The closure of the Hungarian border to keep migrants out has pushed some of those who are desperate to leave Kosovo or Albania to find new routes to Western Europe via Romania.
By Adrian Mogoș – Romania, Lindita Çela – Albania, Kreshnik Gashi – Kosovo, Jovana Georgievski – Serbia
Kosovo-born Agron Salihi’s confrontation with the Romanian immigration system lasted for five months and ended badly for him, when the 30-year-old was expelled.
Salihi illegally entered Romania in autumn 2016, together with his brother, through a south-western crossing covertly used by migrants on their way to Schengen states, according to his court file.
A convicted felon in Germany, Salihi asked for refugee status in Romania, arguing that ethnic Roma like him face discrimination in Kosovo. But in February 2017, a local court in the town of Giurgiu, where he was being accomodated as an asylum-seeker, ruled in favour of Romania’s Immigration General Inspectorate to deport Salihi to his home country.
Salihi is just one of hundreds of migrants from Kosovo and Albania who are believed to have sought an alternative route to Western Europe via Romania since Hungary was closed to them in the spring of 2016 when the Budapest government finished building a four-metre-tall, 175-kilometre-long fence on its border with Serbia to stop migrants entering the country.
Data from the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex, shows that after the fence was completed, illegal crossings of the Serbian-Romanian border grew tenfold in the first six months of 2017 compared to the same period a year earlier.
Romanian border police told reporters that from the beginning of 2016 to March 2018, 148 Kosovo citizens and 95 Albanians were detained for illegal border-crossing.
However, the Romanian authorities refuse to give many more details about migrants from Kosovo because of the political sensitivities involved, as Romania is one of five EU countries which do not recognise Kosovo’s independence. Kosovo identity documents are accepted by Romania only to establish the identity of a specific person.
If migrants from Kosovo are caught after entering Romania, they are prosecuted and sent back to Serbia unless they ask for asylum, when they can stay in Romania until a court rules on their requests.
The fact that Serbia also does not recognise Kosovo further complicates migrants’ status and repatriation procedures. Serbian police declined to comment about what they do with Kosovo migrants who have been deported from other countries such as Romania.
Meanwhile Kosovo police do not have direct cooperation with their Serbian counterparts to exchange information on migrants, and notifications of attempted illegal border crossings are not transferred to the Pristina authorities.
What is clear however is that although the number of migrants from Kosovo and Albania using Romania as a route to Western Europe is relatively small, it has increased significantly since the Hungarian border fence went up.
Fake passports and false documents
At around 3am on October 16, 2017, the Romanian Border Police checked two cars registered in Serbia whose drivers wanted to leave Romania for Hungary via the Bors crossing point.
The three people inside the two vehicles showed Serbian passports to the border officers. On closer examination, the Romanian policemen noticed that the three travellers’ faces did not resemble the pictures in the passports.
An investigation showed that the three men were from Kosovo – Labinot Geci, 32, Sedver Hoti, 30 and Elon Krasniqi, 24, all heading for Western Europe. They were in possession of Serbian passports they claimed to have bought for 500 euros each.
They are not the only Kosovo Albanians who have tried to reach a Schengen state via Romania using falsified documents. A month earlier, two others heading to Switzerland were found by the border police in an InterRegio train heading from the western Romania city of Timisoara to Budapest in Hungary with fake Bulgarian passports. The documents were obtained in Serbia for 2,000 euros.
Unless other crimes are involved, Romanian courts and prosecutors generally show sympathy towards migrants regardless of their country of origin. Usually they are sentenced to pay a fine and the prosecutors drop the charges for illegally crossing the border.
One such migrant from Kosovo, Labinot Zogaj, tried to sneak himself out of Romania into Hungary in October 2016, but a border police unit prevented what they said was his attempt to get to Germany.
A day later, another migrant from Kosovo, Diar Bytyqi, failed to convince Romanian border police officers with his fake Italian identity card while taking a train to Budapest.
In November 2017, a Romanian judge ruled in favour of the state prosecutor’s request to drop the charges against both Kosovo citizens.
How to avoid paying smugglers
The northern Serbian towns of Subotica near the Hungarian border and Kikinda near the Romanian border have large refugee holding centres. Kikinda is just 14 kilometres away from the Romanian village of Teremia Mică and the plains between them are often used as a crossing point by migrants, because they are full of irrigation ditches covered by bushes in which to hide. It is also very close to the Hungarian border.
Before the agricultural season, it is easy for the police to spot the migrants’ routes as they leave tracks in the grain fields. But when visited the site, there was no sign of the Serbian border police. A Romanian border patrol officer said they are few in number, not very well equipped and show almost no interest in stopping the migrants.
Meanwhile the refugee transit centre in Subotica is full of people waiting their turn on a list to enter Hungary. Some of them wait for six or even ten months as the Hungarian government only allows five to ten refugees to officially enter the country each day between Monday and Friday. Those who try to enter Hungary or Croatia illegally and are caught by police are forced to go back to Serbia.
Many migrants who are now in Serbia have tried to cross the border illegally many times; some of those who reached Western Europe managed it by first slipping into Romania from northern Serbia. In almost all the cases, the migrants travel with no documents, except those from Albania and Kosovo, a Romanian border policeman explained.
Some however can cross the border legally. The Serbian Border Police in Sid on the country’s Croatian border told reporters that they have they encountered groups of Kosovo Albanians legally travelling to the EU with Serbian passports, to which they were entitled as they were born in the former Yugoslavia.
Those who are not able to use legal documents have another option – to pay smugglers to take them across the borders illegally. Romania became a smuggling route after it became more difficult to cross over into Hungary and Croatia.
Halil T, 26, is from the town of Gjilan/ Gnjilane in south-east Kosovo. A convicted felon in his home country, he tried twice to cross the border from Romania into Hungary but was arrested each time and deported.
According to Romanian court data, Halil T, Genk Bilal, Astir Shala and Floret Hazer were pardoned in May 2017 for illegally crossing the border. The four were also caught in 2016 by the Romanian border police and pardoned by the same court.
Halil T said that after they were apprehended, they were sent to the Timișoara camp for migrants, from where they tried to cross the border into Hungary “three times or four times”.
“When we went to Budapest we took train tickets but the Hungarian police caught us there,” he recalled.
He said the Hungarian authorities then deported them to Serbia, threatening them with prison time if caught again. “We stayed at the police station for 12 hours. We wanted to ask for asylum and they said they did not get me asylum,” he said.
Halil T and his friends’ initial journey from Kosovo to Hungary cost them thousands of euros in smugglers’ fees, but they soon learned how to avoid these expenses. To cross the border into Serbia and later into Romania, they used provisional identity documents provided by the Serbian authorities.
The provisional identity document is an A4 letter; a temporary permit issued for 15 days by the Serbian authorities only to Kosovo citizens with no Serbian ID cards at the borders.
This was brought in after the 2013 ‘Brussels agreement’ between Belgrade and Pristina, which allows Kosovo citizens to be given temporary permits for travel.
Silence from the Serbian side
For Serbia, which still lists Kosovo as part of its territory in its constitution, any involvement in deporting Kosovo passport-holders to Kosovo would mean the de facto recognition of Pristina’s independence.
If Serbian police deported migrants from Kosovo back to Kosovo, it would signify that Belgrade has accepted that they are not citizens of Serbia, and that Serbia has recognised Kosovo as a separate state. If they were put into refugee camps in Serbia, it would mean that they were refugees from an independent country, which is also unacceptable for the Belgrade authorities.
We asked the Serbian police to outline Belgrade’s official position on migrants from Kosovo, and to explain whether they are treated as foreigners or Serbian citizens.
The answer was brief: “We cannot possibly help you.”
However, another source inside the Serbian police, who asked to remain anonymous, told us that Belgrade sees a benefit in Kosovo Albanians migrating.
“More Kosovars leaving Kosovo is a good thing for Serbia, so there is no reason to stop them at the border or to jail them once they are sent back,” the official said.
Romanian convictions irrelevant in Kosovo
The Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs told reporters that Bucharest has no intention of recognising Kosovo. Because of this non-recognition, Romanian court decisions are not applicable in Kosovo, and vice versa.
In the court cases observed, Romanian judges issued subpoenas to Kosovo citizens and convicted them of illegal border-crossing – but these convictions have no legal force in Kosovo itself. Deported migrants are free to try again.
The Kosovo authorities meanwhile played down the issue of emigration via Romania.
Baki Kelani, a spokesperson for the Kosovo Police, said the force has no information about Kosovo citizens being expelled from Bulgaria and Romania.
“Kosovo Police officials participated in a meeting on migration organised by [European border agency] Frontex. Bulgaria and Romania were also present. In their presentations about migration, in no case did they say citizens of the Republic of Kosovo had passed through their territory,” said Kelani.
Nevertheless, a 2017 report from the Romanian General Inspectorate for Immigration showed that 4.5 per cent of the people who voluntarily asked the Bucharest authorities to be repatriated were from Kosovo. A 2016 Inspectorate report said that 7.3 per cent of the people sent back to their country of origin were from Albania.
Migrants from Kosovo and Albania sometimes travel together and only few ask for asylum in Romania, however – their goal is to reach Schengen Zone states.
‘Romania was not my destination’
The Romanian courts do not appear to have a consistent approach to people-smugglers who take migrants across the country’s borders illegally. In some cases, the courts only fine them; in others, the smugglers are sent to prison.
In September 2017, eight Iraqi citizens, two of them children, contracted Albanian and Kenyan smugglers to take them to Germany. Packed up in a German-registered Alfa Romeo, they left behind the asylum request they filed in Romania. But 300 metres away from Hungary, the car was stopped by the Romanian Border Police. The two smugglers were sentenced to 20 and 16 months in prison and released on parole.
In the case of Serbian traffickers who smuggled around 80 migrants into Romania, the judges were more sympathetic. They were sentenced to do community service, or prison if they failed to turn up to do the work.
Illegal migrants can also face financial penalties. Two Albanian citizens, Rustan Cami and Kristjan Lleshaj, were fined 2,000 lei (450 euros) by a Romanian court in November 2017; if they did not pay, they would have been jailed. They also had to pay another 2,000 lei for judicial expenses.
When they were questioned in Romania, Cami and Lleshaj told police that they had been on the road for a week after leaving Albania in a convoluted attempt to get to Italy. They had taken a bus to Skopje in Macedonia, and from there to Bulgaria, but the Bulgarians turned them back.
They went back to Macedonia and took a bus to Belgrade, then to Subotica, and afterwards to Kikinda. They then walked into Romania using a navigation application on their mobile phones. But when they finally got to the Hungarian border from Romania, they were detained by police.
Despite the obstacles that migrants like Cami and Lleshaj face on their journeys, the numbers using the Romanian backdoor to Western Europe increased by 15.4 per cent from 2016 to 2017. The number of asylum-seekers meanwhile grew by 161 per cent in the same period, with almost 5,000 applications in 2017, according to the Romanian General Inspectorate for Immigration.
Bucharest has made efforts to deter them: in December 2016, a national advertising campaign featuring grainy images of migrants crossing on foot into Romania urged locals to alert the police if they spot migrants in the border area.
But migrants even after being deported from Romania, some migrants try again and again to cross the border illegally and reach Western Europe – and some eventually succeed.
One of them is 28-year-old Albanian citizen Tonin Pecani, who had already been expelled from several EU countries when he started trying to cross the border between Serbia and Romania last year.
He told us he chose to cross illegally because he had been expelled from six European countries as a result of a crime he had committed in the past. In 2012, he was arrested alongside his brother for kidnapping someone who owned him money, but he insisted that he had already served his time and paid his debt to society.
“A lot of European countries turned me back because of Interpol. Romania was not my destination,” said Pecani. He travelled by car through Serbia and then on foot to Romania.
“In Romania I was arrested on the Hungarian border after a week there. I choose it because I thought it was the only way, because I had tried Croatia, Greece, Hungary and other countries,” he explained. “The Hungarians kept me tied up for eight hours in a camp, before returning me to Romania.”
The detention did not discourage Pecani. He tried to get across the Serbian-Hungarian border more four times, and his final attempt was successful. When he spoke to the reporters, he had already been living in Luxembourg for 11 months.
“I am living in Luxembourg for the moment but have no documents,” he said. “I am an illegal… but that only means that I am here informally with no address.”
Pecani’s story shows that despite all the obstacles thrown up by the authorities in various countries along the route to Western Europe, the most determined migrants still refuse to give up their quest to reach their ‘promised land’.