NEIGHBORS: Residents and migrants on the cross-roads toward the West - Kosovo 2.0

NEIGHBORS: Residents and migrants on the cross-roads toward the West

A video series on solidarity and rejection at the borders.

By , Jovana Georgievski - 31.05.2020

Over the past six years, wars, the poor economic situation and human rights violations in the countries of the Middle East and Africa have sparked off a wave of migration. More than a million people left their homes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Cameroon, Ghana, Morocco and other countries, setting out for the European Union (EU). Many of these people first arrive in Turkey, from where they go to Greece across the Mediterranean before taking the so-called Balkan Route — through Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Serbia — in order to reach the EU countries.

The journey is long and filled with uncertainty. As some of them have been travelling for years now, they often end up stuck in one of the Balkan countries after failing to cross the border multiple times.

In the months and years of trying their luck, refugees and migrants continue to live a life “in between”: They reside in camps, send their children to school, shop at local grocery stores, go to the market, fall in love, bury their relatives, go for walks, play football on playgrounds around town and have coffee at local cafés.

In an effort to give some sense of normalcy to their “provisional” life, the refugees and migrants run into locals, in most cases establishing contact with them sporadically and only when absolutely necessary.

In late February and early March of this year, K2.0 visited the Greek city of Ioannina near the Albanian border, where, in spite of a rich history of multiculturalism, the locals, refugees and migrants remain slightly reserved when communicating with each other.

In an attempt to understand the perceptions and interactions between local inhabitants and people on the move, the team also visited the Albanian village of Kapishticë, located near the Greek border — it is the entry point to Albania for the refugees and migrants who reach Albania on foot while traversing low mountains — and then the first large town — Bilisht.

As well as Subotica, a city in the north of Serbia, and the nearby village of Kelebija, whose inhabitants tend to their cattle in the close vicinity of Hungarian barbed wire.

By talking to the locals, K2.0 tried to provide an answer to the following questions: What are some of the thoughts and feelings held by residents of places where the refugees and migrants pass through or stay, and is there any hope for coexistence?

Greece: Ioannina

Ioannina is a city in western Greece with just under 170,000 local residents and just above 1,000 refugees and migrants housed in two refugee camps.

The larger camp, Katsikas, has been set up near the village of the same name on the outskirts of Ioannina. The camp is located on territory controlled by the Greek army, so neither filming and photography nor access to the camp are permitted.

According to the reports by NGOs working on the ground, the refugees and migrants hosted in the two camps include the people who arrived in Greece on the evening of March 15, only a day before the agreement between Greece and Turkey came into force. The agreement marked the official closing of the Aegean Sea Route, and in turn the closing of the Balkan Route.

However, due to the proximity of the border, the refugees and migrants from these camps have been constantly trying to continue their journey onwards to Albania.

Ioannina is renowned as one of the most culturally diverse urban centers in Greece, where residents of Greek, Turkish, Albanian, Wallachian and Jewish origins have lived together for centuries. In the local elections held last June, Ioannina became the first city with a Jewish mayor in Greek modern history. 

Meanwhile, the economic problems that the country has been facing for more than ten years have led to a spike in the unemployment rate.

This is the main reason why people in Ioannina are not optimistic in terms of the long-term viability of coexisting with refugees and migrants.

Albania: Kapshticë and Bilisht

Kapshticë is a small village in the south of Albania, right next to the border with Greece. Refugees and migrants have been illegally coming in from Greece from across the hills surrounding the city, making their way to Tirana and then on to Montenegro. The Albanian border police are visibly present along the border zone and the nearby towns, like Bilisht.

Beginning last May, the border has been guarded by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) as well, which tracks illegal border crossings using vehicles equipped with thermal cameras.

Frontex’s work has been met with praise from the German government.

Between October 2018 and April 2019, before Frontex was given the mandate to patrol the Albanian-Greek border, around 3,500 people managed to reach Albania from Greece illegally, according to Caritas.

Albania is one of the poorest countries in Europe, just behind Moldova, Ukraine and Kosovo.

In November 2019, the northeastern part of the country was hit by a strong earthquake, recovery is continuing.

On top of that, Albania has been plagued by emigration for decades. Since the fall of communism in 1991, approximately 1.4 million Albanian nationals, or almost half of its current population, have left the country. 

At the beginning of the refugee crisis, between 2015 and 2016, around 65,000 Albanians applied for asylum in Germany.

This ranks Albania within the top countries in the world in terms of its emigration rate.

Roughly 300 people live in Kapshticë, most of them elderly persons.

The village does not have a church or cathedral, but it does have a mosque. According to Taulant, the local imam, refugees and migrants could take shelter and sleep in the mosque. The doors to the mosque’s courtyard and the building itself were left unlocked even at night.

However, following the warning from the border police, the imam began locking the building.

Serbia: Subotica

After they pass through Albania, refugees and migrants journey through Montenegro and North Macedonia and upward to the EU borders, going through Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

From the beginning of the migrant crisis, protests against refugees and migrants have been held in a number of cities across Serbia, further encouraged by a flood of fake news.

These xenophobic spectacles can turn to violence, as seen from the example of a member of the right-wing movement Levijatan; in the first week of May, he ran through a barbed wire fence and entered the Migrant Reception Center in Obrenovac, all the while filming a Facebook video.

Moreover, in an announcement on its official website, the Serbian Ministry of Defense said that it was buying almost 2.5 tons of razor wire to enclose the reception and asylum centers.

In April, about 8,800 people were located in 20 centers across Serbia, including more than 1,100 children.

The city of Subotica, in the far north of Serbia, right next to the Hungarian border — similar to Ioannina in Greece — is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the country, where Serbs, Croats, Hungarians, Romas, Rusyns and Aromanians have lived together for centuries.

However, fearing the refugees and migrants who might settle there, the citizens of Subotica have protested multiple times over the past years.

K2.0 brings you the atmosphere from one of these protests held only ten days before the coronavirus outbreak.

After that, we are taking you a little bit further north, in Kelebija, a village in the borderlands where people live near the Hungarian barbed wire.

In March 2016, the EU agreed to give Turkey 6 billion euros in order to prevent displaced people from continuing their journey. But on Feb. 2020, Turkey announced that it would no longer stop refugees from trying to cross the border into Europe. 

While the team was visiting Subotica and Kelebija, some 1,300 kilometers to the south, at the Turkish-Greek border, around 35,000 refugees and migrants massed on the Turkish border waiting for their chance to continue the journey toward safety in the West.

And yet again, setting out to reach Europe via the Balkans, their journey was stopped by the global COVID-19 pandemic. With the closing of numerous borders in European countries, as part of measures to stop the spread of the virus, the conditions in the camps have also worsened and the journey for refugees and migrants has only become more difficult.

It may be now more than ever, that the solidarity of citizens across the Balkan region is crucial for the survival of those stranded on the borders. K

Videos produced by: Ajdin Kamber and Jovana Georgievski

Camera and video editing: Ajdin Kamber

Script: Jovana Georgievski

Text editor: Bronwyn Jones

Editorial support: Cristina MarĂ­, Nidzara Ahmetasevic

This project would not have been possible without the support of Internews.