31st May 2023


Why do 83% of Albanians want to leave Albania?

  • Some of Tirana's economy is now booming - but Albania's economy imploded in 1996 when a pyramid scheme collapsed destroying personal savings overnight (Photo: Alexandr Bormotin)
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Last week, Albania's prime minister Edi Rama angrily rejected the UK home secretary Suella Braverman's mischaracterisation of Albanians as illegal migrants and criminals during his visit to London. Albanians flee their homeland because they seek a better life and have nothing left to lose.

But there has been a rapid increase in the number of Albanian migrants crossing the English Channel. Albanians represent about a third of illegal immigrants seeking sanctuary in the UK.

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  • Albania's prime minister Edi Rama, here with UK prime minister Rishi Sunak last week. He angrily called UK home secretary Suella Braverman's mischaracterisation of Albanians as illegal migrants and criminals a 'disgraceful' moment for British politics (Photo: 10 Downing Street)

In 2020, 50 arrived on small boats. In 2021, 800 made the crossing. In 2022, 12,301 arrived. Many are single, adult men. According to Eurostat, the numbers represent around one percent of Albania's working age men.

Research by the Balkan Barometer indicates that 83 percent of Albanian citizens want to leave Albania. While some take flight by any means, nearly 50 percent take a legal route and apply for jobs.

In fact, medical professionals constitute the largest sector of Albanians seeking a fresh start outside of the country. A medical student interning abroad told us that she left Albania because there were no funds to pay for her residency. She explained that it's simply untenable to go eight years without an income.

As autocracies collapsed across Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, Albanians had high expectations that democracy and a free-market economy would bring a better life. But Albania's transition from dictatorship to democracy has been uneven and incomplete.

Albania's economy imploded in 1996 when a pyramid scheme collapsed destroying personal savings overnight. Thousands of Albanians set sail for Italy; many were lost at sea. Collapse of the pyramid scheme dashed their hopes. Many Albanians are still struggling with the revolution of rising expectations.

Albania's economy has seemingly recovered. The skyline of Tirana, the nation's capital, is dotted by glass and chrome office towers. Despite a plethora of five-star dining options, poverty is still endemic. Fancy restaurants are way out of reach for most Albanians who toil in the agricultural sector.

Many rural residents cultivate cannabis as a cash crop more lucrative than watermelons. Criminal gangs have a ubiquitous presence, exporting drugs to western Europe. These gangs also facilitate the travel of Albanians to the UK. Once in Britain, illegal emigrants are often trapped in a life of crime. Easy money from trafficking drugs, weapons and people has eroded the value of hard work and integrity that defines the character of Albanians.

Cannabis cultivation is especially widespread in strongholds of the ruling Socialist Party (SP).

Albania's economic challenges were exacerbated by the COVID pandemic, which limited tourist income as well as foreign direct investment. The economic slowdown not only occurred in Albania. Middle income countries were hardest hit during the pandemic.

Boutique shops, malnourished children

Albania's macroeconomic indicators are troubling with rampant inflation and widespread unemployment. Albania is increasingly a country of haves and have nots. Inequality is increasingly apparent with a huge gap between the ultra-rich and everybody else. Albanian officials boast of the country's economic growth, pointing to rising exports and tax collection. But these figures are misleading because they follow years of economic decline.

Tirana is bustling with the wealthy who can afford a growing array of imported goods, while many Albanian children suffer from malnutrition.

Many Albanians scrape by on a few dollars a day. Public sector employees and disgruntled workers have taken to the streets to protest low salaries. Many are forced to work two jobs to afford food and tuition of their children.

Life in Albania is simply unaffordable, and dangerous. Organised crime and nepotism are widespread. Illicit businesses trading in food, diesel, gas, and human smuggling represent an outsized portion of Albania's economy. The high level of corruption undermines meritocracy and leads to mediocrity in public administration.

There is nothing more demoralising to the Albanian people than democratic backsliding. The SP has been in power for a decade and has atrophied after so many years.

The SP might not have remained in office so long it if weren't for the bumbling opposition. Albania's Democratic Party (DP), the largest opposition block, protested electoral conditions by refusing to be seated in parliament. The DP also refused to participate in local elections. Its decision to boycott government was a huge blunder, depriving it of a voice and rendering it irrelevant on the political scene.

While the worsening situation is the primary driver of Illegal emigration, the UK's post-Brexit dysfunction is also to blame. Prime minister Rishi Sunak is determined to get a grip on the situation. The UK has returned at least 500 illegal emigrants to Albania in 2023. Their repatriation discourages others from coming, helping to mitigate the flow of illegal emigrants.

We know what discourages illegal emigration. Consistent with measures adopted at the EU summit last week, the UK should adopt complementary measures: enhanced border control, including more guards, security infrastructure, surveillance and equipment at the borders. Additional agreements with third states would also help manage the problem.

Albania is a Nato member, an EU candidate country and pivotal to efforts aimed at countering violent Muslim extremism. The West can help Albania succeed through a partnership that focuses on prevention while helping to address the root causes of despair. Economic cooperation is the starting point, followed by measures to strengthen Albania's democratic institutions and multiparty democracy.

The West can help Albania, but Albania must take the lead to help itself.

Author bio

David L. Phillips is director of the Programme on Peacebuilding and Human Rights at Columbia University and a senior visiting fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.

Besmira Manaj is a PhD candidate at the Université Clermont Auvergne France and a consultant in sustainable development and good governance.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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