TRESTENIK, Albania (Reuters) - Patrolling dirt paths on sun-baked hills bordering Greece, a European police team is helping Albania intercept more of the migrants trying to reach European Union states to the north.
The EU border and coastguard police Frontex deployed 50 officers with night vision cameras and vehicles two months ago at two border entry points favoured by migrants, in its first operation outside the bloc’s frontiers.
“We have seen a steady flow of migrants coming across from the Greek border... We are seeing apprehensions pretty much every day,” said Krzysztof Borowski, a Frontex spokesman.
Teams from Germany, the Czech Republic, Latvia and Lithuania helped stop 200 migrants in their first month since deploying on May 22, and since then groups of 10, 20 and 30 have been
intercepted daily at the border with Greece in eastern Albania’s Korce area, Borowski added.
Most of the migrants caught on the border appear to be from Iraq, Syria and Morocco.
Another northern neighbour of Greece, North Macedonia, was the main route used by more than a million migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia in a huge 2015-2016 influx.
But several thousand of them went through Albania to cross into Montenegro or Kosovo and move north to northern EU states.
Now, Frontex is trying to ensure security on the Albania-Greece is as tight as possible.
Jan Seibold, 42, and Christian Schonwalde, 31, members of a riot police unit from Leipzig, Germany, and their Albanian colleague Marenglen Metolli, 30, have been running 12-hour shifts on the border near Trestenik village for a week now.
The migrants get off taxis or other vehicles at a toll booth on a highway in Greece, hide and sleep during the day in the forest and cross at night or early in the morning, Metolli said.
Their team had stopped half a dozen migrants, including four men aged from 17 to 49 who had not eaten for four days.
“One of them had been in Germany for four years, working in a hotel, and wanted to go back,” Schonwalde told Reuters.
Their patrols have helped reduce the numbers of migrants stopped in the interior from 565 people from May 22 to July 22 last year to 320 in the same period this year, showing less evaded the joint net.
“Before FRONTEX started the Joint Operations, we used to apprehend more migrants in the urban areas; now thanks to their troops patrolling the green border, the migrants are located mainly on the border section with Greece,” Albania’s Border Police director Eduart Merkaj told Reuters.
Some 2,047 migrants were apprehended in 2015, then numbers fell to 915 and 1,047 respectively in 2016 and 2017, growing to 6,893 migrants in 2018. The numbers may be slightly higher this year, since Greek holding centres are closer to Albania now.
Once fingerprinted, migrants are sent to an Asylum Seekers Centre in the outskirts of Albania’s capital Tirana. Few apply for asylum, most choose to go back to Greece, while others flee and attempt to make their way to western European countries.
At the centre, some members of a group caught by Albanian police said they had left the Iraqi town of Duhok a year and a half ago for Turkey. They spent most of that time in Greece before being rounded up by Albanian police.
Ali Sulejman, 30, said his life in Iraq was “crazy” and he had paid 500 euros ($556) to get to Turkey. Another 1,500 euros got him by ship from Turkey to Greece.
One of his friends, who gave his name as Ahmed Ahmed, 40, was travelling with his wife and seven children aged from seven months to 12 years. All of them were in good health.
“I am staying in Greece one year and five months and yesterday I came to Albania. I want to go to Germany, Germany is very good, my sister lives there,” Sulejman told Reuters.
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Reporting by Benet Koleka, Editing by William Maclean