When I was growing up in Albania in the 1990s, the father of one of my friends was a people smuggler. We used to call him B the Lame. B the Lame had not always been a smuggler. Before the country transitioned from a communist state to a liberal one, he worked shifts in the dockyard, where he would make fishing nets and repaint boats.
He did not look like a smuggler – he was tiny and anaemic and walked with a limp. He did not choose to be a smuggler – the privatisation reforms that accompanied the arrival of political pluralism forced dockyard managers to make redundancies, so B and his wife found themselves unemployed. Nor did he think of himself as a smuggler: it was a job like any other. He was paid to help people on dinghies reach Italy, and he needed the money to feed his children. He was a little afraid, but not ashamed of his activity. For decades, Albanians had been murdered by their state whenever they tried crossing the border. In the very rare cases in which people succeeded, relatives left behind were deported. Finally, Albanians were free, and B the Lame was helping them realise their dreams. He spoke of this with a touch of pride.
One night, B the Lame disappeared and never returned. Some people said he was killed; others that he drowned in the Adriatic Sea, eaten by the same fishes he used to build nets for.
Migration has been both a blessing and a curse for Albania since the end of the cold war. It has been a blessing because without remittances from Albanian migrants, their families would have struggled with the devastating impact of the neoliberal “shock therapy” reforms that promised to turn a failed isolated communist state into a flourishing capitalist paradise. It has been a curse because, contrary to what Tory propaganda would have you believe, nobody enjoys leaving their country just for the sake of annoying people in another. Even putting aside the dangers of unauthorised crossings, and even where legal routes are available, migration tears families apart, and brain drain is an open wound.
Every year the Albanian state invests in doctors and nurses who soon after graduation abandon their country, lured by higher salaries and better living conditions in the west. When you support a points-based immigration system or agree that Britain needs to invest in attracting high-skilled migrants, you are effectively endorsing a form of exploitation. Albanians will work and pay taxes for British elderly people to be looked after by Albanian nurses. Hospitals there will suffer shortages so that patients here can continue to receive adequate care.
Western governments are hardly troubled by any of this. Migration for them is a statistic. B the Lame was one of the hundreds of thousands of Albanians whose fate was sealed by migration. I am another. To the British government and its home secretary, Suella Braverman, we are both criminals.
An “invasion” by Albanians, even leaving aside the plausibility of that metaphor in a country with one of the lowest rates of asylum applicants in Europe, suggests a sudden reversal in trends and a distinctive, malign intention to target the UK. The truth is that since the end of the cold war, Albania has had the highest per capita rate of migration in Europe, a trend that the United Nations predicts will continue for at least two more decades. After the financial crisis of 2008-9, when the EU strangled countries such as Greece (where more than half of the migrant population is Albanian), remittances declined significantly.
Covid-19 dealt another blow to an already weak and highly unequal state, as many businesses closed and healthcare costs rose. It didn’t help that our western European “allies” hoarded vaccines without worrying about the long-term implications for other countries. But despite all that, in the summer of 2021, and in the aftermath of Nato’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, Albania – a country of 2.8 million people and one of the poorest in Europe – agreed to host 4,000 Afghan refugees turned down by wealthier Nato states.
It is true that in the last year the numbers of Albanian migrants have been rising, both to the EU and to the UK. This is alarming for Albania, but hardly something that would provoke the collapse of a G7 country. Albanians know – also through social media – that following Brexit there are significant labour market shortages in the UK. It’s the EU workers that the UK has lost as a result of Brexit whom they are hoping to replace. They also know that Calais has become increasingly vulnerable, since sharing information with French authorities is now more complicated – weaker links with European agencies mean that UK officers have to ask Albanian ones for data they would have previously obtained by the French. In short, this is a very British, more specifically a very Tory, problem.
There are about 140,000 Albanians currently living in the UK, ranging from construction workers to doctors, from lawyers to cleaners, from entrepreneurs to academics. The vast majority are well integrated: they pay taxes, they queue, they apologise to inanimate objects, they swear loyalty to the monarchy. When all are labelled criminals, their differences, their personal histories, their contributions to society, become invisible. The ideal of democracy is taken hostage by the ugly reality of martial metaphors. When an entire minority group is singled out as “invaders”, the project of integration breaks down. All that remains is violence, a world divided between friends and enemies, which fuels anger and legitimises hostility.
Albanians have become the latest victims of an ideological project that exposes minorities to negative stereotyping, xenophobia and racism, and all for the sake of concealing its own political failures. They unfortunately continue to look up to the UK as a model of stability, liberal integration and good governance. They know of course of recent turmoils: it was through Albanian social media that I discovered the meme depicting Rishi Sunak as prime minister of the month. But they treat it as a one-off oddity. This might explain why, although Albanians were rightly offended to be called invaders, not one of them pointed out the paradox of treating Albanian people as enemies on the one hand, while asking for the Albanian government to cooperate as friends on the other.
In response, Albanian authorities suggested that the state is ready to cooperate with the UK to resolve the migrant “crisis”. As a matter of fact, they have been cooperating all along, as Braverman admitted herself. I am sceptical about the likelihood of success in cooperating with a government that has created the very emergency it is trying to solve.
But the real question is one of morality rather than efficiency. Braverman’s remarks were gratuitous, insulting and harmful to the tens of thousands of Albanians who contribute to their adopted country while carrying the trauma of having abandoned their native one. As UK citizens, we should be asking for her to resign. As Albanian citizens, we should be asking Albanian authorities to refuse cooperation without an apology.
• Lea Ypi is the author of Free: Coming of Age at the End of History
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