Story
29 Dec 2020
by: Alketa Gaxha

“When I arrived in Albania, the Border Police immediately provided me all the information I needed and called a social worker to support me with anything my family required” – Male 31, Syria.  

“Reception conditions and assistance provided at the centers are good. The police and social-child protection services helped us providing us with first aid and responding to our needs” – Mother of two children, assisted at the center in Kapshtica.

These are just two of the thousand stories of Middle Eastern emigrants transiting through Albania. Each of their stories carries a drama of its own, but migrating at the time of a pandemic is an even greater challenge. The global emergency of COVID-19 has not stopped migrations and people moving for a better life. 9,580 emigrants from Syria, Algeria, Palestinian Territories, Afghanistan, Morocco and other countries entered Albania between March and December 2020. The rapid spread of the virus across borders increased the difficulties not only for migrants, but also for frontline staff working in the refugee and migrant emergency response.

To respond to these challenges, in April 2020, the European Union (EU) launched the project “Addressing COVID-19 Challenges within the Migrant and Refugee Response in the Western Balkans”. The project is implemented by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and supports border and migration management officials to continue providing assistance to migrants and adapting reception facilities and procedures to COVID-19 prevention measures. 

On the frontline

“At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were called by our colleagues of the Regional Directorate of Border and Migration Police in Korça to assist migrants in the Migrant Registration and Temporary Accommodation Centre in Kapshtica” says Mr. Feliks Cane, the Director of the Public Health Institute in Devoll, Korçe. “We went there and had to perform screening for COVID-19 at the camp facilities. Usual practice was that the cases needing medical examinations and assistance where accompanied by border officials at the regional hospital and/or health center depending on their needs, but with the lockdown and pandemic situation, the medical staff had to go to the reception centers. It was challenging, as we had no dedicated premises to perform our duties and we improvised, using the kitchen area to offer counseling and other services.  The additional containers and dedicated facilities donated by IOM Albania facilitated the work and helped us to conduct our functions in support to migrants’ needs in appropriate conditions,” he adds.   

In addition to containers for accommodation and sanitary services, outdoor hand-washing stations, and digital info boards to share information on infection prevention measures, IOM Albania installed three medical ambulatories in the migrant registration and temporary accommodation centres of Kapshtica, Gerhot and Kakavija border crossing.

During the whole 2020, public authorities continued to provide direct assistance such as food, clothes and psychosocial support to migrants in transit, in cooperation with local NGOs and international organizations.  “We are committed to exercise our duties with diligence, in full respect of International Humanitarian Standards and in a dignified way”, emphasizes Mr. Behar Tafa, Executive Assistant to the Director of the Department of Border and Migration.

Mindful of the need to ensure the safety of frontline workers, the EU and IOM donated to Albania’s Border and Migration Police over 67,500 pieces of personal protective equipment against COVID-19, including gloves, masks, face shields, hand sanitizers and disinfection pumps.

Migrant Registration and Temporary Accommodation Centre in Kakavijë. Gjirokastër, Albania

The importance of clear communication and procedures

“The COVID-19 pandemic has severely tested us. Providing an effective response to the global pandemic has required the Border Police to demonstrate not only effective planning and coordination skills, but also the ability to clearly communicate in a consistent way with all our partners” says Mr. Eduart Merkaj, the Director of Department for Border and Migration Police.

The system providing assistance to migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in these border areas is complex, involving many actors and service providers.  According to the orders of the Ministry of Health and Social Protection for the prevention of the spread of COVID-19, migrants had to stay isolated for at least 14 days from the entrance in the camps. Previously, the maximum duration of stay in the temporary centers was up to 72 hours, to receive the immediate assistance and follow pre-screening procedures. Mr. Emiljano Resulaj, Chief of Station at the border crossing point of Kapshtica, recalls his experience: “At the start of the pandemic, 41 migrants were isolated in the Temporary Accommodation Centre in Kapshtica. The prompt intervention and coordination among health, social services and child protection units was crucial in addressing this extraordinary situation”

To provide clearer guidance to all actors, in August 2020, with the project’s support, Albania Border Police adopted the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for Border and Migration Police Officers in relation to the COVID-19 Pandemic. The SOPs define steps for screening, detection, registration, isolation, and referral of suspected COVID-19 cases. To operationalize the SOPs, IOM is developing an online training for border guards in collaboration with the E-Campus platform.

Commenting on the assistance provided to Albania by the project, Mr. Luigi Soreca, EU Ambassador to Albania, stated: “COVID-19 reshaped the way we respond to emergencies, requiring rapid answers to the needs of the most vulnerable and very close collaboration between government structures at central and local level to deliver the needed aid. This project is part of the EU’s commitment to support partners in the region in their fight against COVID-19 and in their path towards the EU accession. The EU is about collaboration and mutual support, especially in facing global challenges like a pandemic. I am glad to see government institutions, international organizations and NGOs working together for a common goal: this is the true spirit of the EU”.

Reported and written by Alketa Gaxha, Project Coordinator, IOM Albania

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