepare for migrants and refugees, it’s reluctant to make any gestures of openness for fear of attracting more refugees than it can handle. The Ministry won’t share details, like when its contingency plan will kick into gear, how much it has cost and who is paying for it. All it will disclose is this: The plan involves creating three reception centers along the southern border, paying customer-starved hotels during the winter months to host refugees in small groups. Then it will bus refugees to the Montenegro border as quickly as possible.
But until officials decide to put the plan in action, migrants who don’t want to seek asylum in Albania — which would require committing to Albanian residency instead of seeking it elsewhere in Europe — are likely to end up behind bars in the cold, echoey corridors of the country’s only detention center. Such is the case with Mustapha Khatiri, a soft-spoken bodybuilder and construction worker from Morocco, who, in October, left behind his 25-day-old son for a shot at the German dream. After flying to Istanbul, the 32-year-old and five of his friends took a bus to Izmir, Turkey, where they paid about $800 to get on an overcrowded boat headed to Greece. The engine gave out minutes away from the beautiful Hellenic coast, Khatiri recalls, and they had to be rescued. Khatiri doesn’t remember who told him that Albania was a safe route, but he wishes he hadn’t listened; he claims detainees are not allowed into the courtyard and that the meager portions of bread, cheese and hard-boiled eggs are taking a toll on his body. “Anything is better than this,” Khatiri says. (Border police officials and the center’s cook say three meals a day are sufficient.)
The Albanian government has ample reason to dissuade refugees. A sudden influx of stateless people could revitalize the human-trafficking trade, says Olsi Vullnetari, a member of the Albanian Migration Network. His country is also as eager as ever to join the ranks of the EU, and so it wouldn’t do anything, let alone open its borders, without Brussels’ blessing. “We need to coordinate our every move with our European partners,” says Edmond Braha, chief of the Kakavia border station, where Kuka works.
Albania does have a significant advantage over other Balkan countries. By being last to potentially join the refugee transit route, its officials have had time to learn from their neighbors, says Prençi. The two main lessons seem to be: Don’t let refugees amass in big numbers, and don’t build a wall. Building obstacles is “simply a waste of time and money,” Prençi says, because migrants will tear them down.
While time is running out for the thousands stuck at the Greece-Macedonian border, and Albanian bus companies are being prepped to rush the possible refugees to Montenegro, Kuka continues on with her job. Sipping berry tea, shuffling papers and checking her makeup in a little mirror that hangs on a file cabinet, she seems oblivious to the crisis that may be headed her way. She turns on the rusty heater and says, “It’s nice to have you here; this job gets a bit boring sometimes.” Careful what you wish for.