Thirty years later, the cross-border flow is reversed, but on a much smaller scale. Now it’s people from the Middle East and Africa who roam the same oak forests, from Greece to Albania this time, halfway on their long journey to the heart of Europe.
Shepherd Michalis Trasias, 69, who grazes his sheep on the Greek side of the border, told The Associated Press he sees groups heading to Albania every day.
“Very many refugees are crossing – by the hundreds,” he said. “The border is only a hundred meters (yards) from here. Those that the Albanians catch, they send them back. Those who manage it continue, where to go, only they know.
Migrants or refugees who do not want to stay in Greece have several options, all of which are illegal: getting on a ferry – or buying a place on a ferry boat – to Italy; use false papers to get on the plane; or walk through Bulgaria, North Macedonia or Albania.
And with Bulgaria seen as too dangerous, and North Macedonia increasingly better guarded, many opt for Albania, even though its patrols are reinforced by agents from the European Union’s Frontex border agency. . Police data shows Albania has seen an increase in arrests for illegal entry this year, while North Macedonia – outside of which 10,000 people had camped five years ago while waiting to sneak in – signals a decrease.
Albanian Interior Ministry spokesman Ardian Bita said his country “is doing everything possible to fight organized criminal groups” which help smuggle migrants, and has arrested “a considerable number” of smugglers This year.
The main base of the crossing points is an abandoned army guard house – dirty and decrepit – and the surrounding woods a few hundred meters from the border, a half hour walk from the nearest Greek village of Ieropigi and 220 kilometers (140 miles) west of Greece’s second largest city, Thessaloniki. There is water from a pumping station, from which some also draw electricity to charge their phones.
About fifty people were camping in the area during a visit from the PA, waiting to attempt their crossing alone or with the paid help of smugglers. The population can reach a few hundred, most of whom are periodically rounded up and kidnapped by the Greek police. Few stay long.
Among those who do is Shaikh Musa Abdallah from Sudan who stayed in the old decrepit guardhouse for 50 days, along with his wife and five children, aged 5 to 15.
“I have tried six times so far to cross” into Albania, hoping to continue to Serbia, he told the AP. “But Frontex stopped me. For others it is very easy to cross, but for families it is very difficult.
Abdallah has said he has been living in Greece for three years and is now offering to abandon his efforts to move forward.
Mohammad Nour Mahmood Al Damad from Syria has also been turned away six times in the past seven days. But he travels childless and is determined to persist, having been denied asylum in Greece.
“I want to leave, to go to any other country,” he said, cooking potatoes under the trees with a fellow Syrian. “I don’t want to go to Europe, just Albania or Kosovo. I want a good life.
Husam Hderi, 30, wants the same thing but offers to look for it further abroad.
“I want to go to Albania, then to Kosovo and from there to Bosnia to reach Italy,” said the Palestinian from Syria. “I have a family, two children in Syria. Once there, I will bring them so that we can live together.
Hderi reached Greece a month ago, crossing the land border from Turkey, then was driven by smugglers to Thessaloniki. He said that so far he had paid 2,200 euros ($ 2,570) to smugglers to reach Ieropigi and that he was determined to continue north.
“Frontex is a big problem,” he said. “For the past month, I have been constantly trying to enter (Albania) and they keep sending me away. “
Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, and Konstantin Testorides in Skopje, North Macedonia, contributed to this story.
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