In the early 1990s, tens of thousands of impoverished Albanian migrants made their way through oak forests near the village of Ieropigi, hiding from Greek border patrols, looking for work in Greece after the collapse of communism in Albania.
Thirty years later, the cross-border flow is reversed, albeit on a much smaller scale. Now these are people from the Middle East and Africa who are walking through the same oak forests, moving this time from Greece to Albania, halfway on their long journey to the “European Paradise”.
Since 2018, migrants and refugees, who have chosen to try their luck in richer countries than Greece, have made this relatively smooth stretch of a jagged border the main way out of Hellas by land.
Shepherd Michalis Tracias, 69, who grazes his sheep on the Greek side of the border, told The Associated Press that he sees groups heading to Albania every day.
“There are a lot of refugees crossing the road, hundreds of them,” he said. “The border is just a hundred meters away. Those caught by the Albanians are sent back. Those who succeed continue their journey. Only they know where to go ”.
Migrants or refugees who do not want to stay in Greece have several options, all illegal: take refuge on a ferry or buy a seat on a smugglers’ ship to Italy; either use counterfeit paper, board an airplane or ferry flight; or go through Bulgaria, North Macedonia or Albania.
Since Bulgaria is considered too dangerous and the border of North Macedonia is heavily guarded, a large number of people choose Albania, although its patrols are reinforced by officers of the European Union border agency Frontex. Police data show that Albania has seen an increase in arrests for illegal entry this year, and North Macedonia, outside of which 10,000 people were camped five years ago awaiting entry, reported a decrease in the flow of people.
Albanian Interior Ministry spokesman Ardian Bita said his country “is doing everything it can to fight organized crime” that helps migrants and has arrested “a significant number” of smugglers this year.
The main base on the way to the border crossing is an abandoned army gatehouse, dirty and dilapidated, and the surrounding forests a few hundred meters from the border, half an hour’s walk from the nearest Greek village of Hieropigi and 220 kilometers west of the second largest city in Greece, Thessaloniki. There is water from the pumping station, from which some also use electricity to charge their phones.
About 50 people camped in the area during the AP visit, waiting to try to cross the border alone or with the help of smugglers. The population of the base can reach several hundred, most of which are periodically captured by the Greek police. Few stay long.
Syrian migrants wash outside the village of Ieropigi in northern Greece on the Greco-Albanian border on Saturday, September 25. [Яннис Папаникос / AP]
Among those who do this is Sheikh Musa Abdallah from Sudan, who spent 50 days in the dilapidated building of the former guardhouse with his wife and five children aged 5 to 15 years. “So far I have tried six times to cross” to Albania, hoping to continue on to Serbia, he told AP, “But I was stopped by Frontex. It is very easy for others to make the transition, but for families it is very difficult. ” Abdallah said he has lived in Greece for the past three years and is now considering giving up his efforts to move on.
Mohammad Noor Mahmoud Al Damad from Syria has also been returned six times in the past seven days. But he travels without children and is determined to persevere after being denied asylum in Greece. “I want to leave, go to any other country,” he said, baking potatoes under the trees with another Syrian. “I don’t want to go to Europe, only to Albania or Kosovo. I want a good life. “
Husam Khderi, 30, wants the same thing, but suggests looking for it abroad. “I want to go to Albania, then to Kosovo, and from there to Bosnia to get to Italy,” said a Palestinian from Syria. “I have a family in Syria, two children. As soon as I get there, I will bring them so that we can live together. “
Khderi arrived in Greece a month ago, slipping across the land border with Turkey, and then smugglers took him to Thessaloniki. He said that so far he has paid the smugglers 2,200 euros to get to Hieropigi and intends to continue on his way north.
“Frontex is a big problem,” he said. “For a month, I constantly tried to enter [в Албанию]and they keep sending me back. “