Inside European seaside town where Afghan refugees dream of a new life in UK

Every morning Afghan refugees in Shengjin, Albania gaze up at the Statue of Liberty. A 25-foot replica of the New York landmark stands in the centre of the holiday resort complex they are being housed in by the US authorities. 

Having fled the Taliban, they are waiting to learn if they can enter the home of the original. From guards to journalists, residents at the Maritim Rafaelo Resort claim to be in grave danger following the US exit two years ago and are seeking asylum in the USA, Britain and Canada.

“I’m trying to get to Britain,” one of the residents who was nervous about being quoted told “I have a lot of relatives there.”

Adamant he wanted to travel to the UK, but unsure of the time it would take he, like many of those we spoke to during a visit to Shengjin, was surprised to have found himself in Albania.

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Most were reluctant to speak on record after a series of reports on the facility were released earlier this year that revealed some Afghans had been stuck in the Balkan resort for two years. Not that they were complaining about conditions, all spoke highly of their treatment in Albania.

“We were expecting to come to America,” said Mohammad Amid Yousufy, 21, who’d arrived the previous day with his family. “I don’t know about the other people [who’d been there for years], maybe they have some issues in their case. We are applying for a SIV [Special Immigrant Visa] to go to USA.”

Yousufy said his mother had been employed as a cleaner on one of the US military bases and her former employer was helping the family to get to America. His older brothers had already made it to America and Germany. “This is a great place. They provide us with everything, as a young man I feel free.”

Karimullah Faizy from Panjshir Province happily showed off pictures of his time working as a guard at an American base. He told the Daily Express he is keen to join his brother who is already living in Texas.

“This is just temporary,” he added. “We need to find a home. We worked with the Americans [so the Taliban] they do bad things.”

Others we spoke to said the process of getting out of Afghanistan had been tricky and they had been laying low trying not to attract the regime’s attention while also making plans to leave the country.

The use of Shengjin as a staging post for refugees seeking asylum in other countries is set to be expanded. Earlier this month it was announced migrants seeking asylum in Italy would be housed in the town while their applications are processed.

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Italian authorities claim the scheme is “not comparable” to Britain’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. This is because “migrants will be treated according to Italian and European standards,” according to Italy’s foreign minister Antonio Tajan.

We did try to establish what if any role the UK government was playing in keeping Afghans in Albania or what route those seeking to travel to Britain would take given there were people at the facility wishing to come. However, inquiries with the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence came to nothing. 

The Express was able to clarify with the Home Office that the Afghans could approach the United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees who would allocate them a country which could include the two schemes Britain has for Afghan refugees.

Other than that there is no other way for them to get to the UK unless they made an illegal crossing.

In response to the Express’s questions about the use of Albania to house Afghans fleeing the Taliban who had Britain as a desired final destination a State Department spokesperson said “for security and privacy reasons, we cannot provide specifics on the cases in question”. 

“The global effort to resettle tens of thousands of Afghan citizens in the United States and other countries that have offered them permanent homes has been, and continues to be, enormous,” they added.

“We want to reiterate the United States’ appreciation to Albania for its generosity in providing safe harbour by hosting at-risk Afghans.

“With the generous support from the Albanian government, the U.S. has been working closely with the government of Albania to provide solutions to these cases.”

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