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Albania shines a light in the darkness, offering safe haven to Afghan refugees

By
Struan Stevenson
Edi Rama, prime minister of Albania, addresses the United Nations General Assembly on September 24 in New York.  Photo by Peter Foley/UPI
Edi Rama, prime minister of Albania, addresses the United Nations General Assembly on September 24 in New York.  Photo by Peter Foley/UPI | License Photo

Oct. 4 (UPI) -- The tiny Balkans enclave of Albania, with a population of under 3 million, has once again shown the rest of the world what it means to offer a haven of safety and security to men, women and children fleeing from terror and repression.

Edi Rama, the Albanian prime minister, has welcomed a group of 300 Afghan intellectuals and women activists who faced execution by the Taliban. He has agreed that his country will act as a temporary transit camp for hundreds of Afghans and their families who worked for Western peacekeeping military forces in Afghanistan.

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The Tirana government has approved a request from the Biden administration to provide a home to Afghan interpreters and others who helped the U.S. forces and who see America as their final destination. Rama said that assisting people in need is a tradition in Albania and that he was happy to agree to Washington's request, "not just because our great allies ask us to, but because we are Albania." The 300 Afghan refugees who have arrived in Albania are being housed in hotels on the Adriatic coast and on student campuses in the capital Tirana.

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Albania's willingness to stick its head above the parapet comes at a time of growing concern that NATO members aren't doing enough to offer protection to Afghans who fear reprisals from the Taliban. Iran, which initially agreed to welcome thousands of Afghan refugees, has closed its borders, while Turkey has constructed a 10-foot-high wall along its border with Iran to deter any Afghans who have managed to make the weeks-long journey through Iran to the Turkish border.

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U.S. negotiations with Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have also apparently fallen through, although plans to house over 8,000 Afghan refugees in Qatar are evidently nearing completion. The Americans are sending 1,000 officials to Qatar to accelerate the processing of applications for special U.S. immigrant visas.

Meanwhile, the European Union is preparing to stop Afghan refugees from entering Europe en masse, amid fears of a repetition of the 2015 migration crisis, when over 1 million people came to the continent, mainly from the Middle East. An emergency meeting of EU home-affairs ministers in Brussels, as the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan unfolded, agreed to act jointly "to prevent the recurrence of uncontrolled, large-scale, illegal migration movements faced in the past." The Taliban announced, chillingly, that failed asylum seekers deported back to Afghanistan could face reprisals.

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Albania's history of providing protection to those in need was amplified during the second world war. At that time, the Albanian population numbered only around 800,000 of whom only 200 were Jews. But as the Nazis swept across Europe, Albania opened its doors to over 1,800 Jews from Germany, Austria, Serbia, Greece and Yugoslavia, fleeing the Holocaust.

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Following the German occupation of Albania in 1943, in an extraordinary demonstration of bravery, the Albanian population refused to hand over lists of Jews to the Nazis. This amazing act of assistance, by the only country in Europe that has a Muslim majority, was founded on the Albanian tradition of Besa, a code of honor that literally means "to keep the promise." It is a promise that the Albanians have kept to this day.

In 2014, Albania accepted members of the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), the Islamic Republic's biggest democratic opposition group. Initially housed in apartment blocks in Tirana, the Iranian refugees were allowed to purchase farmland near the port of Durres, where they have built an entire modern village enclave, named Ashraf 3. The Iranian dissidents, many of whom are highly educated intellectuals and academics, had lived as refugees in Iraq for almost three decades. They were the targets of dozens of bloody attacks staged by Iranian-sponsored terrorists in Iraq, with many of their number killed and wounded.

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Despite their plight and Iranian threats to annihilate them in Iraq, the EU and United States were reluctant to offer them safe refuge. Once again, little Albania stepped into the breach, agreeing to allow all 3,000 Iranians to settle in their country. The Albanian interior minister at that time -- Samir Taheri -- said in an interview: "We responded to a call for cooperation and humanity considering that the lives of these human beings were in danger. They are individuals facing serious threats in their home country. They are neither terrorists nor fundamentalists. They are people whose lives are in danger in their own land."

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Against the background of violence and aggression that the Iranian dissidents had faced in Iraq, it was almost a miracle that tiny Albania was prepared to provide a safe haven for the MEK members. The Albanians had suffered years of oppression under the communists, and they knew what it was like to fight for freedom and democracy. Their courage in rescuing the Iranian dissidents from Iraq caused a predictable backlash of fury from Tehran.

The mullahs' regime began to beef up its embassy in Tirana, deploying dozens of diplomats with the key intention of targeting the MEK. In December 2019, the Iranian ambassador to Albania and his first secretary were expelled by Rama and declared persona non grata for "activities in breach of their diplomatic status and the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations." They had apparently been involved in a plot to attack the Iranian refugees in Ashraf 3. It was the second time a plot involving Iranian agents in Albania had been exposed. In March 2018, Albanian police foiled a planned bomb attack on the exiled Iranians dissidents who were attending a Nowruz, or New Year, gathering in Tirana.

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The Albanian code of honor -- Besa -- that inspired the rescue of the Jews from Hitler's Nazis, provided a place of safety for the Iranian dissidents and has offered a refuge for Afghans threatened by the Taliban, is certainly a promise kept. Albania should be proud that is has shone a light in the darkness that has enveloped Afghanistan.

Struan Stevenson is the coordinator of the Campaign for Iran Change. He was a member of the European Parliament representing Scotland (1999-2014), president of the Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iraq (2009-14) and chairman of the Friends of a Free Iran Intergroup (2004-14). Struan is also chairman of the In Search of Justice committee on the protection of political freedoms in Iran. He is an international lecturer on the Middle East and president of the European Iraqi Freedom Association.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Scenes from the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark A. Milley deliver remarks about the end of the 20-year military mission in Afghanistan at the Pentagon, in Arlington, Va., on September 1. Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI | License Photo

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