This testimony must be viewed in conjunction with another that was published by the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) in January 2021. Together, they evince an emerging trend of the Albanian police raiding hotels to apprehend and, ultimately, push back people-on-the-move (POM) to Greece.
The respondent is a 30-year-old Algerian man. Between the 12th of January and the 20th of February, he experienced three pushbacks. All were from Albania to Greece.
The first pushback (12/01/21)
Since November 2020, the respondent had stayed at the “Altin Hotel” in Durres, a small port city near Tirana, the Albanian capital. He rented the room with four other North African men. It cost 2 Euros per night per person.
Despite the respondent’s assertion that it was the “Altin Hotel”, the name and exact location of the hotel could not be verified. It appears to be the same one referenced in the January testimony. Rather than an official premises, the hotel is informal accommodation commonly frequented by POM.
It does not have an online presence.
At around 7:00 a.m. on the 12th of January, Albanian police officers knocked on the door of the respondent’s hotel room. According to the respondent, all wore balaclavas and were clad in “black and blue uniforms”.
After opening the door, the respondent and his roommates were led outside by the officers. They were joined by a further 40 POM who were brought from the hotel. They were from Alergia, Syria, Morocco, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tunisia.
The respondent claimed that over 25 officers were present. That the police had assembled in such a large number suggests this was a planned operation.
Whether or not staff at the hotel cooperated with the police is unclear.
“We had no idea what was going on.”
Along with nine others, the respondent was loaded into a Hyundai H100. These are small, minibus-like vehicles. The officers then drove the group to a police station inside the Port of Durres. They were followed by four other vehicles that brought the remaining POM.
Despite the respondent’s assertion, it is impossible to find research on this station or pinpoint its exact location.
Inside the station, the respondent and his group were placed in a cell. Here, he witnessed four incidents of assault. Several inmates were beaten by officers in the building, who punched and struck the men with batons. “There is also this with the electricity [a tazor], but they don’t use, they just fire in the air to make us scared,” said the respondent.
During their detention, the inmates were provided with food whose packaging bore the flag of the European Union. Albeit to a limited extent, this constitutes evidence that the bloc is providing material support for the prison system in Albania. Yet this requires more evidence to be proven definitively.
More unusually, the respondent claimed that a group of men in civil clothes visited his cell and assaulted the inmates “for no reason”. This left the respondent with extensive bruising on his face. Why these men were allowed to enter the prison or who they were was unknown to the respondent. He alleged they were Serbian, due to the language they spoke, and described them as “so racist”.
According to the respondent, one minor was beaten during this attack.
After four or five hours, the respondent was loaded into a police car which was driven by two different officers. He described the vehicle as the “standard ones” used by the Albanian police.
It was now midday.
The respondent stated that, although the vehicles could only seat six, the officers transported 10 POM at a time, placing the others in the boot of the vehicle. When asked if there was sufficient space, the respondent simply laughed.
There were five cars in total, carrying approximately 50 POM.
In a squadron, the vehicles drove directly to the Greek-Albanian border. The journey lasted between three to four hours. The respondent indicated that they were brought here.
Upon their arrival, the respondent was taken to what he described as an “official camp”. All 50 POM were gathered together and ordered to stand in a yard surrounded by police buildings. The respondent believed that they were made to wait outside due to their large number.
While waiting outside, the respondent was placed in solitary confinement for over an hour after someone sitting next to him complained to the officers.
Everyone’s photograph and fingerprints were taken by the Albanian authorities.
After a short wait, a Land Rover arrived. It was driven by two officers and had the Albanian flag on its registration plate. The respondent was loaded into the vehicles with six others. They were Egyptian, Syrian, Algerian and Moroccan. Everyone was aged between 20 to 30.
Like the previous journey, the vehicle was too small for the amount of passengers and two POM were crammed into the boot.
“They tell us – go to Greece”.
The vehicle drove into the mountains for 15 to 20 kilometres. The respondent described that it did not drive along roads and followed a random route, often criss-crossing and turning back on itself. As January’s report indicates, the Albanian police purposefully drive in a disorientating manner to prevent POM from knowing where they are, which can impede their future journeys.
The respondent alleged that the officers repeatedly entered Greek territory.
Unlike other hotspots monitored by the BVMN, the 250km long frontier separating the two countries is largely porous, often lacking fencing and clear demarcation.
The vehicle stopped and the men were ordered out of the vehicle. No one knew where they were. At this point, it was dark and snowing. The respondent estimated that it was 11:00 p.m.
Faced with the adverse weather conditions, the six men decided to return to Albania.
As the respondent recalled: “We didn’t want to go to Greece, we tried to come back to the same place [Durres]”.
After waiting for the police to leave, the men set off for Durres. They walked for several days through the mountains in the snow. This arduous journey from the south of Albania has reportedly claimed the lives of several POM in the past.
The second pushback (16/01/21)
Back in Duress, the respondent checked into the same hotel.
This time, however, he was reluctant to stay there and only slept in the room to “take a shower” and “wash his clothes”. In a given week, the respondent stayed there for one or two nights. In the respondent’s words, “I sleep outside. I was too scared.”
When asked why Durres was a popular destination for POM, the respondent explained: “because there is a port there, and they want to go to Italy directly with a truck”. “Many, many, many are Egyptians”, he continued. In 2016, it was estimated that 143,000 Egyptians resided in Italy.
“Same thing, same story”
Before continuing, it is notable that the following sequence of events is mirrored in the January testimony. Given this, it is likely that both describe the same pushback, albeit from two different perspectives and with a degree of variation that this entails. Indeed, the former asserts that the pushback happened on the 17th, whereas this respondent stated it was on the 16th, although he was not unsure of the exact date.
On the morning of the 16th of January, while he was asleep, a group of Albanian police officers came to the respondent’s hotel room. Hearing a bang on the door, the respondent tried to flee by jumping off the balcony but was apprehended by the officers. “I knew what would happen to me if I stayed,” explained the respondent.
As before, the respondent was apprehended, brought outside and loaded into what he described as a “big bus”. Besides those from the hotel, he observed that other POM were rounded up “from the street, from the cafes.”
One difference between this occasion and the last – one that would later prove catastrophic for the respondent and his group – is that the officers rushed their exit from the hotel and did not allow anyone to gather their personal belongings. Money, mobile phones, and, crucially, winter clothing were all left in the room.
The testimony gathered in January revealed that many were forced out of their rooms in only T-shirts.
50 POM were placed in the bus.
Escorted by three police cars, it drove directly to the border. The journey lasted around four hours. According to the respondent, two POM were handcuffed during this journey. It is unknown why.
Echoing the January report, the respondent described an incident that occurred en route to the border. Following the insistence of one passenger that he needed to go to the toilet, the bus pulled over to let some of the men relieve themselves. Seizing this opportunity, one POM fled into the woods. The police officers pulled out their firearms and discharged several shots into the air. This caused the man to fall to the ground and he was subsequently apprehended by the officers.
As the respondent said, “the refugee was scared, when the police started to shoot, he went down”.
The man was unharmed.
“In the night, in the snow”
The bus passed through a small village onto a dirt track where it stopped. It has reached 10:00 or 11:00 p.m., attested the respondent. All the passengers were unloaded by the officers who led them on foot to the Greek-Albanian border.
After an hour’s walk, the officers ordered the group to carry on alone and they returned to the bus.
Again, it was dark and the terrain was coated in a thick blanket of snow. With several lacking winter clothing, due to their rushed exit from the hotel, this placed the group at an acute risk of hypothermia and exposure. Average nightly temperatures in the border region range between -3 and 4 degrees Celsius in January.
As the respondent recalled, “it was hard because of the snow. There [was] one Algerian, with a broken leg, with the sticks [crutches], two sticks.”
“We tried to go back to Albania again.”
The third pushback (20/02/21)
This is where the testimony diverges from that collected in January. In the latter, the respondent formed a small group who attempted to enter Albania through a different passage over the mountains near Korça. This was reportedly an extremely dangerous journey and several of the group nearly perished due to the cold.
Nevertheless, the respondent in this testimony decided to try and re-enter Albania by following the route they had originally come. He gathered into a group of six, all of whom were North African.
The respondent detailed how the weather was “incredibly cold” with temperatures dipping “below zero”. Indeed, the group was without water for a few days as the contents of their bottles were frozen solid.
The group walked for three days into the Albanian interior until they were apprehended by the Albanian police. These officers, too, wore black and red uniforms. Their number is unknown. The respondent’s description of the event attests to their dire state: “when we saw the police come, we didn’t run, we didn’t do nothing. We were tired from the snow, the cold, I just stayed on the ground.”
The Albanian police apprehended the group and pushed them back to Greece.
“The same police, with the same car, to the same spot on the border, everything, the same.”