Dozens of refugees and migrants trying to cross Albania have been reduced to begging for food on the streets of Tirana, victims of gang violence and under-funding at a state-run reception centre.
At midday on April 2, residents of Tirana rushed across the city’s central Skenderbej square, bags of groceries in their hands, before the start of a curfew imposed across Albania to tackle the spread of COVID-19. Twenty-seven-year-old Khaled*, however, dragged his feet on the brown cobblestones, begging for food.
“Help, we are hungry,” the slight Palestinian refugee said in broken English. He was after bread, biscuits or canned food.
As a registered asylum seeker, Khaled receives food at the National Reception Centre for Asylum Seekers on the outskirts of the capital. But it’s not enough, he says, and he is frequently left hungry. He gestures to show how much bread they get per day: half the palm of his hand. The stew is inedible, Khaled complains.
In early April, BIRN spoke to dozens of asylum seekers and migrants from the Middle East and North Africa, among hundreds housed in the reception centre in Babrru but who find themselves reduced to begging for food in the capital.
Some spoke of dire conditions in the centre and the growth of gangs stealing from and assaulting other residents.
Others, migrants trying to reach Western Europe, said they had been left out in the cold despite seeking refuge at the centre, its doors closed under a lockdown across the country to confront the coronavirus pandemic.
Allegations of state negligence in Albania’s handling of foreign refugees are not new, but complaints have escalated with the tenfold increase in the number of migrants and refugees arriving in the Balkan country over the past three years.
Concerned human rights activists warn the failure to provide refugees with sufficient food and shelter is a violation of Albanian’s international obligations.
“Failure to meet the minimum housing and food standards is a violation of the refugee convention,” said Erida Skëndaj, executive director of the Albanian Helsinki Committee.
“Despite being poor, the Albanian state has an obligation from the international conventions it has signed to meet the minimum standards, even to give them pocket money,” Skëndaj told BIRN.
The Albanian Ministry of Interior disputed the allegations.
“Our structures at the centre are doing their best to serve asylum seekers from morning till night, not only with food but also with medical assistance,” said Deputy Interior Minister Rovena Voda, who is responsible for refugee and asylum issues.
The National Reception Centre, in a written response, did not address BIRN’s questions concerning food provisions but did acknowledge incidents of physical violence which it said had been resolved with the help of police.
Barely two euros per day
Albania is a transit country for migrants from the Middle East and North Africa trying to reach Western Europe via the Balkans.
They mainly enter from Greece, having crossed the Aegean by boat from Turkey, and continue on to Montenegro or Kosovo. And the numbers have shot up since 2017.
The Department of Border and Migration at the State Police told BIRN that between January 2019 and February this year, 11,344 irregular migrants had been detained at the Albanian border, a more than tenfold increase on 2017.
Likewise, the number seeking asylum in Albania rose from 309 in 2017 to 4,386 in 2018, with the largest contingent from Syria followed by Iraq and Morocco.
The trend has caught Albania unprepared, stretching its capacity to house and feed them.
Besides the National Reception Centre in Babrru, Albania also has a closed centre in the village of Karec. Together, they can accommodate just 400 people.
While the number of migrants and refugees has risen, the amount the state spends on each person has not changed in a decade – 330 lek, or 2.6 euros per day per refugee, regardless of how much prices have grown over the same period. Little wonder they have to beg for food, rights activists say.
On the doorstep of a supermarket on Deshmoret e Kombit Boulevard in Tirana, an asylum seeker from Morocco followed shoppers leaving the store, chanting “Food, please man” over and over again. He was eventually taken away by police, only to return to the supermarket two days later.
The Moroccan said he too was a resident of the National Reception Centre in Babrru but was forced to beg because food was so scarce. Video on his phone showed piles of rubbish in the hallways, mattresses stacked to the ceiling and broken doors replaced by improvised barricades.
The office of Albania’s ombudsman, which noted insufficient food and shortages of staff to provide medical and social services during an inspection in April 2019, told BIRN:
“The norms for the treatment of people accommodated in this centre remain problematic.”
“Since 2017 onwards we have encountered the issue of daily quotas, which is 330 lek per person, a very low amount relative to the increase in food prices over the years.”
Nassif from Algeria said he had been stranded in Tirana for six weeks after the pandemic halted his efforts to reach Belgium, where he said most of his family already lives. Detained by police, he was taken to the National Reception Centre in Babrru, where, Nassif said, he was “left at the mercy of fate.”
Nassif, 27, has also resorted to begging.
“When I go to eat bread, the cooking is so bad that I even have a problem with the smell of food,” he told BIRN. He described one meal as “a small piece of bread, a kind of dish with cauliflower and vegetables, there is no water, nothing. It’s like a bad-smelling salad.”
The National Reception Centre has capacity for 180 people. It told BIRN it currently had 169 residents, including 20 minors. Yet at the end of March, the centre told the Ombudsman’s Office that it was overcrowded, with 218 residents, of whom 21 were minors.
The centre has a staff of 15, including a psychologist, a social worker and a translator. The night shift is staffed by two people contracted by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR. Medical support falls to a single nurse, again contracted by the UNHCR.
A lack of staff in the afternoon and particularly at night is a persistent problem, according to the Ombudsman’s office, which said the centre’s requests for more staffing had been ignored by the Interior Ministry.
Nassif, the Algerian, said he had been robbed almost the moment he set foot in the Reception Centre and that his complaints to staff had been in vain.
“The first problem is that gangs have been created,” he told BIRN through a translator. “There are powerful people who have gathered followers around them and are using them to rob us.”
He said some incidents of violence had resulted in serious injuries and was shocked at the failure of authorities to react.
“At night, when the lights go out, the perpetrators, the mafia, attack families and we hear the crying children,” he said. “It’s scary.”
The violence within the Reception Centre in Babrru has caught the attention of the Ombudsman and the UNHCR.
“UNHCR is aware of reports of several cases of conflict and theft between residents of the National Reception Centre and has addressed these concerns to the responsible authorities,” the agency said in a statement, adding that migrants and asylum seekers also have an obligation to respect law and order.
The Reception Centre acknowledged an issue with violence between residents but said it had always reacted in a timely fashion.
“The intervention of the police and that of its Eagle units has been requested immediately in order to resolve the spats,” the centre told BIRN.
“It is not in our authority to assess the degree of violence, but to act in a timely manner to calm and normalise the situation for a peaceful and secure coexistence within the community of the centre.”
The centre’s residents said they were simply hoping to hang on until Albania’s borders reopen.
“In fact, all of us at the camp have the same goal – to leave,” said Enes from Morocco. “But at the moment we are stranded here, the borders are closed, we have nowhere to go.”
Khaled, the Palestinian, likewise said there would be no giving up: “I will leave for Italy, France or Spain. I want to work, to help my family,” he said.
The weeks of waiting, however, had left Nassif from Algeria increasingly aimless. “I have no plans,” he said. “I just want the borders to open and to get out of here.”