IEROPIGI, Greece (WNN) – In the early 1990s, tens of thousands of poor Albanians marched through oak forest near the village of Iropigi, dodging Greek border patrols to look for work in Greece after the fall of communism in Albania. The migrants raised slogans.
Thirty years later, the cross-border flow has reversed, albeit on a much smaller scale. Now it is the people of the Middle East and Africa who fly through the same oak forest, this time going from Greece to Albania, halfway through their long trek to the heartland of Europe.
Since 2018, migrants and refugees, who want to try their luck far more than in Greece, have made this relatively smooth stretch of rugged border the main way out of the country by land.
Shepherd Mikhlis Trasias, 69, who herds his sheep on the Greek side of the border, told the Associated Press that he sees groups in Albania every day.
“Many refugees cross in — in their hundreds,” he said. “The border is just a hundred meters (yards) away from here. Those captured by the Albanians are sent back. Those who manage it continue, they alone know where to do it.”
Immigrants or refugees who do not wish to live in Greece have several options, all illegal: ferrying to Italy – or buying a berth on a smuggling boat; Use fake papers to catch the flight; Or walk through Bulgaria, North Macedonia or Albania.
And with Bulgaria being seen as too dangerous, and North Macedonia increasingly well-protected, large numbers are opting for Albania, even as its patrols are strengthened by officials from the EU’s Frontex border agency. has been done. Police data shows Albania has seen an increase in arrests for illegal entry this year, while North Macedonia – outside which 10,000 people camped waiting to enter five years ago – reports a decline.
Albanian Interior Ministry spokesman Ardian Beta said his country is “doing its best to fight organized crime” groups that help traffic migrants, and has arrested a “considerable number” of smugglers this year.
The main base for the crossing is an abandoned army guard house – filthy and dilapidated – and a few hundred meters from the surrounding forest border, half an hour’s walk from the nearest Greek village of Iropigi and 220 kilometers (140 mi) to the west. Thessaloniki is the second largest city in Greece. The water comes from a pumping station, from where some people even install an electric tap to charge their phones.
Around 50 people were camped in the area during WNN’s visit, waiting to attempt the crossing, either alone or with the help of smugglers. The population can grow to a few hundred, most of whom are periodically rounded up and removed by the Greek police. Some live longer.
Among those who did so is Sudan’s Sheikh Musa Abdullah, who, along with his wife and five children, aged 5-15, spent 50 days in a dilapidated former guardhouse.
“I have tried to cross six times so far” in Albania, hoping to continue Serbia, he told the WNN. “But Frontex stopped me. It’s very easy for others to get over it, but it is very difficult for families.”
Abdullah said he had been living in Greece for the past three years, and now proposes to abandon his efforts to move on.
Mohamed Noor Mahmoud Al Damad from Syria has also returned six times in the last seven days. But he is traveling without children and, after being refused asylum in Greece, is determined to continue.
“I want to leave, to go to another country,” he said, cooking potatoes under the trees with a fellow Syrian. “I don’t want to go to Europe, just Albania or Kosovo. I want a good life.”
30-year-old Hussam Haderi wants the same, but proposes to explore it further abroad.
“I want to go to Albania, then to Kosovo and from there to Bosnia and reach Italy,” said the Palestinian from Syria. “I have a family, two children in Syria. Once I get there I’ll bring them so we can be together.”
Haderi arrived in Greece a month earlier, crossing the land border with Turkey and then being taken to Thessaloniki by smugglers. He said that so far he has paid smugglers 2,200 euros (2,570) to reach Iropigi, and he is determined to continue north.
“Frontex is a big problem,” he said. “For a month I have been constantly trying to enter (Albania) and they keep sending me back.”
The Lazarus Seminary in Tirana, Albania, and Konstantin Testorides in Skopje, North Macedonia, contributed to this story.
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