The boats from eastern Europe: Albanian crisis pushes young to UK

Albanian migrants set up camp in northern France, hoping to cross the English channel into the UK
Albanian migrants set up camp in northern France, hoping to cross the English channel into the UK
Natalie Bloomer By

Migration from Albania is nothing new. Ever since the fall of Communism in 1990, hundreds of thousands of people have left the country. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find a single family there without at least one relative living abroad. But the recent news that 18 Albanians tried to get to the UK by crossing the Channel in an inflatable boat has shocked many.

We don't know the individual reasons why they took such a risk. Five of those rescued from the boat have since claimed asylum here, the others are "being processed for removal" from the UK. But what we do know is that they are not alone in wanting to leave the small Balkan country.

Channel 4 News recently reported that a group of Albanians were camped out on the side of a cliff in France, waiting for a chance to cross to the UK. And the Sunday Times reported at the weekend that 220 Albanians were caught trying to board lorries travelling from Holland to the UK during the first four months of this year. But in terms of the numbers leaving Albania, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The number of asylum applications made by Albanian citizens in EU countries soared from 16,950 in 2014 to 67,735 last year, according to Eurostat. This is in addition to the usual migration which regularly takes place. The reasons for the increase are complex, but poverty remains a driving force.

"When I speak to people [about leaving] the first thing they bring up is work," Vincent Triest, a journalist for Albania's ABC News, says. "They typically leave because low skilled labour is not well paid in Albania. In the remote villages, people don't work - they just survive."

Triest was on a recent deportation flight carrying Albanians who had tried to enter the UK. He says they wanted to come here to find work in the informal sector.

Albania is one of the poorest countries in Europe. Before the global financial crisis in 2008 it made great strides in strengthening its economy, but since then things have again become much more difficult. Growth has dropped and unemployment has risen to around 17%, with youth unemployment reaching above 32%. In recent years there have been vast improvements made to the capital city and to the country's tourist areas, but outside the urban centres and away from the popular white beaches of the south, poverty is clear to see.

In many rural areas, people rely heavily on agriculture to get by, but there is often very little money to be made. Take the village of Novosej. At first glance, it's almost idyllic. Perched on the side of the mountain in the north of the country, the views are stunning. But life there is incredibly hard and hundreds of people have left recently.

"All my sons have gone because we can't feed them,” one local woman told a reporter from Ora News last year. “I'm on my own, there is no life here." The TV report describes a village now made up largely of elderly people because most of the youngsters have left.

"They're all gone," one man says. His wife adds: "Why would they stay? There is no security.”

Agriculture makes up around 17% of the country's GDP and provides employment to around 55% of the total employed. In short, it is a vital sector of the economy. But in rural areas, where income from farming is typically low, there’s a vicious circle in which young people leave in search of better pay and a shortage of labour develops

"There are some pockets of rural areas where unemployment levels are even higher [than the national rate] and there is a lot of agriculture without very much value added to it," Brian Williams, the UN resident coordinator in Albania, says. "Investment in Tirana and tourism is entirely logical but what's also needed is continued investment in rural areas."

Williams says that the recent increase in migration from the country is a cause for concern and believes there are two major reasons for it. Firstly, the economic situation. And secondly, a lack of faith in the direction the country is heading. He points to research carried out by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which showed low levels of trust among people living in Albania, as well as concerns about corruption, particularly in the judiciary.

"I think this is not inconsequential to the story," he says. "The government is discussing judicial reforms. There's a lot of talk about it being important for the EU but it's also important that they do it for their own people because it sends a signal to Albanians that the government recognises some of its weaknesses and that the political class is willing to work on them."

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The current prime minister Edi Rama came to power in 2013 on the back of promises of economic development and job creation. Rama is a fan of New Labour. In fact, when I spoke to him last year he told me it was Tony Blair's government that first made him want to enter politics. "The socialist party we have today in Albania would not have been what it is [without New Labour]. We are like the New Labour kids here," he said.

He even enlisted the help of Alastair Campbell to work on his election campaign. Rama says that the first time he met Campbell it was like "a dream". The two became friends and Campbell even dedicated a chapter to Rama in his book Winners. They have since continued to work together on improving Albania's image abroad.

So the recent headlines of Albanians fleeing their home country will no doubt be embarrassing for the prime minister. But it would be unfair to lay all of the blame at his feet. The situation is as much a result of outside factors, such as the aftermath of the 2008 crash and the crisis in Greece, as it is of his policies. His government has launched sweeping reforms to improve the tax system and tackle corruption, but much more needs to be done to support the poorest in society.

Williams insists it's not all bad news. "There is a large diaspora of Albanians and they have traditionally gone to many countries and thrived as immigrants," he says. "Remittances can be very important [to the country] and sometimes people come back and they return with different skills and perceptions."

In 2014, Albania achieved candidate status for accession to the EU. It was a big moment for the former communist country and a recognition of the progress that has been made in reforming institutions. But recent events show that far more needs to be done to create opportunities for young people and to tackle poverty. Until that happens, there is every chance we will hear of more people going to extraordinary lengths to seek a better life elsewhere.

Natalie Bloomer is a journalist for Politics.co.uk

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners

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