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The other Albanian migrant crisis

With Albanians’ migration to the UK in the spotlight, the demographic crisis at home has Albanians fearing for their country’s future

Andi Balla
21 November 2022, 5.00am

Albanians protest recent government rhetoric in London


Peter Marshall/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

The headlines in Albanian media these days read like a doomsday movie. Emigration devastating the country. No youth left in the countryside. Lowest birth to death ratio ever. Ninety-two percent of medical students plan to leave Albania.

As the British Home Office and public worry over the record number of Albanians crossing the channel to the UK – reportedly 12,000 this year, up from 50 in 2020 – in Albania people are immersed in the other side of the story. The country is depopulating. Quickly.

Just last week, Instat, the country’s official statistics body, put out another grim number. Births are down nearly 20% compared to last year, and in places like Gjirokastra County in the south they are the lowest since records began. "The birth rate is constantly decreasing,” says Migena Karo, an obstetrician in Gjirokastra. “But it’s not a surprise. It is clearly related to people in their child-bearing years leaving.”

A nation of emigrants

Of the more than 4.5 million people holding Albanian citizenship today, only 2.7 million live in Albania. Emigration first began in the turbulent 1990s, after the Iron Curtain fell and as the current Republic of Albania struggled to emerge from one of the continent’s harshest communist regimes. It remained high until 2008, when the global financial crisis hit major host countries like Greece and Italy and caused a temporary reverse flow.

Emigration has been steadily increasing again in the past decade. Official numbers show one in seven Albanians left the country in that period, while other sources estimate the number could be one in five. The numbers are corroborated by opinion surveys showing that a higher percentage of the country’s labour force is willing to emigrate than nearly anywhere else in the world.

Politics have a natural impact on the loss of hope.

While the pandemic, inflation, and a massive earthquake in 2019 have all played a role in making people want to leave, Ledion Kristafi, a senior researcher at the Albanian Institute for International Studies, said they don’t fully explain why emigration grew from 2012 to 2019 and is now spiking.

“First and foremost, it is tied to the economic situation in Albania, where the average income is still 32% of the average income of the European Union,” Kristafi said. “[This is] lower than any other country in the region except Kosovo.” In comparison, former communist states such as Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland are now at 70% to 80% of the EU average, according to Kristafi.

“It is an economy that finds it difficult to generate high salaries,” Kristafi explained. “Productivity [in Albania] is pretty low based on all the studies that have been done. Foreign investments go to sectors such as oil and mineral extraction, which do not directly lead to an increase in the quality of employment and wages.”

Albanians will also tell you they’ve lost hope that things will get better any time soon. Albania’s EU membership bid has stalled, due to both hesitancy among member states and a lack of domestic progress, and many Albanians believe that the benefits of EU membership that were enjoyed by so much of former communist Europe are now out of reach for at least another generation.

Zef Preci, a political and economic expert, said it boils down to a lack of political vision on how to deliver a better country. “Politics have a natural impact on the loss of hope,” he said, adding that public interest is often being bypassed to serve political and commercial interests. Unhappy with the situation and faced with a system of patronage they don’t feel they can change, Preci said, many educated and ambitious Albanians are not sticking around. They’ve gone off to look for a better life elsewhere.

Searching for a place to live

Despite the focus on channel crossings, tens of thousands of Albanians migrate legally every year. Most go to the EU – more than 829,000 work and residency permits have been issued to Albanians as of 2020, according to Eurostat. And they’re settling. “The number of citizens of Albania receiving citizenship in the EU in 2020 was 146 percent higher than in 2010,” Eurostat noted in a report.

Many Albanians are also increasingly taking part in secondary migration, moving from less wealthy countries to more prosperous ones. For example, in August 2022 there were 291,868 Albanian citizens with a valid residence permit in Greece, down sharply from 422,954 a year earlier. Germany is now the fastest growing destination for Albanian migrants – both primary and secondary – as Berlin streamlined the ability for people from the Western Balkans, including Albania, to get work permits.

It is exceedingly difficult for most Albanians to get even a tourist visa to Britain.

All of this poses a puzzle: if legal emigration to other destinations is a possibility, why is there such desperation to reach the UK? And why now?

One explanation relates to chain migration and the UK's labour shortages. The UK hosts a large diaspora from Albania's poorest region, Kukes County. That attracts relatives and acquaintances who have an easier time finding well-paid jobs in Albanian-owned construction businesses, according to Safet Gjici, mayor of Kukes. “Some do hire workers without immigration papers, but it's honest work,” Gjici said. "Of course, there are those who do work in illicit areas. But they are a minority, a small percentage."

On timing, the focus has been on a recent advertisement campaign on social media by smuggling groups, which make the dangerous boat crossing seem easy and affordable. But those who choose that route are in danger of falling victim to criminal activities, such as having to work in cannabis greenhouses “willingly or unwillingly, in an attempt to pay off the debts they have taken to make it there,” said Kristafi, the AIIS researcher.

The UK also stands out for the lack of legal travel options. Albanians have been able to travel visa-free to the Schengen Area, which encompasses most of the EU, for more than a decade. In contrast, it is exceedingly difficult for most Albanians to get even a tourist visa to Britain or to join family already in the United Kingdom. This, some say, is another reason why Albanians are crossing the channel. Despite its dangers, most other routes are closed.

Lea Ypi, an Albanian-British professor at the London School of Economics, bitterly recalled on Twitter that her mother and brother have never been allowed to visit her in the UK, where she has lived for 14 years and is a citizen. Despite having spent hundreds of pounds in fees they were ultimately denied their travel visas.

“My mother … had not ‘satisfied the consular office that her intentions are those of a genuine visitor’. Ask any Albanian you meet and they will have at least one story like this. It’s very likely they will have more,” Ypi wrote. “If you’ve never seen a UK visa rejection letter – the cruelty, the contempt, the humiliation – here’s the one denying entrance to my mum because I’d said in my invitation letter that I was pregnant … [and] needed help. I’m a privileged academic. Imagine what it’s like for other Albanians.”

Calls for solutions

It’s a point that has not been lost on UK authorities, which recently launched a project to offer legal migration and better conditions at home in places like Kukes County.

Alastair King-Smith, British ambassador to Albania, said it was the UK's most ambitious initiative in northern Albania and will provide skills and jobs across the region. “My message to those who are considering whether to travel in an illegal manner to the United Kingdom is this: Wait. Don’t go now and ruin your lives,” the ambassador wrote in a LinkedIn post. “What you are being shown on social media is not the reality. Either stay here or apply for visas through legal routes. Do not go illegally! We appeal to everyone who can contribute: please work with us to create hope and choices for young people here, so that they don’t feel forced to leave.”

Even the church is calling for action. The Catholic Bishops' Conference of Albania recently issued a statement calling on Albania’s leadership to come up with and implement solutions to the crisis.

“Our believers dramatically tell us how whole families prefer to emigrate for fear that they cannot guarantee a safe future for their children and that many of them have lost hope to live in Albania," Monsignor Angelo Massafra said in a statement to the media. He called for solutions to stop “a total emptying of school structures in rural areas”, and the depletion of what he called “the most valuable professions for the social and economic development of our country, such as in healthcare and education."

So far, his prayers haven’t been answered.

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