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.
But 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 souce 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.
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. — AFP