News Stories, 6 August 2004
TIRANA, Albania, Aug. 6 (UNHCR) – Biljana, 11, is a prime example that action speaks louder than words. The little girl is tight-lipped about her family's ordeal, but her drawing says it all – storms clouds looming above a UNHCR umbrella sheltering portraits of her family. In a corner of her painting, the sun peeks out, a sign of hope after the rain.
Biljana and her family arrived in Albania after fleeing their homeland in a neighbouring country. On the same day, they were arrested by the police for irregular entry, and referred to a pre-screening team. By the next morning, they had found shelter in the National Reception Centre for Asylum Seekers.
The quick action was possible thanks to a preliminary screening (pre-screening) procedure that was formalised in February 2001 in an agreement between the Albanian Minister of Public Order, UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
Pre-screening is an innovative procedure which addresses the need to identify foreigners in need of assistance and aims to reduce the chance of persons being removed, perhaps unlawfully, from Albania.
In practice, when a foreigner is arrested for irregular entry, the police contact the pre-screening team, composed of representatives of each of the participating organisations, namely UNHCR, IOM and OSCE, and a member of the Albanian Directorate for Refugees. Within 24 hours, the team, accompanied by an interpreter, travels to the place of detention and makes a preliminary interview to determine whether the foreigner is an asylum seeker, a potential victim of trafficking or an economic migrant.
Once this initial screening has taken place, the person is referred to the appropriate procedure and administrative system in place, in accordance with Albanian legislation.
Between February 2001 and July 2004, 647 foreigners were pre-screened, of whom nearly 30 percent applied for asylum in Albania. The rest were either assisted to return to their home countries or were referred to a programme providing assistance to trafficked persons.
The pre-screening procedure marks the dramatic change Albania has experienced, going from a refugee-producing country in the 1990s to a refugee-hosting one today. There are 36 refugees and 77 asylum seekers in the country today.
"It is difficult for the public to understand that an asylum seeker can arrive from anywhere in the world and can speak any language," says Albania's National Commissioner for Refugees, Argita Totozani.
Complicating the situation is the fact that Albania aspires to join the European Union through the process of Stabilisation and Association. But first, it must fulfil a set of requirements, notably to combat human trafficking.
"Albania is not necessarily a transit point to Western Europe," says Totozani. "The main interest of an asylum seeker or refugee is to escape persecution in the home country, no matter if the host country is in poor or rich conditions. And we are here to ensure that protection is given to genuine asylum seekers."
Xhemil Shahu, UNHCR's field officer and pre-screening focal point, stresses, "It is important that access to asylum is given to foreigners in need of international protection and that refoulement is avoided. We, partners in pre-screening, meet regularly with the police in the field to make them aware of the need for protection of asylum seekers and victims of trafficking."
He adds that training sessions on asylum and migration for Albanian police officers will be launched this September.
As part of the campaign aiming to raise awareness of the rights of asylum seekers and refugees, UNHCR and its partners provide the police with guidelines on how to deal with asylum seekers, as well as posters with basic information on the pre-screening procedure and the obligations of the police. An information leaflet for foreigners applying for asylum in Albania is also available in several languages.
Haki Çako, chief of police in the town of Vlora, Albania's second-largest port, argues, "While the country is under international pressure to strengthen border controls, it is also important to listen to the joint call of UNHCR, IOM and OSCE in recommending that the rights of asylum seekers and refugees, victims of trafficking and economic migrants, are respected."
Albania's asylum system is in its early stages. UNHCR, with assistance from the European Commission, has worked closely with the government to lay the foundation for a fair and transparent asylum system. Last year, the refugee agency used EC funding to rehabilitate a government-owned building which now serves as the National Reception Centre for Asylum Seekers.
Recently, a grant agreement of 2 million Euros from the 2003 National CARDS (Community Assistance for Reconstruction, Development and Stabilisation) programme was signed between the UNHCR and the Delegation of the European Commission in Albania in order to continue and expand the pre-screening system in partnership between the Ministry of Public Order, IOM and OSCE. This programme is expected to run for 24 months, after which the Albanian authorities will take over full implementation of the procedure.