Meet Shaqir, 'travel agent' to illegal immigrants

In Tirana's Street of the Martyrs, the bustling promenade of Albania's capital, a man wearing three gold rings is waiting in the shadow of a plane tree. His name is Shaqir, and to shake his hand will cost you $150. That's his minimum commission.

He sells the illusion of a comfortable life, and issues the fake passports to enter it. If you are rich, he will book you a flight to Paris; if you are poor, he will reserve a spot for you on a speedboat to Italy.

Caressing his gold Breitling watch, he smiles and swears he is only there to help. "In my opinion, every Albanian should go to Europe," says Shaqir, who would only give his first name, "because there they will learn how to work hard, look proper, and things like that."

Shaqir discovered his appreciation for good manners in Freiburg, Germany. He spent three years in prison there, after severely injuring a man during a fight at a night club. In jail, Shaqir says, he learned how to behave like a "good German." But when he was released, German authorities immediately put him on a plane to Albania, expelling him for life.

Nevertheless, he is still close to Germany, Shaqir says, especially to its Embassy staff in Tirana. The Embassy, as most Embassies in Tirana, has an Albanian interpreter on its staff who is involved in the issuing of visas and knows the intricacies of the process well. The interpreters have two choices, Shaqir explains. "Either they cooperate and take my money," he says, "or they don't cooperate and get a taste of my fists." But he rarely has to use force, he adds, "because every person has a price, right?" An Embassy spokesperson declined to discuss the details of the application process, but insisted that visas were issued based on merit.

As he strolls past sidewalk cafes here, Shaqir is constantly greeted by young men who firmly shake his hand and kiss him on both cheeks. They are assistants who get $50 for every customer they bring. One assistant tells him that he has two friends who want to take the ferryboat to Italy. "Come back tomorrow," Shaqir says, "and don't forget the photographs."

Shaqir uses a passport with a valid visa three to four times, as long as he can change the photograph without damaging the page. "The Italian immigration officers can't tell," he says, "but the Albanians always want to see money." He calculates the price for smuggling a person according to the amount of work and the customer's preferences. "If you have a lot of money," he says, rubbing his thumb and index finger, "you can fly." For a flight to a European country, Shaqir charges $4,000 for a package that includes airfare, visa, and bribing the Albanian authorities. "We call it a luxury smuggling," he says. He offers a standard smuggling by ferryboat to Italy for $2,000, on the condition that the fake passport must be returned to him after arrival in Italy. The cheapest way to get to Italy is to take a speedboat from Vlore or Durres for $600. "But that is just for idiots," Shaqir says. "They're paying for their death."

There was a time when Shaqir made his living as a bricklayer. That is the job he was trained to do. But the money he made wasn't enough to get by, Shaqir says. "You come home, and your child looks at you and says, 'Daddy, I'm hungry. Did you bring some chocolate?' What am I supposed to do? Steal from people? Kill somebody?" Shaqir, like so many smugglers, insists there is nothing criminal about the business. "All I do is to show my customers the way," he says. "I don't force anybody to take that road."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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