The beautiful Albanian border region where arms traffickers and smugglers enter the EU | world news
There are places in Albania that are breathtakingly beautiful, blessed with soaring peaks, turquoise water or lush forests.
And sometimes all three at the same time.
That day, we cross the bed of a dry river, the sun beating down and the mountains in front of us.
On the other side of the ridge is the line where Albania ends and Greece begins.
And, of course, when you reach Greece, you have also entered the European Union, where visitors can move around quite freely.
This is why this border region, made of hidden trails and dense forests, has long been associated with smuggling, arms trafficking, human trafficking and all other types of sinister cross-border crimes.
Just within sight, getting closer all the time, is a group of knocked down tents.
Because it’s not a story of tourism, but of borders, crime and a country’s desperate attempt to escape its own reputation.
At my side, Christian Winkler, a German policeman who now finds himself surveying this sea of pebbles.
Mr. Winkler is here on secondment with Frontex, the European agency specializing in border forces.
“This morning we saw those tents from up there,” he said, pointing to buildings in the woods on the mountainside. “One tent is not suspicious but five or six are worth seeing.”
As we approach, Mr. Winkler, an experienced and thoughtful man, unclips the gun from his belt, but lets the Albanian officers lead the way. If there is an arrest to be made, it will be up to them.
But there isn’t. People came here, but now the tents are empty. The mice escaped the cats.
The Frontex team in Albania includes officers from Germany, Romania, Croatia, Hungary and elsewhere.
They are there to offer their experience and support, but also to show that the EU cares about its borders.
“We work very well with our Albanian colleagues,” says Cristian Crainic from Romania.
“Every border is very important for the European Union. We must have secure borders.”
And that’s how we watch buses empty of passengers, be scanned and then inspected with specialized equipment, while suitcases and backpacks are also searched.
There was a time, we are told, when this border leaked like an old garden hose, but not anymore.
The question, however, is whether the issues have been resolved or simply moved on.
Lessons from Britain might suggest the latter. For starters, Albania’s infamous reputation as a hub of crime is demonstrated by London’s drug trade, in which Albanian gangs are widespread.
And there is human trafficking. A few years ago, the number of Albanians crossing the English Channel in small boats numbered in the dozens. It rose and rose and has now exploded.
In the first six months of this year, around one in six people arriving in Britain on a small boat was Albanian; since then, according to former Home Secretary Priti Patel, it has increased dramatically, so most arrivals in the past two months – around 60%, she says – have come from Albania.
Some of them will, of course, be legitimate asylum seekers. But Albania is not at war – it is hard to avoid the conclusion that most of this influx are economic migrants, not refugees.
So what is causing this rush?
“There are pull and push factors for Albanians,” said Saimir Boshnjaku, director of the Albanian Immigration Police.
“The UK is an attractive country for many reasons. The people smugglers try to find the weakest point in the system, so we need to find the other way to stop them and bring them to justice – the people dealing with human trafficking or smuggling and send them to court.
“Some people abuse the system when they apply for asylum. They go there for a better life. Maybe they have friends or relatives, but they go there for economic reasons – to get more money in their pocket.”
And what about the criminal gangs who organize the trafficking of people, brazenly offering their trips on social networks?
“TikTok videos are marketing,” he tells me with a slight shrug. “They need to find as many people as possible to make money.” The battle with criminal gangs, he says, is common all over the world.
“They’re trying to extend their ties and we’re trying to bring them to justice…it’s a game.”
And yet, this seriously damages the reputation of Albania. The people I have met here could not have been more welcoming or warm, but the world’s opinion of this nation is marked by a chronic mistrust built by the actions of Albanian criminals.
Read more from Sky News:
Albanian police could be brought to UK to help stop Channel crossings
Patel signs deal to get Albanian criminals out of UK faster
Raab does not deny that the government wants an agreement to send migrants to Albania
On the evening of our arrival in Tirana, the bustling capital, preparations were underway for a free concert by Rita Ora – who was born in Kosovo to Albanian parents, but was taken to London as a refugee as a child.
She remains a hero in Albania, taking to the stage in a dress emblazoned with the national flag and speaking of her adoration for the country.
“She’s a global star and we’re so proud of her,” a viewer told me. He loved it, and he also loved Britain, a country with “a good economy and a good society”.
Would he like to go there?
“Everyone would love to go,” was the reply.
Albania is a dilemma. A country that sits in Europe, but which is little known; a nation that wants to work with its neighbors and broaden its horizons, but is still held back by its reputation and its own poverty (the average Brit earns six times more than the average Albanian).
Of the 10 million Albanians in the world, two thirds live outside the country.
It is a nation that knows migration and desires for a better life.
It is perhaps unsurprising that people are moving away from this country and towards the beaches of northern France, in search of a passage through the English Channel.