Albania, a developing Mediterranean nation with a population of 2.8 million, has experienced a significant surge in emigration. The U.K. and France are the two most preferred destinations for Albanian migrants, as these countries are home to many Albanian communities.

According to a 2022 report, approximately 70% of Albanian asylum seekers chose the U.K. or France as their destination. In just five months, from May to September, over 11,000 Albanians braved the perilous journey across the English Channel in small boats, with almost all hailing from Albania’s impoverished northern highland region.

Who Are the Albanians Leaving?

The exodus from Albania is diverse, comprising economic migrants seeking employment and asylum seekers fleeing from trafficking and modern slavery. Typically, men lead the way in this migration, with their partners and children joining them later. It is worth noting that most Albanian migrants who travel to the U.K. in small boats are young men, and while many apply for asylum, the U.K. Home Office has thus far rejected 86% of male asylum claims. Of note, there is a substantial backlog of asylum applications that remain unprocessed.

On the other hand, the U.K. approves approximately 90% of asylum claims made by women and children. Madeleine Sumption, Director of The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, notes that most of the Albanians who receive a positive decision are female, possibly due to their status as victims of trafficking. As such, these individuals are eligible for asylum in the U.K.

Why have they Left?

A recent survey conducted by the Regional Cooperation Council called the Balkan Barometer revealed that approximately 83% of Albanians expressed their desire to leave the country, citing the high cost of living as the most common reason. Additionally, the survey found that unemployment and a lack of educational opportunities made life even more challenging for young Albanians, with the unemployment rate for individuals between the ages of 18-34 reaching 60%.

Dr. Andi Hoxha of University College London has said that in the last three years, a huge earthquake and COVID-19 have exacerbated poverty and unemployment in Albania. Dr. Hoxha also noted that the government had offered little help to the most affected people.

According to the World Bank, an estimated one-fifth of Albanians fell into poverty during the pandemic. The organization reports that the rising food costs and inflation in Albania are major issues in a country where citizens spend around 42% of their income on food.

In addition to poverty and lack of opportunities, many Albanian young men and boys are being groomed by criminal gangs. A study by the organization: Asylos, which studies asylum claims, suggests that threats of violence compel many young Albanian men into criminal activity, modern slavery and sexual exploitation.

Albania-originated crime networks aim to recruit such vulnerable young males to work illegally in the U.K., notably on cannabis farms. Some young men have also fled to escape violent fallouts from local blood feuds, which are still common in Albania.

Why Now?

Except for the earthquake in 2019, Albania has not been subject to any of the usual factors that precipitate a surge in emigration. Rather, the country’s problems, including poverty, unemployment, corruption and political instability, are chronic. Since 1991 and the fall of communism, more than 40% of Albanians have emigrated. In recent years, there has been a sharp increase in Albanian migrants. Dan O’Mahoney, the Clandestine Channel Threat Commander for the U.K. Home Office, attributes the increase to the activities of smugglers.

The two most significant factors behind the increase in Albanian migrants to the U.K. are the intensified activity of criminal gangs and the heightened ability of smugglers to lure people into coming to the U.K. Organized crime networks target young men in impoverished parts of Albania, while adverts on Tiktok are used by smugglers to attract potential migrants. It has lately become cheaper to be smuggled on a small boat across the English Channel. Fatjona Mejdini of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime told the BBC that whereas migrants would previously have to pay up to £25,000 to be smuggled in a truck, now they can pay only £3,000 to £4000 to be transported by boat or dinghy.

What does the Future Hold for Albania?

Albania is emptying out, especially in its northern highlands, settlements are turning into “ghost towns” as their young people leave. In the town of Kukësiin in northern Albania, for instance, 53% of its inhabitants have emigrated. Fortunately, foreign investment, significant seasonal tourism and support from the World Bank aim to improve Albania’s economy. For example, the U.K. injected £6 million into Tirana, Albania’s capital city, while the World Bank has partnered with the Albanian government to support its agricultural industry, which employs 36% of the country’s population.

Looking Ahead

The number of Albanian migrants has declined in 2023. Last summer, they accounted for more than half of all arrivals to the U.K., but according to the most recent reports, the number is fewer than 10%. This may be because many of the Albanians who wanted to make the journey already have. Additional factors include worsening weather conditions and a pledge by the U.K. government to fast-track the deportation of illegal migrants. On the bright side, however, continued support from international organizations and countries like the U.K. could help Albania in its effort to address the root causes of emigration.

– Samuel Chambers

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