/en/file/show//Images/Images.New/Albania Migrants lead.jpg
02 Feb 18

Desperate Albanians Try New ‘Spanish Route’ To UK


Young Albanians are waiting for months near a Spanish port, planning to slip into Britain – their hopes sustained by the dismal prospects back home – and by the promises of traffickers.

Elvis Nabolli, Taulant Kopliku BIRN Tirana, Kruma and Zierbena

Under the roof of a fishing centre near the Spanish port of Zierbena, about 20 km north of Bilbao, on the Atlantic coast, about 20 young Albanians, far from home, stand by a fireplace to get warm on a cold winter evening.

In the nearby street, groups of these youngsters walk up and down in the dead of the night to kill time.

“Have you found a place in the tent? You can’t stay out in the open in this weather,” an energetic young with a northern Albanian accent exclaims.

Mondi, 26, has been trying to slip onto cargo ferries from Spain to Britain where he hopes to build a better life.

He has slept for the past month in an improvised camp near Zierbena and spends his days either trying to get on a boat or sleeping in his small, blue tent, wrapped in an old blanket.

Others join him in his small tent, often up to four, snuggling together like a row of canned sardines.

“I have everything ready there so, I need just to go,” he says about Britain, adding that he will do whatever it takes not to have to turn back to his “hopeless” village near the northern city of Shkodra.

“I know that one day I will make it; I didn’t know it was so difficult,” he says.

Zierbena is a village near the Basque port of Bilbao on the Bay of Biscay, and is the place from where ferries embark from Spain to the UK.

Would-be British immigrants survey the queues of trailers while waiting to sneak onto a ferry, aiming to hide themselves in one of the trailers for the 24-hour ride to Portsmouth on the south coast of England.

BIRN spotted about 100 youngsters milling around in Zieberna. The authorities at Bilbao Port told BIRN that Albanians make up the biggest group of illicit migrants trying this route.

Port Zierbena, near Bilbao, in northern Spain. Photo: Elvis Nabolli

The migrants discovered the village of Zierbena immediately after the French authorities disbanded the huge unofficial camp in Calais, northern France, known as the Calais Jungle, in October 2016.

Although only a small nation, Albanians beat many bigger nations in terms of the numbers of migrants – and in terms of their desperation to get round border controls.

In February 2017, Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that 981 Albanians had been caught in British ports while attempting to enter the country illegally hidden in lorries between 2008 and 2016.

By comparison, they caught 425 Afghans, the second biggest group.

Asylum seekers from Albania became a major political issue in Germany in 2015 and in France in 2016 and 2017.

Following the forced evacuation of the so-called Calais Jungle, dozens of migrants, still hoping to reach the UK, went off to Spain. A rise in Albanian migrants was also registered in ports in The Netherlands.

The British embassy in Tirana told BIRN that the routes chosen by these Albanians are “a concern”, and blamed criminal organizations and human traffickers for encouraging them.

“We have been informed for a long time now that criminal organizations offer to facilitate illegal entry in the United Kingdom,” the embassy said.

“Each year, many innocent people die because they trust traffickers, whose aim is just to earn money and disregard the safety of trafficked persons,” the spokesperson added.

BIRN learned that while some of those in Spain hoped to hide in lorries without help from traffickers, others pay organized crime groups for falsified travel documents.

About 670 Albanians were found with falsified documents on UK borders during 2016 and 2017, according to the British embassy in Tirana.

“Twenty-three Albanians were stopped in the last quarter of 2017 while attempting to enter UK through Bilbao, using falsified documents,” the spokesperson added.

Increasing numbers of migrants create difficulties for the Spanish authorities in Bilbao and as well for drivers and travel companies.

A security officer told BIRN on condition of anonymity that dealing with Albanians attempting to break the security fence at the port has become a full-time job.

“Albanians try each night to enter the port. The tale of Albanians and security guards is a never-ending one,” he added.

Brittany Ferries, the company that operates ferries between Bilbao and UK ports, has warned its customers to be aware of the problem through a press release published in its website, and it requires drivers to report clandestine passengers.

“Any information that drivers can provide on the activities of potential clandestine passengers will help us to keep our ports secure, for the benefit of all,” the company said.

Spanish authorities in the meantime are building a concrete wall to replace the previous fence surrounding the port. However, those attempting to get on boats do not seem discouraged.

Migrants sleeping outside Zierbena port. Photo: Elvis Nabolli

After midnight, the Albanians start to move out from their tents. They prepare their small backpacks. “Tomorrow at noon there is a ferry going, so we are preparing,” says Mondi.

At about 2am, the migrants divide into small groups to reach the three-meter-high fence. They overcome it without much trouble but then have to sprint a few dozen meters in the middle of the port where the lights are strong and there is nowhere to hide.

In less than 30 minutes, about 25 youngsters attempt to hide themselves in lorries. An hour later, all of them are thrown out by police. Not one of them gets through this time.

Indrit, a 15-year-old from Tropoja, in north Albania, told BIRN that he almost succeeded, when he was detected just a few meters from the ferry. “I will try again each night, till I make it,” he says.

Only minutes after the police throw them out, some of them try to re-enter the port from another direction.

Spain is otherwise tolerant of the Albanian migrants. They are not harassed in their improvised camp outside the port and do not face deportation when police catch them.

Mondi told BIRN that once they caught him eight times within 24 hours. “It has turned into a fixation, it is a kind of vice,” he said.

The migrants then observe a ferry embarking from a nearby hill and make one last desperate attempt – although in daylight it is impossible to hide.

They try to distinguish the kinds of goods in the lorries. Those transporting food or vegetables offer a better opportunity to hide than lorries carrying industrial goods or construction materials.

At 2pm, the ferry leaves. Once again, none of Albanians manages to get on board.

Minutes later, an Albanian who represents himself as an intermediary offers journalists a chance to get on board using decoys.

He sends us to another Albanian who says that if we pay 4-5,000 euros, he can manage to hide us in a lorry along with a few others that will act as decoys but will be visible for the police – who will most likely not search any further.

Lorries are scanned by equipment able to detect heat, so there is no hiding inside the lorries without such decoys.

The intermediary says the police can detect humans inside lorries but cannot tell how many are there.

The traffickers have a variety of offers. For a “cheap” price, you can hide yourself in the lorry of an unsuspecting driver.

For a steeper price, they will arrange matters with the driver. There is also the third option, which is to pay after other members of the gang once inside the UK.

Astrit, a former lorry driver who declined to give his surname, told BIRN that he earned up to 300 euros per person by working with this gang.

He dismissed the idea that it was a crime, adding that he was just “helping people to join their families”.

“If you use these guys, you are almost safe,” he said. “They organize everything. It is true though; it is a very closed space for a very long trip,” he added.

Kruma in northern Albania. Photo: Elvis Nabolli

The world from which these people are escaping is bleak. In the town of Kruma, in the Hasi region of northern Albania, bordering Kosovo, Hysniu, 67, a father of six, lives with his wife in a third-floor apartment.

Four of his children now live in London, while his two daughters left home after their marriages.

Almost every family in this town of a few thousand inhabitants has at least one member living in UK. They told BIRN that they had paid up to 12,000 pounds sterling to get there illegally through smuggling networks.

“Once you get there, you can earn in one day what takes a month here,” Hysniu says.

He adds that his children have already paid off their debts, and are also helping him back home. “What else we can do? This is the life that we got,” he adds.

His friend, Mustafai, has all of his children in the UK as well these days.

“This region is well connected with London because that there is where the money is. Where else you can go from Hasi, except London?” he asks.

Hasi is one of the poorest region in Albania, which in turn is the second poorest country in Europe.

A regular job is hard to come by, so over the years people have nurtured a culture of hardworking migrants who go abroad and help their families back home.

But Aleksi, 21, who has lived for two years in London since migrating from the Shkodra region, said earning money in the UK is not that easy.

He is still struggling to pay off the 7,000 pounds he borrowed to pay the smugglers.

“Paying such a large sum just to get here was a big mistake,” he told BIRN over phone.

“Work is hard, the money that one can make isn’t big and up till now I haven’t saved any money to send home,” he added.

Aleks has to pay 200 pounds a month for a house share with five other Albanians. He earns about 30 to 40 pounds per day working in a car wash or on a construction site.

He was lured to London, partly by Facebook posts of his friends posing in smart places looking well dressed and smiling – and by the poverty in his village.

He first borrowed money from his relatives to pay the smugglers and managed to get in the UK by hiding among vegetables in a lorry on the ferry from Calais to UK.

“We stood in the lorry for 20 hours. When we arrived in the UK, we just ran,” he said.

Arriving in London as illegal immigrant, he had to work for other Albanians, feeling that he had at least to pay back his debts to his relatives before returning.

But life in London has been a hard lesson. “If I had only known, wouldn’t have done it,” he concluded.