Albania, unexpected refuge for the Afghan elite

By Isabelle Mandraud

Posted yesterday at 1:00 a.m., updated yesterday at 11:34 a.m.

They are engineers, doctors, journalists, teachers or graduate students. English speakers for the most part. The Afghan elite are here in Albania, gathered in the seaside town of Shëngjin, on this Adriatic coast near Montenegro, where the summer heat has not yet faded. The first to arrive on August 27, 121 men, women and children had a surreal vision when they discovered their accommodation: a five-star hotel divided into several buildings with, enthroned in the middle, a perfect replica of the Statue of Liberty, symbol of a final destination to which they aspire. Since then, others have joined them: 457 Afghan refugees, who knew nothing about this transit country, until its name, are now housed on the site, according to the management of the establishment.

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Albania, like Kosovo and North Macedonia, has placed itself at the forefront to receive, at the request of the United States, those who, having worked with them, are fleeing the Taliban regime. Tirana has pledged to host up to 4,000 refugees for a transitional period of “Twelve to fourteen months”, while the procedures for entering the United States are settled. “For us, it’s a natural cause. Thirty years ago, we were the Afghans when we left for the Italian coasts ”, assures, Thursday, September 16, in his office in Tirana, Edi Rama.

As early as August 19, the Socialist Albanian Prime Minister posted on Twitter two images side by side, one showing hundreds of Afghans crammed into an American military plane at Kabul airport, the other thousands of Albanians storming a cargo ship in 1991 after the fall of the most sectarian communist regime from Europe.

Afghan refugees walk past a replica of the Statue of Liberty at the resort that welcomes them in Shëngjin, Albania, September 15, 2021.

So far, only 700 Afghan refugees have been able to reach the land of the Eagles, due to the interruption of evacuations. More than a hundred were supported by the Soros foundation in the port city of Durrës, west of Tirana. In Albania, a small Balkan country of less than 3 million inhabitants, where the average monthly salary does not exceed 460 euros, the choice of welcoming them is not open to discussion, including in the ranks of the opposition; even if the former president and right-wing figure, Sali Berisha, accused of corruption, has been declared persona non grata across the Atlantic.

“The Albanians owe everything to the United States, since their integration into international bodies, including NATO [en 2009], until their stabilization, through major energy projects… ”, explains Sébastien Gricourt, director of the Observatory of the Balkans at the Jean Jaurès Foundation. “They take their role in NATO very seriously and welcoming some of the refugees is smart policy, because they don’t have much to offer big countries”, confirms Toby Vogel, specialist in the Balkans, based in Brussels.

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