‘We all want to leave’: poverty, not crime, fuels the urge to flee Albania

In the northern highlands, there’s no work. In the capital, corruption blocks the path to success for young graduates – and it’s no surprise there’s an exodus

On Tirana’s embassy row, it has been all go for his majesty’s ambassador to Albania, Alastair King-Smith.

The crisis in relations between the two countries, arising from the boats crossing the Channel with reportedly growing numbers of Albanians, has been reflected in the calibre of officials, both military and political, visiting the British mission.

Last week it was Lt Gen Stuart Skeates, the Afghanistan veteran now leading efforts to stem the crossings, who flew in. This week the home secretary, Suella Braverman, is expected for a visit that, it is hoped, will dampen the outrage sparked by her description of Albanians as staging an “invasion” of the UK.

On Thursday, as the row escalated and Albania’s prime minister, Edi Rama, compared the British government’s rhetoric to “screams from a madhouse”, workers were repainting the flowerpot barriers outside King-Smith’s embassy.

But the real centre of the dispute that has prompted London to dispatch its delegations is not in Tirana but nearly 100 miles north-east, in Albania’s poverty-stricken highlands, where many still dream of getting to Dover on the dinghies Braverman is determined to stop.

Once a dumping ground for convicts and political prisoners during Albania’s communist era, it is on this hard terrain, within view of the so-called “accursed mountains” of the Albanian Alps, that those lucky enough to have a job eke out a living on average pay of just €270 a month.

Era Koleci on a video chat
Era Koleci, aged 24, who comes from the highland town of Burrel: ‘Most of my cousins are in Britain.’ Photograph: Helena Smith/The Observer

In the city of Kukës, which took in thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees during the 1999 Kosovo war – nearly all arriving by foot with little more than the clothes on their back – young men and women are reported to be taking intensive English language courses, the first step in what will often be perilous attempts to join friends and relatives in Britain. Social media platforms used by smugglers operating in the Channel have in recent weeks played on the political unrest in the UK as the perfect time to risk a crossing.

“A lot of the Albanians who originally went [to the UK] posed as Kosovar asylum seekers,” says Dr Ilir Gëdeshi, the country’s leading migration expert, explaining the region’s unusual links with Britain.

Gëdeshi, who directs the Centre for Economic and Social Studies in Tirana, has spent the best part of the three decades since post-communist Albania opened up to the outside world studying migratory flows. Braverman’s portrayal of his compatriots as hard-bitten criminals has clearly hurt.

“This talk of invasion, of gangs, it’s very wrong,” he says. “If there had not been economic crisis in Greece or Italy, a lot would still be heading there. What is clear is that in the north it is poverty, the lack of any hope, that is behind this latest wave.”

Nearly all of the 12,000 Albanians estimated to have entered the UK this year are believed to have come from the northern highlands. Most of those will not have been educated beyond primary school, according to Gëdeshi.

The mayor of the northern town of Has has promised to erect a statue of Queen Elizabeth II in gratitude to all Britain has brought to his area in the form of workers’ remittances.

Northern Albania was left to its own devices even when Enver Hoxha, the Stalinist dictator who assumed power in 1944, attempted to transform the country. A southerner, Hoxha had little trust in the tribal clans of the north. So by the time the highlands emerged from nearly five decades of communist rule in the early 1990s, visitors were greeted by a wretched world of idle factories, bare-brick tenement blocks, banditry and feuds.

Photograph of an empty street with two people walkign along and two or three buildings against a backdrop of high mountains
The town of Kukës in northern Albania. Photograph: Shaun Walker/The Guardian

The optimism engendered by the construction of an international airport in Kukës, an 8,000-seat football stadium and new roads failed to enhance any sense of personal opportunity.

“Most of my cousins are in Britain,” says 24-year-old Era Koleci, from the northern town of Burrel, in the trendy cultural centre where she now works in the capital. “Personally I don’t want to leave, but this is how it works,” she says. “Cousins take cousins take cousins. Three of my own cousins went in the last three months. They spent £3,000 each for the boat crossing. My mum says they got there safely. If they can live a good life, why not?”

Koleci who studied business administration, is one of a number of young Albanians who want to give back to their country. In the ultra-modern offices of the National Youth Congress, where staff are riding a high after Tirana was awarded the title of this year’s European youth capital, there are plenty more.

“Over 1,000 youth delegations from across Europe have visited us this year and they’ve been very surprised by our passion and all the work we’re doing,” says 28-year-old Dafina Peci, the congress’s secretary general, lamenting the stereotypical image of Albanians in Britain. “Ours is a vision for the future, but there is a lot of contradiction in our country, and a big difference between urban and rural areas.”

Peci is typical of a younger Albanian generation that is calling for improved governance. “I think our biggest problem is our non-willingness to speak honestly about the things that should concern us as a society,” she says. “It’s horrible to be portrayed as a nation that allows illegal migration when we all know that to leave your comfort zone, your language, your family – all the memories you have ever known – implies a level of desperation.”

In a country with a population smaller than Wales, it is said that every family in Albania now has a member abroad. Successive polls have shown at least 60% wanting to leave.

While poverty may be the driving force for migration in the north, in Tirana it is education and the desire for lives free from cronyism and corruption that are pushing people abroad. The surge in asylum requests from graduates determined to continue their studies overseas is of particular concern to Gëdeshi, who fears an unprecedented brain drain.

“Everyone wants to leave,” says Arta Jorgi, who is 47, speaks three languages and has three degrees, but is currently temping at doctors’ surgeries.

“Corruption is like a cancer here. To get a job in the public sector you have to promise to bring 1,500 votes – and I’m not kidding, they have people who count them,” he says.

“I have no friends in Tirana because everybody has left. In January I plan to move to America too.”

Dafina Peci smiling for a photograph standing next to a large orange banner saying Tirana Youth.
Dafina Peci: we all know that to leave your language, your family, implies a level of desperation.’ Photograph: Helena Smith/The Observer

In a nation once as isolated as Albania, the advent of democracy has resulted in an apparently vibrant embrace of capitalism. Great steel and concrete skyscrapers tower over Tirana’s Skanderbeg Square; SUVs and fast cars cruise boulevards decked out with cycle lanes; an abundance of restaurants and cafes serving imported goods and fine wines have appeared, while plans are afoot to create a state-of-the-art museum and theatre.

But the virtuous circle that many had expected from the advent of democracy appears to have eluded Albania. The skyscrapers and other tokens of capitalism are, say many, a symbol of money-laundering the ill-gotten gains of the drug trade. In a move that has caused fury at a time when property prices have increased by more than a third, the government has signalled that an amnesty could be granted for the owners of substantial bank holdings in return for a one-off 10% tax.

“While the rest of the world is moving in seconds, we seem to be moving in hours,” says Enkelda Hakrama, a science student. “If I didn’t have a baby boy I would have left for sure.”

Klajdis Rama, enrolled in a computer science department, agrees. “I’m 18 but I already know I want to be in the UK or US,” he says. “Albania holds no future whatsoever. If you want to live well and you want to be paid more, you don’t stay here.”

Experts attribute the exodus to a period of economic transition that has taken too long – exacerbated by the dashed hope of entering the EU, a move that would have facilitated foreign investment. And they fear that if it continues, an economy already among the poorest in Europe will only get worse. “For some time, businesses have complained that they can’t find employees. Now they say they can’t find buyers,” says Ornela Liperi, editor in chief of Monitor, the country’s leading economics magazine, who describes the tourism industry as the only bright spot.

“Albanians see the skyscrapers, and all the rest, and it makes them angry because they know that none of it is going to make their own lives better.”


Helena Smith in Tirana

The GuardianTramp

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