October 25, 2019

Crossing Borders. How an Illegal Immigrant travelled to the UK

I have spent the last few weeks crossing over 10 borders as I traversed the countries that both surround and make up the old Yugoslavian Republic. Having both a UK and Australian passport meant the border checks for me were mostly cursory and, apart from long queues, not that stressful.

This privilege of being born in the 'right' country was brought home to me on a journey from Kosovo to Albania. I paid 10 euros at a small window in the bus station at Prishtina and found the rather dilapidated van that was to take me to Tirana. It was already full to overflowing with children being sat on their parents' lap, and luggage blocking the aisle.

There were no seats available. I was going to go and find a bench and wait for the next van in a couple of hours when the occupant of the seat next to the driver beckoned to me, squeezing himself into a non-existent middle seat, there was just enough room to wedge myself in next to the door.

This was the start of one of my more interesting journeys. Sam (not his real name for reasons that will become obvious) spoke excellent English and was returning home to Tirana to be with his wife and four children after working in the UK. As we talked it soon became apparent that Sam had been an illegal immigrant there and had much greater difficulties crossing borders than I had had.

Sam had left Tirana 24 months previously. He went to University in Tirana and had studied engineering but had only managed to get a few weeks work in his profession in the ten years that followed his graduation. The rest of the time he had done occasional labouring jobs, driven unofficial taxis (in reality borrowing his father-in-laws car when he was not using it) and whatever else he could get to earn a few Lek.

The Albanian economy has been in the doldrums for many years. The collapse of the paranoid Hoxha dictatorship, which had kept Albania a closed country for forty years, was followed by poor economic management, including the promotion of pyramid schemes, which inevitably collapsed leading to mass civil disorder, and has kept Albania as one of the poorest countries in Europe.

In March 2017 Sam ran into an old friend of his. He had started a lucrative career in people smuggling to Germany, France and the UK, including arranging employment. Germany and France were incredibly easy to get into illegally, but the UK was much more difficult and expensive. Sam had learnt English at University but had no French or German, so he talked it over with his wife.

Our van had now entered Albania, the border guards did not even bother to stop us and the van was waved through, passports unseen. Sam was back in his home country at last. Smiling, he kept pointing at luxurious McMansions that stood incongruously amongst the fields and rundown traditional dwellings.

"See those. All of those big houses have been built by illegal immigrants. You work for one or two years and have enough money to buy some land and build your home".

That dream is compelling to many Albanians and Sam and his wife both agreed that this was a real opportunity to earn decent money and, perhaps, set his family up for life. But what about the risks? Tragic deaths are frequent.

Into Albania
"My friend had done this many times. There are two ways to do it (get into the UK) cheap and dangerous or expensive and safe. My wife insisted I borrow money from her father to do it the expensive way".

He made his way to Calais in France by van into Kosovo, and then on a circuitous route through Serbia, Hungary, Austria, and Germany using private cars and public transport.
"Calais was horrible. Violent and unpleasant, with so many people trying to get to England. I slept in a car seat for over a week while my friend organised a lorry".

Sam paid 3,000 euro for this small crossing. Others were offering smuggling for as low as 500 euro, but he might never see the lorry, or his money again. His friend woke him early one morning and took him to a rural road outside of Calais. He was given a large water bottle, biscuits and fruit.

"He had paid off the lorry driver and myself and only two others waited by the road. The smaller the number of people the less likely we were to be found by English customs, either by thermal imaging or physical cargo checks.
The driver, English I am guessing, shook our hands and opened up the back of the lorry. It was carrying food and drinks, stuff like Orangina, which came in handy when we finished the water later on.

He had made a small hole in the boxes, which we crawled through, and there was a small space by the cab. He filled in the hole and closed the doors. All I remember is how dark it was. I used my phone light at times, but did not want to waste the battery"

There was a long wait at Calais and lots of strange noises, which would have been caused by being loaded onto the ship and the lorry being secured.

"I was pretty excited to be so close but worried about English border security. I remember thinking 'This is it' as we started moving off the ship. It took a long time, with the lorry starting and stopping,  but then we sped up and I knew we were in England"

Sam was taken to an industrial estate outside of London where the lorry rendezvoused with the people smugglers UK connections.

"It was night time by the time we stopped. I was aching from bouncing around in the back of the lorry and was so happy to finally get out. It was windy, it was wet, and it was cold, but I had made it"

The job Sam had been lined up for was on a building site in Shepherds Bush. He was paid cash and began as just a labourer earning 10 pounds an hour cash-in-hand. With his excellent English and being a hard worker, he was promoted and the company even trained up the illegal immigrant to operate a crane, which meant a substantial increase in pay.

"I worked long hours and sent most of my money home. I lived in a house in Chelmsford, four of us to a room, which was not close to work, but it was cheap (100 pounds a week - it does not sound that cheap for a shared room in a shared house) and quiet".

The driver is blinking and not asleep. I hope.
After two years he had made enough money to return home to Tirana. Sam left the same way he arrived, in the back of a lorry, this time he was the only passenger.

"There are not many people who leave England the same way as they arrived. Most want to stay and those who don't often risk it and buy a flight ticket home. But that can cause problems, way too many interviews and possibly prison before being deported and put on a list which would cause problems in the future. So for 1,000 euro, my friend arranged me a place in the back of a lorry. It was so easy this time, and I was not really nervous.

With my money, I could afford to get a flight back, so I flew from Berlin to Prishtina, and caught this bus"

I left Sam in Tirana, he was so happy to see his family again after two long years away. I asked if he wanted to return to the UK?

"Hmmm. Probably not, I am not sure I want to do the lorry journey again, and with Brexit and all that, there may not be so many opportunities. I am going to learn German and look at working there, and its easier to get a working visa for crane work there, so I will be legal. It's a lot less pain than trying to work in England".

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  1. Good story. Would not personally risk everything to get to the UK, with or without Brexit. Surely Europe offers as much, and is easier to get to.