Syrian Refugees Stranded On The Coast Of Albania – A Glimpse Into A Larger Problem

On Friday evening, January 8th, Albanian police and militia ships rescued 50 Syrian refugees trapped in the Adriatic Sea, the northern region of the Mediterranean Sea. The refugees were travelling on an inflatable boat when high waves, bad weather, and engine trouble left them stranded for three hours, 60 miles south of Albania’s capital, Tirana. The migrants were trying to reach Italy by going through Albania. They had paid up to 2,000 euros, or 2,450 dollars, for each transport. Those stranded included 16 passengers, including three children, needed hospitalization, while the others were taken to a migrant centre. According to the Washington Post, Albania has always been a key transit country to Western Europe from areas such as Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Around two decades ago, the route was regularly used by traffickers to take poor Albanians into Italy. The police were unable to find the traffickers, but there are plans to reduce the use of this route.

StarTribune says that Albania, who has been part of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) since 2009 hopes to launch European Union membership negotiations with Frontex, a European border agency. Their goal is to control its southern borders with Greece, its neighbour, as it is where most of the migrants arrive. This action comes after multiple small groups of migrants have attempted to cross the transit route, Albanian police and military report.

Albania is giving a modicum of relief to refugees facing adverse conditions to cross its border and live a better life. Reliefweb has reported extensively about the terrible conditions seen at Albanian migrant centres. It says these centres are underfunded, understaffed, and overcrowded. There is close to no medical care, as only one nurse contracted by the UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) is able to administer aid. There is also no regard for hygiene, sanitation, and food. Albania’s government spends around 330 leks (2.6 euros or 3.14 US dollars) per day on each person seeking asylum. This is simply not enough. As a comparison, in the United States, Americans can barely get by on 70 to 80 dollars a day. As a result of this bare minimum, many asylum-seekers have turned to begging on the streets for food, while many others have fallen victim to gang violence. The Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, an independent organization based in Geneva that observes and documents human rights violations, has noticed that Albania’s failure to provide migrants with basic care is a direct violation of the international responsibilities that the country agreed to in the 1951 Refugee Convention. Albania’s government had ensured that it would uphold the safety, health, and general wellbeing of the people in its custody, especially during the pandemic. Groups such as the Euro-Med Monitor have urged Albania to fix the conditions at migrant centres and provide adequate supplies to those in its custody. Unfortunately, it is questionable how much a slap on the wrist will push Albania’s government to make the right move.

Currently, Albania takes a rights-based approach with migrants entering the country. It is still mainly a transit country for asylum-seekers. The country saw a 14-times increase in asylum requests and a 5-times increase in arrivals in 2018. And despite the Coronavirus pandemic, the number of migrants passing through Albania has more than tripled compared to 2019. Around two-thirds of the migrants Albania sees are from countries with a great amount of conflict, Syria being the most common. In addition to this, a number of Syrian refugees are children, and a total of 155 children were unaccompanied while traveling over the past years. This is not only a problem in Albania but other countries that see refugees, as well. More attention has to be paid to all of these issues. And, hopefully, with calls for change from several organizations, Albania can shift its focus from controlling its borders to actually attempting to provide care and support to those currently in its custody, especially during this devastating pandemic.