By Briseida Mema, AFP/Tirana
When he fled Syria with his four daughters, Said Dabash never dreamt of settling down in Albania, a poor country on Europe’s southern edge.
However, the 45-year-old’s hopes of reaching Germany were overtaken by exhaustion.
Now like thousands of other migrants and refugees, he has filed for asylum in a Balkan state overwhelmed by the influx.
“I can’t continue on the road. I’m not in the shape of 25-year-olds,” said Dabash, a construction worker from Aleppo.
He watched as his four young daughters played outside the brick centre for asylum-seekers in Tirana’s suburbs, where they have lived in limbo for months after fleeing Syria in March 2017.
Their asylum application is among a surge filed in Albania this year.
Compared to 307 requests in all of 2017, there were 3,000 asylum applications by August this year, according to Pablo Zapata from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Yet not all of those who apply plan to stay long term.
After catching a few months of rest, “many withdraw or suspend their asylum applications to continue their journey”, said Erida Skendaj, head of Albania’s branch of the Helsinki Committee, a human rights NGO.
An EU police source in Tirana described it as an “abuse” of the asylum system, while Albania’s interior ministry says “there are no more than 500 real asylum cases that are being examined”.
But for the weak, elderly, and those like Dabash who are travelling with young children, the prospects of continuing the perilous journey northward are losing their appeal.
Countries closer to Western Europe’s perimeter have been tightening their borders.
On the path further north in Bosnia, migrants have been clashing with police who are stopping them from entering EU member state Croatia.
Albanian authorities are concerned that Europe’s hardening stance will trap more and more migrants in their country indefinitely.
The Balkan state is already struggling with its own economic problems, including high unemployment and emigration.
“Albania does not have the capacity to receive a very large number of asylum-seekers and offer them services in line with EU standards,” said Deputy Interior Minister Rovena Voda, adding that they have asked for more support from the European Union.
Albania was not a stop on the Balkan route followed by hundreds of thousands of EU-bound migrants in 2015, sparking a crisis in the bloc until that path was shut down by authorities in countries along the route the following year.
But now Albania has become a transit country on a new route weaving through the region, bringing migrants from Asia and North Africa to Western Europe.
The treacherous journey often involves crossing from Turkey to Greece, before heading north through rugged Balkan territory where they attempt to reach the EU at Croatia’s border.
“The road is difficult, steep and mountainous in Albania, Montenegro and Bosnia ... the risks are enormous,” said Eness Kaddourei, a 27-year-old Moroccan asylum-seeker who is hoping to return to the road soon to reach Belgium.
Albania currently provides no facilities for migrants outside of the reception centre in the Babrru suburb – which has room for 200 people.
Other migrants use meagre savings and asylum support to rent cheap apartments.
Albania, which hopes to start EU accession negotiations in 2019, has refused to set up proposed “return centres” for migrants who are rejected from the bloc but cannot legally be forced home without a readmission agreement.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama has opposed the idea pushed by countries like Austria, saying that migrants were “not toxic waste”.
But the problem is not going away.
Since January, police have intercepted 800 migrants every month travelling through Albania from Greece.
At the beginning of October, an agreement was signed to secure assistance from the European Frontex Agency in patrolling borders.
“We have so far managed to cope with the migration flow alone, but if the situation worsens, it will be difficult to get by without the help of EU countries,” said Voda from the interior ministry.
Those now coming to terms with an indefinite stay in Albania include Ritag al-Rifai, a 26-year-old Syrian woman, and her Palestinian husband Osama al-Sadiq, 28.
After arriving in Albania in August, the couple failed to progress further north through Montenegro.
Six months pregnant, al-Rifai now lives with her husband in the asylum centre, where they are letting go of their dream to reach the Netherlands.
“I don’t think we will leave,” said al-Sadiq. “God-willing, we will stay here.”
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