Albania’s mass exodus

Situated on the Balkan Peninsula in Southeastern Europe is Albania, a country of just 2.8 million people. With access to both the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, it has been a strategically important area to many conquering armies that have ruled the country since the 2nd century BCE. Conquest by the Ottoman Turks from the 15th century to the 19th century made it a predominantly Sunni Muslim country, as it continues to be today. The country was finally declared independent in 1912 only for half of its territory to be given away to neighbouring states by the great powers of Europe in the following year. It emerged from the World Wars as a communist state which has left visible scars on the country as all means of production were under state control, with private enterprise forbidden, and foreign aid and investment prohibited, making it detrimentally isolationist. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and communism in the 1990s, Albania was now free to accept assistance from the United States, the European Union, and the International Monetary Fund which transformed it into one of the fastest-growing economies on the continent. New democratic political parties slowly emerged in Albania as the country turned toward the West for prosperity and security, while fiercely defending its ethnic identity and cultural heritage, making it one of the most homogenous populations in Europe.

It is an upper-middle income country in the eyes of the World Bank but Albania is the fifth poorest country in Europe in terms of GDP and GNI per capita, which currently sits at £4,173 compared to the UK’s £39,587. Half of Albania’s 2.8 million population is in work and living on an average monthly wage of just £338 and a minimum monthly wage of £233 (compared to the UK’s £2,192 and £1,543 respectively). Their economy was severely damaged by the Covid-19 pandemic as tourist income was limited, along with foreign investment, and the lack of government support drained Albanian’s welfare, employment, and savings. Consequently, 22% of the population are below the poverty line, predicted to soon rise to over 30%.

With the country’s history of trauma, from the Ottoman Empire, the First Balkan Wars, Communism, civil war, and the 2019 earthquake, the country is no stranger to a mass exodus. Between 1989 to 2001 roughly 710,000 left the country, with a further 193,000 leaving between 2010 and 2019, and a further 67,000 in 2015. The country’s latest period of turmoil has left inflation at a 20-year high and nine in ten people believing that corruption is widespread in Albanian society. Consequently, 12,301 Albanians crossed the English Channel in small boats in 2022, accounting for 28% of the arrivals that year, with the majority arriving between May and October. This is a sharp increase from 800 in 2021 and 50 in 2020 and their migration has been weaponised by the UK’s Conservative Party to stir up xenophobic animosity about “foreigners” and to distract from the current ‘cost of living crisis’ that is being disastrously mishandled.

Many of the recent arrivals in boats are adult men, with 2022’s numbers representing roughly 1% of Albania’s working age men.Almost all of last year’s 12,301 arrivals came from Albania’s northern highlands, many from the town of Përbreg, that once provided solace to refugees during the Kosovan war in the late 1990s. The migration is visible in the shrinking numbers of school students and the university buildings that now stand empty and abandoned. Northern Albania which has been left devoid of men aged 16 to 40, many of whom are the sole providers for their families and seek employment in the UK to send money home before bringing their partners and children over. In the second quarter of 2022, the money they sent back to their families accounted for 31% of Albania’s GDP, money that is (understandably) flooding out of the UK economy due to the government’s ineptitude at processing asylum requests. The few Northern remainers with jobs are surviving on an average of €270 a month. In the neighbouring town of Kukëski more than 53% of its citizens have left, making it a ghost town, along with the cities of Shkodra, Fieri, Durrësi and Vlorë who have each lost more than 15% of their population in the last ten years. Unsurprisingly, many migrants cite low salaries, poor working conditions, and corruption, as their reasons for leaving.

Southern Albania was long fated to be more prosperous than its northern counterpart due, at least in part, to its ports, its ease of access for tourism, and its proximity to Greece. The north’s terrain is less inhabitable, less developed, and shares borders with the less prosperous Kosovo and Montenegro. The country’s capital, Tirana, is the richest city in Albania and on par with Bulgaria while Kukës, in the north, is on par with Ukraine and Moldova, two of the poorest countries in Europe. Although the skyline of Tirana may be dotted with shiny, new office towers with a variety of five-star restaurants on offer, poverty in the city puts these extravagances firmly out of reach for most. Many of its youth consequently leave the country, often for the UK, in search of better education and a life free of cronyism and corruption (which us Brits may find ironic, considering our current government). The mass migration from both ends of Albania has resulted in it being one of the only countries in the world where more of its own people live outside its borders than inside.

The UK has granted asylum to significantly more Albanian migrants than other European countries, but they have been far slower in making asylum decisions. Jon Featonby, an expert in asylum policy for the Refugee Council, states that France made over 31,000 initial decisions in the third quarter of 2022 alone, while it took the UK seven quarters (nearly two years) to make the same number of decisions.

The illegal crossings by migrants is largely being facilitated by criminal gangs that are thought to have set up in the North of France. Upon arrival, 85% of the migrants submitted asylum applications, with just 0.7% of them receiving an initial decision and none of them being granted refugee status or any other type of leave to remain. More generally, 53% of claims by Albanians are accepted, most of whom are women and children. There are legal routes for Albanians to enter the UK, with a visa for tourism, business or study, but the process is lengthy and costly, leaving migrants little choice but to risk their lives entering the UK illegally.

When discussing the “small boats issue”, the mainstream media often frames Albanians as criminals and overlooks the reason why they are forced to enter the country illegally and why a small proportion of them may have to resort to crime upon arrival. Last year, 1,336 Albanians were imprisoned in the UK, making them the highest foreign nationality in that year and, as the Sun gleefully highlights, many of them were arrested on drug offences. Albania’s director of immigration police, Saimir Boshnjaku, states that many of them were forced to work for gangsters to repay the costs of being smuggled to the UK. These smugglers are often part of, or work closely with, organised criminal gangs within the UK which now control large parts of the marijuana and cocaine markets in London and the South East of England. They commonly advertise their smuggling services on TikTok using idealistic images of life in London and with promises of jobs. The reality is soon apparent to them, as a small proportion of Albanians are forced to take up criminal lines of work, while the rest work in poorly paid manual jobs or are recruited into modern-day slavery. The number of Albanians claiming to be modern slavery victims in the first six months of 2022 was more than double the figure for the whole of 2021, according to the figures published in January.

Anxhela Bruci, working for the Arise Foundation that focuses on human trafficking and modern day slavery, suggests that a united approach between the UK and Albania consisting of “a legal visa process to allow Albanians to come to the UK to work” would stop the stream of boats and prevent exploitation by people smugglers. She, along with many Albanian politicians, has also called for an end to the UK’s confrontational and racist rhetoric around Albanian migration often perpetrated by Suella Braverman, herself a daughter of an immigrant. If the UK government were to issue more visas to allow Albanians to live and work here, the gangs and smugglers would have far fewer victims to exploit and Albanians could acquire legitimate, well-paid jobs that enable them to live and contribute. Many Albanians coming to the UK have skills that are sought after in our job market, such as 22-year old Bilbil, who currently lives in Albania and works 363 days a year for the equivalent of £214 a month with no contract. Similarly, many Albanians have experience in construction and take on jobs in the UK’s construction industry for less than minimum wage, with no contracts or job security. Enabling them to work legally, in the construction sector for example, would provide a surge in legal, experienced, and tax-paying recruits, thus enabling more houses to be built at a faster rate, stabilising the housing market and improving the public’s quality of life. More importantly, it would provide migrants with stability and a reason to contribute to the country.

Many migrants received by the UK come from war-torn countries, that have been destabilised the West, and are deemed to be refugees. Migrants from Albania, however, are categorised as “economic migrants” due to them coming from a seemingly safe country in search of economic opportunities. Dr Andi Hoxhaj, a lecturer in law from University College London, told a home affairs select committee inquiry on Albania that there was 60% youth unemployment among 18 to 34-year-olds in the country and that problems with blood feuds, corruption and gang violence are rife. He added that one third of people in Albania live below the poverty line. His research has shown that in at least 40% of cases people leave for economic opportunities, while another 40% leave for their wellbeing and access to judiciary, and the rest to join family members.

However, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s ignores the economic context and continues to insist that Albania is a “safe, prosperous European country” and that most asylum claims from its citizens are unfounded. When Hoxhaj was asked whether Albania is a safe country, he said it’s not a “clear cut case” as there could be vulnerable groups, namely women and LGBT+ people, that could become victims. Mark Davies, from the Refugee Council, has warned against assuming “all Albanians are falsifying modern slavery claims”, asking for every claim to be “given a fair assessment” and for it to be recognised that “the situation with people from Albania crossing the Channel is complex.” The demonisation of migrants by Suella Braverman, suggesting that the UK is being “invaded” by “gangs”, is both unfair and counter-productive as it prevents them from becoming productive members of our society and makes their settling more dangerous due to the creation of a hostile environment. The toxic rhetoric being spewed by the Conservative Party deliberately fails to recognise the desperation these migrants must feel in order to leave their comfort zone, their language, their families, and everything they’ve ever known.

Albania’s development has long been hampered by the European Union’s refusal, until recently, to authorise Albania’s membership to the bloc until they have sufficiently tackled their widespread corruption, with many of the country’s political roles being assigned via nepotistic patronage rather than competence. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index scores countries according to the perceived corruption of the public sector, with 0 being “highly corrupt” and 100 being “very clean”, and scored Albania at a staggeringly low 36 in 2022, claiming that 25% of its public service users were paid a bribe in the previous 12 months. The EU have since overlooked this and finally opened negotiations with the NATO member after realising the geopolitical benefits of their alignment following the war in Ukraine, and with the aim of combining their efforts in countering Muslim extremism. Albanians are understandably optimistic about joining the EU, seeing Croatia’s membership increase its average monthly pay to £1,750. There is now hope that, with the EU’s support, Albania could be transformed into a healthier, liberal, multiparty democracy and Albanians will once again have a country that they are proud to call their home.

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