Lojane, Macedonia Before he started the long road to Europe, the 26-year-old Ibrahim from the city of Hara in Afghanistan was prepared to face anything in order to get to a developed country in Europe.
His childhood years were spent in the period of terrible wars. He says that the war took the lives of three members of his family. In March of 2010, Ibrahim started his journey towards Europe’s capitals, with a small suitcase and 7000 dollars that he had managed to save, hoping to find a good job to help himself and the members of his family who were still alive. However, he is apparently still only halfway down the road. He has been illegally sheltered for almost a month in Llojane in Macedonia, a village of 6000 inhabitants only one kilometer away from the border of Serbia.
There he had been left to wait for the host people he had paid, to get him into a state member of the European Union (EU). They have been told to let him wait until they give him the sign that he is allowed to continue the trip, but this expectation is becoming increasingly unbearable for Ibrahim. Together with almost 300 other illegal immigrants, mainly from his home state, he is already convinced that he is stuck in a state where he cannot find a job or achieve the goal of helping his family.
Macedonia is among the countries with the highest rate of unemployment, near 35 percent, while every third resident is living in deep poverty. Ibrahim says that it was very discouraging for all of them when they had found out that the young people of Llojane have fled to the EU countries to seek asylum, and that they were turned back by European authorities after their applications were denied.
“I can’t stay here. I have friends who already have arrived in England, Germany, France... There they have found jobs and gained asylum. I will make it too,” he says while tightening his fist to show his determination.
No competent institution in Macedonia, Greece or Albania has any record of the exact number of immigrants from Afghanistan or other conflict countries in the Far East that have entered Europe. From interviews with illegal immigrants sheltered in Llojane, one discovers that the greatest influx began in 2005. From Afghanistan they go into Iran and then to Turkey, finally arriving in Greece or Bulgaria. It is the same road traveled by the drugs cultivated in Afghanistan that find their market in Europe.
Tourist agencies for refugees
Nearly seven years ago, the network of traffickers who smuggle drugs had the first opportunity to test this system and it proved a viable illegal way to exploit people. These networks, which are mainly run by citizens of Iran, have opened tourist agencies in several cities of Afghanistan, offering “excursions” to European capitals. For their customers, a visa or a passport is not required, but the price is 7000 to 10 000 dollars. The incomes of a large percentage of the Afghan population are directly linked the cultivation of opium poppy, and thus, accruing this much money has never been a problem.
Ibrahim, who does not want to publish his full identity, said he doesn’t even want to show details about the network of traffickers. He simply said that this international network, consisting of citizens from Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey and Iran, is well organized and powerful, and that it would endanger not only him but also his family in Afghanistan. He wouldn’t want at all to risk continuing his illegal journey.
The network that operates through “tourist” agencies in Afghanistan takes 7000 dollars form customers with the promise that it will take them to the first EU country of entry. Using various means of transport, smugglers illegally cross the Afghanistan-Iran border, or enter Iran via Pakistan. They also illegally cross the Iran-Turkey border, heading towards the part of Turkey on the European continent. They enter to Greece via the Evros region.
“Depending on the states, the groups were delivered to us from one to another. We paid 2000 dollars to each. What surprised me the most was the fact that they knew very well the moment when to pass the border,” says Ibrahim. According to him, all the groups that make up the network knew exactly when the guards on duty are “their people.” “Surely they have bribed them. Simply they were acting like they didn’t see us.”
The European network contains traffickers starting from freight carriers to farmers. Immigrants who have possessed large sums of money were not halted in Greece but continued towards their final destination – England or France. Others have ended up in the hands of Greek farmers, where they have been housed and started to work. Traffickers have not told them that Greece is geographically separated from the rest of the EU countries. They lie to the immigrants, telling them that once one enters in Greece, one can move freely in any European country.
Greek crisis 2008: Afghans now head towards the rest of Europe
Until 2008, immigrants from Afghanistan went almost unrecognized in the region of Macedonia, continuing to Serbia to enter Hungary as an EU country. In addition to this illegal route, traffickers were also using the illegal routes of Bulgaria-Romania-Hungary and Greece-Albania-Italy. The state authorities of Macedonia, as well as those of the other countries in the region, did not endeavor to stop these illegal trafficking routes. Diplomatic sources in Skopje said that the countries that have been “flooded” by immigrants from Afghanistan have repeatedly asked the authorities in Skopje to put an end to the trafficking routes. According to them, Macedonia’s Interior Ministry has cut these routes, but at the same time other channels are set up by the same people. After failures in combating smugglers, diplomats have begun to suspect that state officials of Macedonia are involved in this lucrative business.
The situation became alarming in 2008 when Greece began to feel the serious effects of the economic crisis. The majority of Afghans were unemployed and thus their eyes on the rest of Europe’s most developed states. Meanwhile, the increased pressure from Brussels on Bulgaria and Serbia produced the first results in cutting off the smuggling channels, so that over 500 Afghans remain in Macedonia, of whom only 300 are in the village of Llojane.
“The number is not the same and varies from day to day. Some go to Serbia and some others come from Greece and get stationed here. There are over 300 here in Llojane. I don’t know exactly where they are from, perhaps from Afghanistan or some other Arab country in there,” says Selami Mehmeti, the chairman of the local community of Llojane. Another inhabitant of this village, Bunjamin Ramadani, says that the number increases from day to day and it depends on how many of them succeed in penetrating the EU countries through Serbia, and how many fail to do so and return to the village.
Another peasant from this village, Iljasa Saliu, who is a publicist, says this suffering caravan is the true face of Macedonia, referring to institutions whose inadequate response had agitated the local population in Llojane. “According to some information from the villagers themselves, their number is assumed to be 300, with occasional changes, while the number a year ago seemed to be twice as high,” said Sali.
He claims that among these immigrants, there are thosewho see themselves as guides – couriers to the Western European countries who know the terrain and languages spoken in these regions. “That, we were able to understand based on the fact that three consecutive years we have seen the same people, perhaps brilliantly integrated among the inhabitants of Llojane and it wasn’t any trouble to note who is involved in this trade,” said Sali. The responsible authority, namely the Ministry of Internal Affairs, is viewed as a failure in the eyes of the villagers of Llojane, while many of them doubt that even among the blue uniforms are any who benefit.
“Many times we have informed the police of Mateç and of Kumanovo, but nothing. They come just to show up, they take 10 to 15 immigrants, they send them to Kumanovo only to set them free after 4 to 5 hours and return them back to Llojane,” says Mehmeti, the head of the villagers of Llojane. Residents say they have provided the police with all information needed for the cases they have spotted, namely the name of the taxi company from Gevgelija, and other one from Kumanovo, which bring the immigrants to the entrance point of the village. However, nothing has been done.
670 applied for asylum, 12 persons have been approved
Competent state institutions claim they will take measures to deport all those who illegally entered the territory of Macedonia. The spokesman of the Macedonian Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ivo Kotevski, told local media that the police will respond if there are people who have entered Macedonia illegally. He explained that any person who is illegally in Macedonia is placed in the Transit Centre for Foreigners when caught by police. “If they seek asylum, they are sent to be taken care of in the center of asylum seekers.”
Meanwhile, only 63 people are currently stationed in the center for asylum seekers in Skopje, according to official data. Most of them were headed for EU countries, but have ended up in Macedonia. Although the center has been functioning since 2008, 670 persons were there in 2011 alone, most of them from Afghanistan. The number of those seeking asylum in Macedonia this year has increased to five times more than in previous years. But statistics show that, since 2005 until now, only 12 persons have been granted asylum.
In Albania with falsified passports
While Macedonia is still easily passable place for immigrants and heaven for traffickers of human beings, Albania seems to have added measures to prevent this illegal trade. But, it’s not enough.
Albanian police officers try to persuade us that foreign immigrants cannot go to European countries using the Albanian coast as a crossing point. According to them, the Albanian coast is strictly monitored and they have destroyed all of the trafficking networks with vessels. But the response given in written form by an official source at the Albanian State Police after our request was followed by a series of events in late November and early December, where groups of Afghan illegal immigrants, Pakistanis or Iranians were caught on the Italian coast, after the boat had left Albania. Additionally, in Kapshtica, on the border with Greece, four Afghans were found hidden in a truck and captured. Also found with them was an Iranian citizen with falsified documents that he had been issued in Athens.
On December 9, 2011, off the Italian coast of Salento, two boats with 57 Afghan and Iranian immigrants arrived. The boats had sailed from Albania. The news agency quoted the Italian police, who had informed them that on board were four women and 26 children, four of whom were minor girls, while the remaining 27 clandestine passengers were males.
However, the Albanian state police had rushed to refute this story. “It is not true that 57 Afghan and Iranian clandestine passengers caught off the coast of Salento in Italy, came from Albania. The Albanian coast is constantly monitored by the latest modern technology devices and powerful boats, which make possible the controlling of the water space and immediate intervention in case of attempted trafficking,” was written in the public statement of the Albanian State Police.
According to our investigation, two years from now, at a price of 1000 to 1500 Euros per person, several sailing vessels that transported clandestine Afghans, Pakistanis and Iranians had sailed to Italy from the coast of Vlora and Saranda. This is the scheme of the route. After arriving in Greece from Turkey through mediators, dozens of clandestine immigrants cross the Greek-Albanian border using falsified documents, mainly in the area of Kapshtica, but also in Kakavija. After they make contact with some people near the southern coast, they sail off to Italy using raid boats.
An employee of the Vlora police explained to us the scheme mentioned above. Recalling the recent events, we can officially certify the validity of the scheme. I refer to the events of 27th and 28th of November this year, when the police of Korca announced that a wave of illegal immigrants were headed towards Albania via Greece from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.
The Kapshtica border crossing seems to have become a gateway for illegal immigrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. The last arrests of foreign nationals at this crossing point testify to this. On November 27th, it was announced that four foreign nationals were discovered at the border point of Kapshitca, three of whom were Afghans and one Pakistani. The four clandestine immigrants were found inside a truck. The driver was transporting them to Italy, which was their final destination. The age of the Afghan nationals ranged from 20 to 25 years, while the Pakistani citizen was 18-years-old. The truck belonged to a firm that imported fruits and vegetables in Greece. The driver of the vehicle, Slavko Sekulic, a 55-year-old man from Podgorica, Montenegro, was arrested on charges of giving aid to illegal border crossing.
Customs officers on the border Kapshtica announced that they have strengthened controls on illegal immigration by citizens from the Middle East. At this point an Iranian was also arrested. The regional directorate of the border police in Korca officially announced that the arrested male was the 28-year-old Yaghob Asgari from Tehran, who tried to enter the Albanian territory with a falsified Bulgarian passport.
The 28-year-old male from Tehran, who is of Turkish nationality, was suspected of illegally entering Albania through Kapshticawith his Bulgarian passport. The 28-year-old Iranian told the police in Kapshtica that he had received the Bulgarian passport in Athens for a fee of 400 Euros.
Greece, center of traffickers with a big network
The concentration of large numbers of immigrants in Greece has made this European country into a hub where traffickers operate. Their network consists of European travel agencies, freight transportation companies, travel document forgers, taxi drivers, farmers and state officials.
According to the data from the Greek Department for the Protection of Citizens, in September 2011 at the Evros border crossing with Turkey, 7052 illegal immigrants have been detained: 6339 in August, 5941 in July and 3689 in June. A smaller number of arrests took place between January and May 2011. Often traffickers had left the immigrants sailing in the water and had run away in order to not be caught by the police. As consequence, some immigrants had died from the cold water or by drowning in it.
The research shows that the most common way used by traffickers to carry immigrants in EU countries is through their delivery into the hands of criminal networks of any state. The immigrants coming illegally in Macedonia cross the border near the cities of Gevgelija or Dojran. There, they are being taken “care of” by the Macedonian network of traffickers. The traffickers, for a total of 500 Euros, take on the task of bringing the immigrants illegally over the border into Serbia. There Serbian traffickers take them and bring them illegally into Hungary.
But often Greek traffickers would take care of everything. The travel agencies involved in this criminal network hide the immigrants in their buses, while some of the traffickers are camouflaged as tourists vacationing in the EU countries. There are those who travel by private aircraft to the desired destination, after previously being provided with falsified passports. For example, on January 7th, 2011, the Greek police detained a group of illegal immigrants from Afghanistan who had been issued falsified Danish passports to fly to Rome and Genoa. For their trip, a private jet had been provided. The flight had cost 11000 Euros. The group was arrested at the airport of Jonina and Kavala. Another path is through transport companies, hiding illegal immigrants in the back of the goods loaded into barges.
Fear for safety
The massive influx of illegal immigrants has increased the security concerns in the EU and in the US. The lack of control over who crosses the European borders has increased concerns as to whether there are any among these illegal immigrants who would partake in terrorist attacks in the EU or the US.
In Macedonia, those concerned about their security seem to be only the residents of Llojane. They told us of a case three months ago, when a group of immigrants in the late hours of the night attacked four Llojane residents. Immediately after the incident, the self-organized villagers gathered all the illegal immigrants in the village center.
Afterwards, they called the police and told them to take away the immigrants because they represent a risk to their safety. “The Macedonian police, after questioning the immigrants, released them and they returned again in Llojane. The next day continued same as before, with illegal immigrants who walked the streets, squares cafés and in the mountains,” says Iljasa Saliu, a resident of the village.
Due to incidents like these, the head of the local community of this village, Selami Mehmeti also expressed his concerns. “They cause so many problems. We have had a few fights and slaughter by knife between the immigrants themselves. We are no longer safe,” he said.
Edited by Emily SanfordSee more from Xhelal Neziri covering refugees on their long journey to Europe in the video "Macedonia, the purgatory of the escapade"