Migrants and refugees trying to reach Western Europe are increasingly using a new route via Kosovo, aided by smugglers and local middlemen.
The last time refugees passed through the small town of Kukes in northeast Albania was 22 years ago, when hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from neighbouring Kosovo fled a brutal counter-insurgency war waged by Serbia in what was then the country’s southern province.
Ibrahim Khalil Almohaimid was a baby at the time, more than 2,000 kilometres away in the Syrian city of Raqqa on the northeast bank of the Euphrates.
Now 23, Almohaimid is the refugee, and Kukes is once again a crossing point, this time from Albania into – now independent – Kosovo as migrants and refugees from the Middle East, Asia and Africa seek out new routes to Western Europe through the Balkans.
Armed with smartphones and, in the main, directed by smugglers, most take the ‘Eagle’s Nest’, a mountain path near the Morina border crossing, or follow the White Drin River.
“In Albania police is good and we have been told in Kosovo as well they treat us well,” said Almohaimid. “This is the reason why we go through Kosovo. Our aim is to go to Germany because that is the best country in Europe.”
He spoke in the courtyard of the police station in Kukes, waiting to be returned to the refugee centre in Tirana, after the car he was in, driven by a local Albanian, was stopped by police.
Albanian police say they have registered a rise in the number of migrants and refugees crossing illegally into Kosovo, hoping to then enter Serbia and finally the European Union via Croatia or Hungary. Kosovo’s border police sent back some 1,530 in the first 10 months of this year.
“Smugglers send them right to the border at Morina,” said Sokol Noka, head of the crime investigation unit at Kukes Regional Police Force. “They use smartphones and GPS to cross the green border.”
Some travel on their own, but most, experts say, pay smugglers and local middlemen to help them cross the many borders crisscrossing the Balkans. Increasingly, the traffickers are former migrants themselves.
“Whereas in the past, migrants were ‘walking across the region’ on their own or received support from locals who know the terrain, now migrants are increasingly taking over the business,” said Kristina Amerhauser, a programme manager at the Geneva-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime.
According to the EU’s border agency, Frontex, some 48,500 cases of illegal border crossing were registered in the first 10 months of this year in the Balkans; in October alone, some 9,000 people entered the EU illegally via the Balkans.
Syrians, Afghans and Moroccans account for the largest share of refugees and migrants crossing the region. In 2013, some 1,978 travelled illegally through Albania, according to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime. In 2020, that number reached 11,971.
Syrians generally enter Turkey and then cross the Aegean to Greece before travelling north to North Macedonia or Albania. Afghans tend to enter Pakistan by foot, then head to Iran, Turkey and Greece.
Most cross the Greek border with Albania by foot, in the direction of Gjirokastra or Korca. If stopped, the Albanian police send them to the Centre for Asylum Seekers in the capital, Tirana.
With capacity limited, the Centre lets them move around freely. So many head to the nearby village of Babbru, where Albanians drive them in private cars, taxis or rented transport to Morina.
Taxi drivers say they have seen an increase in the number of foreigners wanting to go north, but complain about being arrested as smugglers.
“A friend of mine was arrested in Kukes after accepting Syrians in Tirana,” said one 60-year-old taxi driver, a former police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We can’t ask our customers to show their ID papers.”
Few can afford to turn down the money.
“We believe that the potential market value generated by migrant smuggling activities in Albania in 2020 was between 6.5 and 9.7 million euros,” said Amerhauser. “However,” she added, “the big money is being made outside of the Western Balkans region – either in the east, before migrants enter the Western Balkans, or in countries of destination in the EU.”
Fence on North Macedonia-Serbia border
According to police in Kosovo, the Jarinje border crossing between Kosovo and Serbia is now one of the most popular since a barbed-wire fence was erected last year between Serbia and North Macedonia.
“Migrants from the Middle East and North Africa travel toward Raska [town in southwest Serbia] and then, by train or bus, they go to Belgrade and further to Sombor at the border with Hungary,” said Nexhmi Krasniqi, head of the regional border police for Western Kosovo.
In Kosovo, “they don’t stay for more than three or four days,” he told BIRN. “They say that they have come as asylum seekers but in fact they use Kosovo just to enter Serbia and then Croatia or Hungary.”
This year alone, police have referred to prosecutors 11 cases of alleged trafficking involving 84 migrants or refugees. Most of the suspected smugglers are from Kosovo, Krasniqi said, but there also some from Morocco and Syria.
“Information obtained by interviewing migrants shows that they pay some 200 to 500 dollars for the trip from the Albanian border to Mitrovica [northern Kosovo].”
‘I will try again’
Almohaimid was just 16 when the Islamic State seized control of his hometown, Raqqa, in 2014, three years into a civil war that is still being fought today. Raqqa became the seat of the Islamic State’s self-styled caliphate, but it fell three years later in three months of fighting that left much of the town in ruins.
“During the battle against Islamic State, the main bridges on Euphrates river were destroyed and scores of homes were flattened to the ground by the bombardments. There was no electricity and prices in the market increased,” Almohaimid recalled. “I decided to not return to the town where I was born and raised,” he said, and warned of the lingering threat of violent extremism without economic progress.
His travel companion, Abdurrezal Mustafa Keshtub, fled Idlib in northwest Syria, a region of some three million inhabitants also devastated by fighting.
“We will go to Serbia and from Serbia to Germany,” Keshtub said. “We will try until we succeed.”
When he embarked on his journey, Almohaimid said he believed Europe would welcome Syrians fleeing war. “Europe had said it accepts refugees but we found the opposite and we are suffering now as you can see,” he told BIRN. “If they push us back, I will try again.”