On Tuesday 20 February 2018 the Greek border control denied a group of elderly Cham, who planned to visit their places of birth, entry into Greece.
In 1944 most of the Cham population were expelled from Chameria and sought refuge in Albania. In 2018 there are still those in the Cham community who remember this human rights’ catastrophe as if it were yesterday. Of those who can still remember the violence and genocide committed against the Cham community, many have never been able to return to their places of birth; not even for a short visit.
On 20 February 2018 a group of over thirty Cham who were born in Chameria took the bold step and tried to visit their homes that many of them hadn’t seen since 1944. Elderly Cham from Vlorë, Dürres, Sarande and Tirana went on an organised bus tour and drove south to the border between Albania and Greece. The participants came together on Monday evening and stayed in a hotel in Sarande. From there the bus tour took off on early Tuesday morning. All the documents had been prepared and the people on the bus were anxious and happy that they could finally visit Chameria once more. Several camera crews were present to film the departure of the bus tour which is a historic occasion.
When the bus arrived at the border, they were greeted friendly by the Albanian customs. However, this was not met with equal hospitality. They were stopped by the Greek authorities and denied entry into Greece. After many hours of waiting, the elderly Cham, most of who are in their eighties, returned to the bus and headed back north. The hopes of visiting their places of birth one last time drifting further away. It becomes ever more likely that many of the people from this generation, like those who went on this tour, will never be able to visit Chameria in their lifetime.
Harassment and discrimination
The harassment and discrimination by the Greek authorities towards the Cham community continues to remain strong. Even today it is not possible for Cham who were born in Chameria to cross the border; unlike others who have Albanian citizenship. This discrimination still places a heavy burden on the relationships between countries and peoples in the Balkan.
The Albanian government is also not supportive of the Cham community but instead is providing the Greek authorities means to harass the Cham community. Under pressure from the Greek government, the Albanian government decreed a law in 2014 (Nr. 555 of 27.8.2014) which states that the country code should be placed after the city of birth. To the Greek authorities this means that all those born in Chameria need to have the letters “GRC” behind the place of birth in their passport, so as to acknowledge the Greek dominance over Chameria and that it was always Greek. Passports prior to September 2014 do not fulfil the Greek criteria and therefore provide an excuse to deny the Cham entry into Greece. Furthermore, although this law was passed in 2014 it has not been fully or correctly implemented in many cases. Several Cham had passports dating after 2014, which did not have the “GRC” letters printed.
Although all the Cham have valid Albanian passports, most of the elderly Cham only have the city of birth in their passport. This administrative technicality allows the Greek authorities to continue to harass the Cham people. What existential threat could eighty-five year old people who wish to visit their places of birth have to Greece?
In the coming weeks the Republic of Chameria president Festim Lato will meet with many high-ranking officials in Europe to put this issue on the political agenda and make sure that it will not be too late for those who went on the bus tour to visit their places of birth and to ensure that these true leaders of the community pave the way for all those of their generation to freely visit their places of birth.