The Balkan migration route is a significant passageway for migrants and asylum seekers heading towards Central and Northern Europe. Countries in the region are seeing a significant resumption of refugee and migrant movements from the Middle East and Central Asia. How migration flows have changed from the 2015 crises? And which is the situation after what is happening in Afghanistan?

It is not just about migrants: it is about the whole person, about all people.

Over the years, the Balkans represented and still are a bridge between East and West. However, the migration crisis that affected the Balkans since the beginning of 2015, and still is in progress, is very different from all of the previous ones; starting from its scale, the way people are moving, abuse of their basic human rights where they often become victims of smuggling or trafficking in human beings, therefore it requires special attention. Some migratory movements are of a transitory nature, mainly to Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia towards their destination in EU countries in Northern Europe, while others have shown interest in staying in the territory.

Albania was affected by the measures taken by neighboring countries, some of which closed the borders, blocking the transit passage of migrants and asylum seekers coming from Africa or the Middle East. With the closure of this corridor, Albanian territory was used for the transit of refugees, asylum seekers and irregular migrants from the border with Greece, and whose destination was the EU. Since 2015, Albania have faced a 1,100% increase of refugees and migrants arriving in the country, reaching 17,000 arrivals in 2020. In 2021, the Border Migration Police has reportedly undertaken a total of 17,754 interceptions. More than 70% come from countries with high protection recognition rate (e.g., Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq).  Regarding Afghan nationals, no arrival to the land borders has declared to have left that country after recent events; all report to have been on the move from several months or years prior to their arrival to Albania. The new trends observed in neighboring countries highlight the need to take the necessary measures in time to cope with such an increase in influx in Albania. The most followed corridor includes arrival through the green border area with Greece and crossing mainly through the border point of Kapshtica and Kakavija. Albania government has lack human and financial recourses to provide support for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers entering Albania. After the earthquake in 2019, the finances halved for Border and Migration police and after the global pandemic the migration situation passed in second plan. The basic needs are not covered by police authorities for the arrivals and when people arrive at the border or when they are apprehended in the territory, are often found exhausted, malnourished and in severe medical conditions.

 

When people are pushed to migrate in unsafe and vulnerable conditions, human trafficking risks to remain undetected preventing trafficked persons to enjoy their rights to assistance and protection regardless of their residence status. How to prevent trafficking? And how to protect the dignity of refugees and support them in their physical and mental scars after being trafficked?

Given the circumstances, many migrants are forced to fall into the hands of smugglers and criminal groups to avoid detention during their illegal border crossing, often a by-product of the inability to find safer routes to their destination. Massive flows of irregular migrants increase the risk that vulnerable groups fall prey to various forms of abuse, including trafficking and sexual exploitation. Transit is not allowed as in 2015 – more and more smuggling services are provided and the migrants and refugees are victims of smuggling networks – the number of victims of trafficking in human beings is in upward trend, and the number of vulnerable categories (women and children, unaccompanied children, disabled people) is growing day by day. We are all aware that a country alone cannot cope with the migration flows, not even one region, but requires a comprehensive, expedient approach that would involve all stakeholders in finding the most appropriate and acceptable solution for all stakeholders.

As a party to the Istanbul Convention Albania is required to take the necessary legislative or other measures to develop gender-sensitive reception procedures and support services for asylum-seekers as well as gender guidelines and gender-sensitive asylum procedures, including refugee status determination and application for international protection. As noted in the 2017 baseline report of GREVIO for Albania «the authorities have adopted standardized procedures, including irregular migrant pre-screening methods, with the aim of identifying persons in need of assistance, such as for instance victims of trafficking. However, they lack procedures for identifying potential victims of violence against women from culturally diverse backgrounds. The professionals concerned, such as staff working at the center for asylum seekers, could benefit from awareness raising and training efforts in this area».

As such, it was recommended that in order to allow women victims of gender-based violence to access international protection, authorities should take measures, including the development of appropriate standards of procedure and training efforts, to ensure a gender-sensitive interpretation of the grounds for requesting and granting refugee status. It was further recommended to adopt measures aiming at a culturally sensitive identification of victims of violence against women among irregular migrants and asylum seekers.

 

Notwithstanding the criminalization of solidarity along the Balkan route, support provided by non-government organizations, the mobilization of local and international civilian society in solidarity with migrant people have been fundamental. Which project are carried out by Caritas Albania? Which actions can be implemented to guarantee a future to Afghan refugees in Europe? 

 “But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight” (Lk 10:33). It is not just about migrants: it is about our humanity.

Albania is part of the Global Compact on Migration and of the Global Compact on Refugees. The Albanian legal framework on asylum is generally aligned with the EU asylum acquis, and institutionalization of procedures is underway. Caritas Albania, in partnership with UNHCR, has played a crucial role in ensuring support to refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants intercepted at the border and has established an effective partnership with Border and Migration Police in national and local level. Two Arabic interpreters are hired and are part of the pre-screening, one in Korca and one in Gjirokastra. However, it has been noted the need for a woman interpreter in order to guarantee a proper identification of Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) survivor and victims of trafficking. With the support of UN Women in Kapshtica border from July 2021 one woman interpreter has been present during the pre-screening for women and girls in the facilities of Border and Migration Police and provided interpretation services during meetings and counselling sessions with the psychologist and the doctor both hired thanks to UN Women. Local staff of Caritas Albania have focused on the identification of Person with Specific Needs but there is lack of interest by government institutions for the referral of potential victims of violence or victims of trafficking from culturally diverse backgrounds. In order to allow women victims of gender-based violence to access international protection, it is needed for the authorities to take measures, including the development of appropriate standards of procedure and training efforts, to ensure a gender-sensitive interpretation of the grounds for requesting and granting refugee status. The psychologist has been focused on the identification of women and girls, victims of violence, potential victims of trafficking and psycho-social counselling sessions. Interviews have been conducted in each case to understand the needs of the women and make suggestions to the Border and Migration Police authorities on their treatment. Before the counselling sessions women felt insecure because of difficulties during their journey and have been exposed to risk especially while travelling alone. When identified at the border, especially women and children from the mix migration groups are exhausted and dehydrated. While traveling for weeks and walking for days they usually are exposed to major risks. Through the years Caritas Albania has been able to reinforce the referral mechanism for persons with specific needs and vulnerabilities such as medical needs. When persons in severe medical condition are identified, they are immediately referred to the regional hospitals. It is noticed though that the presence of a professional medical staff in the border is necessary to provide emergency medical assistance upon arrival and advice to women and girls on sexual reproductive health and other healthcare issues. The presence of the doctor in the border during the second half of 2021 has resulted to be effective by increasing significantly the identification of persons with medical needs. With the medications provided and the intervention of Caritas staff to accommodate the persons for a few days in the police facilities the condition was successfully stabilized. From 2015 till now there has been zero identification of women victims of trafficking and victims of violence by duty holders and there is a lack of counselling for potential survivors of violence. The lack of specialized services is a challenge in the borders therefore there is still a need for intervention. On the prevention side, Caritas Albania is working with local authorities to increase awareness among at-risk youth, especially women, on the dangers of trafficking and measures they can take to protect themselves from it. On the protection side, we have strengthened the capacities of field operating units to identify cases and refer them to the social service organizations for shelter, food, psycho-social counselling, and livelihood support.

In a word, it is not only the cause of migrants that is at stake; it is not just about them, but about all of us, and about the present and future of the human family. Migrants, especially those who are most vulnerable, help us to read the “signs of the times”.

 

Ariela Mitri is Head of Sector Anti-trafficking and Migration, Caritas Albania.