HomeDiaspora African NewsHow poverty and false promises are drawing Albanians to the UK

How poverty and false promises are drawing Albanians to the UK

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Fatlum, a 60-year-old electrician who lives in Kukës county in the mountains of northern Albania, sympathizes with local youths who have tried their luck crossing the English Channel illegally for an uncertain future in the UK.

“They have relatives there,” he said at a roadside cafe overlooking terraced valleys where there is little employment other than low-paying farm work. “They are looking for honest work. Only those with neglected families can end drug gangs.”

There is a notable shortage of 20-something men in Kukës and nearly everyone in the region appears to have relatives among the estimated 150,000 Albanians estimated to be living in the UK, part of a national exodus that has increased this year.

According to UK government figures, the number of Albanians arriving illegally across the Channel increased by 43 percent between May and September this year. Suella Braverman, the interior minister, called the wave an “invasion” and described many of the migrants as “criminals”, prompting an angry response from the Albanian prime minister. edi branch.

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama questions UK estimates of the number of Albanians crossing the channel © Jens Schlueter/AFP/Getty Images

Located at a crossroads between Greeks, Turks and Slavs, Albanians have a tradition of emigration that goes back centuries. More recently, a generation hit the road in the 1990s after decades of extreme poverty and isolation under the communist regime of Enver Hoxha.

This was followed by another exodus of people fleeing economic hardship, then another as Albanians fled the war in neighboring Kosovo around 2000. According to Instat, Albania’s statistical institute, about a third, or 1, 7 million of all Albanians now live in the diaspora. .

Location map of the Kukes region in northern Albania

For those who remain in the country, the average monthly salary is 60,000 lek, or 450 pounds a month, according to Instat. However, in remote rural areas like Kukës, pay can be significantly lower and many people make ends meet through extra jobs that are not reflected in official statistics.

Fatlum, who declined to give his full name, survives by looking after the homes of his three brothers who work in London, two as electricians and one as a bus driver. “The big red two-story ones,” he says as he pulls out a plastic bottle of fruit liqueur, or raki — from the boot of his BMW, which has UK plates.

The contrast between the economic opportunities available in remote valleys like Kukës and the UK is stark, said Edval Zoto, an independent consultant running a new UK government-funded extension program in the region.

An abandoned industrial complex in the Kukës mountains
An abandoned industrial complex in the Kukës mountains © Marton Dunai/FT

“The situation in Kukës is at a turning point,” he explained. “Institutions are crumbling. Schools built for 300 children now hold 50. Jobs disappear, as do family safety nets. The University of Tirana closed its local branch. There is no professional guidance, no vision for life at the local level.”

He added that the region’s youth are tempted by a world of easy money portrayed by traffickers using stunning images and videos in a sophisticated social media campaign on Instagram and TikTok.

“Viewed from the rural north of Albania, London is indescribably rich. . . and they do a lot of drugs,” Zoto said, adding that parents in the area are terrified that their children will be drawn to drug gangs.

“The Albanian society is in awe of those TikTok videos,” he said. “They glamorize crime.”

The UK-funded programme, worth £8.3m over four years, aims to counter gang social media campaigns and help local youth find meaningful employment in Albanian companies. . This includes developing local tourism by training mountain guides and rescuers, opening a tourist information center and creating a youth center where young people can learn languages ​​and computer skills.

Social media ad to cross from France to UK ‘Price (for crossing) 3,000 (pounds). Starting tomorrow this route will be closed for several weeks due to bad weather. Hurry up!’ © Marton Dunai/FT

In the short term, while winter may slow down the migration, local experts expect the numbers to rise again next year.

Once an expensive procedure costing up to £20,000, involving false documents, border bribery and flights or van journeys, this year the cost of a trip to the UK has dropped to around £5,000 as smugglers use small North African boats in the Canal. , expanding the attractiveness of the route.

In a recent video, Alastair King-Smith, the UK ambassador to Albania, pleaded with Albanians not to believe the traffickers. “What they show you on social networks is not reality. . . Don’t go illegally,” he said.

The Albanian prime minister, who questions British estimates of the number of Albanians crossing the canal, said in an interview with the Financial Times that he has discussed ways to crack down on drug gangs with successive British governments, but his proposals have never they were followed.

The Great Britain pub in Has, Kukës
The Great Britain pub in Has, Kukës © Marton Dunai/FT

“When Boris Johnson was foreign secretary, he (brought up) Albanian crime in London,” Rama said. “I told him, it’s okay. He brought six professionals from his agencies to Tirana. We’ll put them in an office with six of our people, [with] full access to all our criminal records.”

He added that the proposal was also made to Theresa May, then prime minister, and Priti Patel, former home minister, but the joint working group never materialized.

“With some undercover people in Kukës, you know who to call, who is waiting from that side,” he said. “If you have the British [on board] you connect the dots. We are not talking about a million refugees. This is a small community.”

Yet during Rama’s tenure, Albanian gangs built on a decades-long tradition of cannabis cultivation and export to create a powerful global trafficking network, according to a US State Department report.

“Albanian citizens play an outsized role in international drug trafficking and organized crime networks, and Albania is a key element of the Balkan drug trafficking route to Western Europe and the UK,” he said.

“Relatively weak rule of law, corruption and a high unemployment rate are the main drivers of the drug control problem in Albania,” he added.

Rama rejects the accusations, but the opposition Democratic Party of Albania accuses the prime minister of building a corrupt and autocratic regime during his nine years in office, leaving the average Albanian with little chance of getting ahead except by leaving the country.

A rally called by the party to protest corruption, poverty and emigration in front of Rama’s office drew tens of thousands on Saturday.

Protesters hold flashlights from their mobile phones during an anti-government demonstration in Tirana on Saturday.
Protesters hold flashlights from their mobile phones during an anti-government demonstration in Tirana on Saturday © Gent Shkullaku/AFP/Getty Images

Aldo Bumçi, a former Democratic Party foreign and justice minister, accused the West of turning a blind eye to Rama’s transgressions because Albania is a loyal Western ally in a zone of instability.

“[Rama] he has money, he is unbeatable and the internationals don’t say anything”, said Bumçi. “That’s why people are leaving in these biblical numbers.”

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