On 13 February 2019, Zana Vathi (Edge Hill University) spoke on social protection and return migration, focusing on the case of the Albanian-Greek migration corridor. Biao Xiang (University of Oxford) acted as discussant.
Return migration to Albania has critically intensified in the past few years, due to the economic crisis in the different European countries to which many Albanians have migrated since the beginning of the 1990s, notably Greece, the country hit the hardest by the crisis and where the largest number of Albanian migrants have settled since the early 1990s. Based on qualitative research with migrants, their children and key informants in Albania, Zana explored the experiences of the returnees with social protection and their positionality towards social protection stakeholders. She argued that, despite return migration being overlooked in the social protection literature, her case study shows that return migration may be planned and experienced as a complex social protection strategy. In turn, social protection experiences are central to migrants’ perception of their return and (re)settlement process. Zana’s conceptualization of social protection accounted for the wider resource environment, encompassing not only formal but also informal forms of protection available to the returnees, thus going beyond the hermetic focus on nation states. She also paid close attention to the transnational emplacement of returnees and its impact on their social protection strategies and on their assessment of home-state support arrangements. The expectations of Albanian returnees of automatic eligibility and positive discrimination were not met and, given the poor state of formal state provisions in Albania, many chose to keep accessing social services in Greece, which they considered to be superior. Geographical proximity, better travel infrastructure and their familiarity with Greece’s system, all played an important role in their choice. Albania, Zana argued, was perceived as a generic informal social protection space, primarily due to the support offered to them by family and kin and for factors such as ‘having own house’, which was a major driver for return, rather than due to formal social protection services offered by the Albanian state. However, the informal support offered by the families and kin often proved to be fragile, due to the end of the remittance channel, fractured familial relationships, internal rural-urban migration post-return, and the myth of rich returnees. As a result the returnees experienced significant difficulties in terms of their psycho-social adjustment, and with care arrangements for the elderly and the integration of their children into education. Zana highlighted that the significant challenges faced by returnees in Albania require policy measures to facilitate their (re)settlement process and call for closer attention by academic literature on the structural issues of (re)integration surrounding return migration projects.
Following the discussion of this case study, Zana outlined a research agenda on social protection in the context of return migration, highlighting the focus on returnees' vulnerability and its implications for policy making on re-integration. Biao's comments were complimentary, and he suggested a stronger focus in future on a few areas: the entitlement to protection based on social contraction conceptions; the viability of transnational protection arrangements for older returnees; and the comparison frame of their life under Communism. The discussion evolved around the topic of contribution and engagement of diasporas, and how these play out in the context of migration and return, particularly in countries such as Albania that consist of major recipients of migrants' remittances.
Manolis Pratsinakis (Onassis Fellow, SEESOX; DPIR)