Andi Hoxhaj began the discussion with a broad historical and sociological introduction. Albania’s history of mass migration began in the 15th century, when the Ottoman invasion caused a quarter of Albania’s population to migrate to the Dalmatian coast, Greece, and Italy. Another migration wave followed in the 19th century, with large diaspora communities established in Athens, Bucharest, Cairo, Istanbul, and Sophia. This was followed in the 20th century by migration to more distant countries, such as the US, Argentina, and Australia. In the 1940s, around 60,000 Albanians moved to the US.
The communist regime in Albania (1945-1990) put a stop to migration, making it an offense punishable by imprisonment. Due to poverty, unemployment, and political, legal, and economic instability, the first wave of post-communist migration happened in 1990-1992. 600,000 Albanians migrated to Greece, and another 500,000 moved to Italy during the 1990s. A second wave of Albanian migration followed in 1997-1999, when the growth of Albania’s economy – much of it financed through pyramid schemes – came to a grinding halt. The total damage to the country’s GDP was estimated at 45-52%. The economic downturn led to a rise in organised crime networks and violent deaths. In addition, one million ethnic Albanians fled to Albania in 1998-1999 due to Serbia’s war in Kosovo.Four main factors have been driving migration since 2000, chief among them Albania’s economy. Most studies suggest the average monthly wage is less than £221, causing 83% of Albanians to want to leave the country. Another important push factor driving Albanian migration is the weak rule of law and the country’s limited recognition of property rights. Thirdly, Albanians are fleeing cronyism and nepotism, and fourthly, there is little faith in Albania’s accession to the EU.
Numerous other problems have arisen more recently. 32,000 Albanians were left homeless as a result of an earthquake in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic also had a significant impact, pushing 23% of the population into poverty. Finally, inflation is soaring, driving up food prices and the cost of living – the Albanian Institute of Statistics (INSAT) and the World Bank reported that Albanians spent approximately 41% of their wages on food in 2021, but for 2022/23 the forecast is that Albanians will spend between 55 and 60% of their income on food.
The UK is the third largest recipient of Albanian migrants in Europe, with a population of about 48,000; however, at the UK parliamentary hearing on “Migration and Asylum: Albania” it was claimed that this number is significantly higher at 140,000. Part of the UK’s attractiveness to Albanian migrants is that, as third country nationals, they are not allowed to work in the EU and can only visit the Schengen area for a maximum of three months. Furthermore, the UK has a great need of low-skilled jobs, and the cost of small boat travel to the UK is relatively low.
Finally, Hoxhaj outlined some of the long-term impacts of migration: 43% of Albania’s population is currently living abroad, and remittances were estimated to make up between 11.7% and 15% of the country’s GDP between 2008 and 2019; they essentially fund Albania’s welfare system. An increasing number of Albanian students have been studying abroad, and 92% of them do not return after graduating. Hoxhaj suggested that the solution was to be found in a new social contract allowing citizens to participate in political and economic affairs and levelling up economic and social diversification beyond Tirana and the southern coast.
In his presentation, Peter Walsh looked at the facts of irregular migration from the UK side. In the first nine months of 2022, 13,000 Albanians claimed asylum in the UK, a number almost three times higher than for the whole of 2021. Crucially, the number of asylum applications by all nationalities only increased by about 10%, indicating that the tripling of Albanian immigrants is a country-specific phenomenon.
90% of these 13,000 migrants arrived by small boats, 56% of them men between the ages of 18 and 29, and 81% men under the age of 50. Albanians made up one third of small boat arrivals in the first three quarters of 2022. Nevertheless, the success rate for Albanian men in receiving asylum is only about 10%, whereas for women, it is 90%. This disproportion suggests that many of these young men may have migrated for economic and family reasons.
To date, the UK has had four main responses to migration from Albania. The first was announced in the August of 2022, and consists of a fast-track removal scheme. Agreement was also reached with Albania to base Albanian police in Dover. This measure has been undermined by the fact that, by law, the UK cannot remove asylum-seekers, and the government has confirmed it will not do so, while asylum-seekers make up 90% of all Albanian migrants arriving by boat. Furthermore, only two Albanian officials were stationed in Dover, and only for a short time.
A second response has been to enhance bilateral cooperation between the UK and Albania. The two countries have pledged to work together to combat illegal immigration and trafficking, creating a taskforce to manage these matters. The UK also promised to support Albania’s government in managing reintegration services. Thirdly, and linked to the second, the UK government is planning to change how it processes claims made by Albanians with a new unit staffed by 400 specialists. Finally, the UK is developing country guidance for asylum decision-makers to facilitate their work.
The third presenter, Fabian Zhilla, turned to the nexus between organised crime and undocumented migration, and particularly the issue of cannabis farms. There is much concern, especially with the involvement of young men, some of whom are recruited directly in Albania, while others are recruited in the UK after encountering bureaucratic barriers and failing public services. Even those who arrive on legitimate visas can be recruited by organised crime networks, as the money and benefits to be gained from their participation in the business come at a very low effective cost.
With regard to cannabis, Albania is considered an important origin country for cannabis growing in Europe. Although much of the country’s out-door cannabis farms were eradicated by 2016, the know-how was exported to countries of the Benelux, as well as Spain and the UK. Through contact with other crime networks, Albanian crime groups abroad have broken into indoor cannabis farming, in which they have been somewhat successful.
There are multiple problems related to organised crime around the sale of cannabis. Firstly, youth participation in the trade disrupts the social fabric of immigrant groups, exposing them to criminal activities. Secondly, considering that indoor cannabis growth operates more as a network rather than a criminal organisation-based structure, this has made it easier for young men to rapidly become independent and own their own cannabis farms. Thirdly, the recruitment process for young men engaged in the cannabis trade in the UK is mainly led by young men themselves, making this system very effective.
In the Q&A, the panellists responded to questions on a number of topics. Hoxhaj discussed some of the problems leading to migration from Albania, for example the fact that local governments do not participate much in addressing local issues and poverty, nor do they engage with the central government to launch joint initiatives to address the issues at local level that contribute to the rise in migration. He also discussed some of the UK’s responses. On the one hand, the UK has given the green light to spending more money on the regions from which many Albanians emigrate to the UK. On the other hand, UK politicians have securitised the issue, which has led to a de-emphasis on reintegrating returned migrants and thus prevent them from becoming part of international crime networks.
Walsh answered some questions on the practical aspects of processing asylum-seekers. Crucially, there is no safe and legal route to come to the UK for the specific purpose of claiming asylum; however, one has to be in the UK in order to claim asylum. Migrants on boats are typically apprehended in British waters, after which they are held at facilities (and increasingly detention centres) for two days while their claims are being processed. After the initial information is collected, they are transferred to dispersal accommodation, where they usually stay for around two years; in practice, 35% wait longer than 3 years for an initial asylum decision. This process, Walsh argued, has negative impacts upon integration. Asylum-seekers are not allowed to work while their claims are being processed, which may lead some to seek employment illegally. Furthermore, despite the length of this process, 90% of people whose claims are denied are not returned.
Zhilla answered some more concrete questions on the cannabis trade. The market in the UK is £2 billion, which makes this market very attractive. Social media plays a particularly important role in recruiting Albanian young men to this illegal trade. He also discussed the inconsistency of the UK visa regime and the complexity of its various rules. These factors, he argued, convince people that it is simply easier to immigrate illegally.
Ladislav Charouz (ESC Research Assistant)