Albanians celebrate free travel to EU, rush across borders

09:25, December 16, 2010      

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Albanians on Wednesday happily held their biometric passports as they stepped across their border to travel for the first time without visas to European Union countries.

Albanians and Bosnians are the last in the Balkans, except for people from Kosovo, to travel freely to the European Union after 20 years of a visa regime if they are holders of a biometric passport.

Those who try to overstay or work will be punished.

For want of a major achievement in Albania's long road to achieve EU membership, the government is celebrating the lifting of visas with concerts in the capital and firecracker display at land and sea border crossings with neighboring Greece and Italy.

Prime Minister Sali Berisha said a 78-year-old Albanian lady called Sheqere (sugar in Albanian) was the first to cross into Greece. A man who claimed the title on television was said to be an hour later.

"I am very happy. There was a lot of snow but I came early because I wanted to be the first. I am 54 years old and this is a great day for me, many thanks to the government," the man said, leaving before he said what his name was.

Parents who had not seen their children for five years and a grandfather visiting his 13 grandchildren in Greece were some of the first who said they had booked tickets in advance as soon as they learned free travel would start on Dec. 15.

Getting the EU to scrap visas within the first full year of its mandate was the main promise of Berisha's Democratic Party when it came to power for a second term in 2009.

Markers in capital Tirana went up near traffic lights and at landmark buildings as soon as visas were lifted showing the distance to numerous European capitals.

"The last wall has come down, the wall of the Schengen area," Berisha said, referring to the area comprising countries of the European Union and Switzerland that allows visa-free travel. "No longer forbidden," he added.

"Albanians have had an imperial spirit, they love space, Europe is their home," he told Interior Minister Lulzim Basha as he prepared to accompany a group of students to visit Brussels and Rome for EU dignitaries.

Albanians have spent two decades lining up for hours at Western embassies to fill visa forms to join their relatives who had gone abroad in search of a better life.

When rejected, many paid traffickers fat sums for their meager income to get across to Italy via mafia-run speedboats. Many have drowned or frozen at sea.

Albanians first stunned the world with images of their climbing on rusty old ships to reach Italy because their country was mired in poverty.

An airline commercial tried to attract customers and have a laugh at those who even married foreigners just for the sake of documents and traveling freely.

"You need not get engaged to her; there will be no more visas," the man depicted in a cartoon tells a friend who is about to tie the knot to someone he does not really like.

Twice more Albanians than Bosnians have paid for biometric passports, with 420,000 citizens in Bosnia and more than one million in Albania.

Travelers may stay in the EU countries, Switzerland and Iceland for up to three months, but they have to have enough funds daily for food and shelter, with the amount of money differing in accordance with each country's rules.

The EU has warned it could re-instate restrictions for travelers from the two countries if its travel rules are abused after it acted to encourage democratic reforms in the Balkans.

Some EU governments, especially France and Belgium, suspect a surge in illegal migration and human and drug trafficking since both countries lie in the drug routes from Asia to Europe and their institutions are seen as corrupt and security lax.

When the EU lifted visas for Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia last year, requests for asylum, mainly from ethnic Albanians in those countries, increased four fold.

Source: Xinhua

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