TIRANA, Albania – Cracked pavements lined with colourful murals and elderly people selling figs. Tower blocks clad in gold or in the shape of a 14th century national hero’s face. Young people parked up outside coffee shops on electric scooters. Albania’s capital is a buzzing city, while its white sandy beaches and mountain ranges have become popular with young Western tourists. Yet beneath a tourist boom and no-filter-needed Instagram pictures, many of the Balkan country’s people are increasingly desperate to escape.
Over the summer, it was revealed that six in every 10 asylum seekers arriving in the UK across the English Channel on small boats were Albanian. During the first six months of the year, 2,156 Albanians were recorded arriving in the UK on small boats, compared with just 23 in the same period in 2021.
Priti Patel, who was Home Secretary at the time, alleged that because they are not fleeing war, most Albanian asylum seekers are either undeserving economic migrants or potential criminals. Patel, who took a very hardline stance on migrants, claimed Albanians are leaving a “prosperous” country to take advantage of the UK’s wealth and hospitality. Former politician Nigel Farage, now a presenter on right-wing TV channel GB News, described Albanians arriving on small boats seeking asylum as an “invasion” of people “joining criminal gangs”, and called them all “aggressive” during a rant on TikTok. It is a country whose citizens have long been vilified in the UK. While Secretary of State for Justice in 2016, Michael Gove wrote an article headlined: “Think the EU is bad now, wait till Albania joins.”
But VICE World News found the reality on the ground in Albania – a country of 2.8 million people in south-east Europe – is very different from the picture painted in the UK media. Instead, Albanians are being driven to risk their lives crossing the channel by a perfect storm of rising poverty, corruption and psychological trauma which has been leveraged by increasingly efficient trafficking gangs.
More than half of the country is at risk of poverty, the highest in Europe according to EU data. Paid some of the lowest wages on the continent, Albanians have been hit extra hard by the global cost of living crisis and rocketing food costs, because almost half of family income in Albania goes on food, again the highest proportion in Europe. The dire situation, which includes schools lacking heating and water, led to a series of mass anti-government protests in Tirana this year.
While Albania is well-known for long-standing state corruption and blood feuds, in the last year distressed citizens have witnessed a dramatic series of high-profile assassinations and a perceived lack of action against corrupt behaviour by politicians.
Trust in public services – such as the judiciary and police – has plummeted, with almost nine in ten people believing that corruption is widespread in Albanian society. All this is happening against a backdrop of a large-scale black market economy, historical emigration, established people- and drug-trafficking networks, economic instability, high rates of domestic violence and a mental health timebomb.
At the start of the year, as the situation for ordinary Albanians became worse and more decided to take drastic action and leave, traffickers decided to profit from the desperation. When Boris Johnson was dumped by his party in July, some traffickers told people that Britain’s next Prime Minister would welcome Albanians.
Posts began appearing on TikTok and Instagram, offering transit into the UK with payment after arrival. Some advertised “Black Friday deals”; others juxtaposed their discounted crossing rates (between £3,000-£15,000) over photos of mainly young Albanians crammed into dinghies and sporting bright orange lifejackets. Albanian TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram is full of promises of jobs and visas. Videos of Big Ben and the Union Flag, interspersed with bundles of cash and stories featuring stamped passports, all promise a better life for Albanian youth.
Albanian gangs have established a presence in the UK’s cocaine supply and cannabis farming industries. But there is no evidence to show that the criminal fraternity represents anything but a small proportion of Albanians seeking asylum in the UK. Most often, Albanians seeking asylum in the UK end up working poorly paid manual jobs, with some recruited into modern-day slavery.
“Some people want to disappear from this small place with so many problems,” Argjend, a 50-year-old teacher living in Tirana, told VICE World News on the condition we only used his first name to avoid identifying him. He is planning to leave soon. “I don’t want to leave. But here l find it difficult to have a simple life with honest people and honest public services. The word ‘dignity’ doesn’t mean anything in our society.”
Bilbil, 22, from Mat, a region in northern Albania, studied for three years to be a mechanic. He works 363 days a year for 29,000 lek (£214) a month with no contract. “What can I do with that money? I am supporting my mum with heart problems. I have to buy her medicine. I am ready and able to work as hard as I can to help my family,” Bilbil said, explaining his friends are already in the UK and he intends to join them soon.
This year, inflation in Albania hit a 20-year high. Families who were struggling to survive before are now panicking about what lies ahead. Over half of Albanians work in the informal economy out of desperation, meaning lower salaries, no social insurance, and few rights. When it comes to healthcare, medication can be expensive, and up to two-thirds of Albanians report paying bribes to get treatment, exacerbating the financial burden on family members.
Bajram, 25, is from the northern city of Kukes, a hotspot for emigration to the UK. He has a government job, but like many others, he cannot make ends meet and has made up his mind to leave. “Many boys from Kukes have fled to England and say it is a better life there. I’ve heard that there’s better pay and living in England. Here in Kukes, there is no future for young people and no opportunity to help our parents. With our salaries, we can’t do anything except eat.”
Albania has worked hard to fight corruption in the police and courts, but according to the US State Department, these issues prevail. While the robbery rate is the lowest in Europe, and the country is generally safe in day-to-day life, many don’t trust the system to help them if they end up in trouble.
“Anita,” whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is now living in the UK with her husband and their daughter. He has been granted asylum while she awaits a decision. She told VICE World News that her husband fled to the UK after being targeted by a local gang. She stayed behind but the gang raped and assaulted her to intimidate her husband.
“They didn’t go to prison because they [bribed] the police and the judges and were left free to harm all of us,” she said, referring to her teenage daughter, who the gang threatened to traffick into the sex trade. “You are living in Albania, and you see with your own eyes the Albanian reality, the organised crime and blood feuds, domestic violence, especially the honour killings of girls and women, their prostitution and trafficking, corruption, the lack of protection from the state police.”
An expert witness for Albanian asylum cases being appealed through the British court system, who has dealt with hundreds of cases but who spoke to VICE World News on condition of anonymity, fears the current anti-Albanian rhetoric in the British media is damaging legitimate asylum claims. She said stories like Anita’s are quite common, and often the asylum cases she sees are linked to violence against women.
“There are many valid reasons for Albanians to seek asylum,” she said. “When I first took on the role of expert witness, most of the cases related to young men fleeing blood feuds. But now other issues have come to the fore: domestic violence of both women and children, women fleeing forced marriages, LGBT issues, and those becoming political targets. Some have been police [officers] refusing to commit illegal acts.”
Home Office data shows 53 percent of asylum seekers coming into the UK in the first half of this year from Albania were granted asylum. This included 14 percent of men and 90 percent of women and children.
Over the past year, Albanian trafficking crews have acted quickly to take advantage of people’s desire to escape.
One advert claims its offer of visas is through entirely legal means and invites applicants to text a British number to get a callback. “Work conditions; regular documents, bank payment, English speaking, excellent salary,” a post on Facebook claims. Another advert on a classifieds site targets people in the north where emigration is at an all-time high. It claims to offer work visas to those with family already in the UK, who know English and have IT skills.
“The payment is very satisfactory knowing the standards of living in England, as well as the possibility of extending the contract”, it continues, inviting applicants to contact a rather suspicious email address.
Desperate Albanians paying between £5,000 and £15,000 to travel in traffickers’ vans through Europe or meet their traffickers in France and travel the last stretch crammed into a small boat or lorry. Once in the UK, some are told they now have outstanding debts and must work to pay them off. This work can include prostitution, working on illegal cannabis farms, or cleaning rooms in swanky London hotels.
Erjon, who has been living legally in the UK for two years, said that many Albanians are coming for a better life. Talking about his successful work being self-employed, he admits that “what I have achieved in the UK in two years, I would not have achieved in Albania in 20.”
Kadime Jata, project manager at SFIDA, a London-based community organisation working with young Albanians and their families, said that most Albanians are optimistic when they arrive in the UK but end up struggling to make ends meet.
“The most common work Albanian men do here is in building and construction, maintaining the roads. A small percentage do farming. On Facebook in Albania, builders and plumbers are told they can do the same work in England for lots more money, that they can get £120 a day. But no-one is telling them that at the end of the month most of it will be gone on rent, tax, food and bills. The smugglers tell them that because Britain has a new prime minister they will all be let in if they say they want to work.”
They also struggle with stigma due to the portrayal of Albanians in the media. “There are a lot of anti-Albanian things in the media and this makes it hard for young Albanians growing up here. Some people are too embarrassed to say they are Albanian, they pretend they are not. But the younger generation are more proud to say where they are from.” Jata said that some end up asking for help getting back to Albania after coming into the UK illegally.
Making money to support the families can mean working for organised-crime gangs as many of those taking the illegal route find out. Ardit travelled with traffickers and was promptly set to work farming cannabis. A 2020 Global Initiative report found that while drug cultivation in Albania, once a world leader in cannabis production, has declined, operations have simply been exported elsewhere.
“I am working here, you know, as a gardener, but not the usual kind,” he tells VWN over the phone. Fed up with low salaries in Tirana, he says he can make more money in the UK in two years than he could in his life in Albania. “It is not the life I planned, but I have my family, my parents, to help,” he said.
Back in Albania, emigration is causing a demographic crisis. It is one of the only countries in the world where more people live outside its borders than inside. Albania’s population decline is particularly notable among the young and qualified. In 2021, Eurostat reported some 11,200 Albanians applied for asylum in the EU, with almost 5,000 going to France, followed by Germany and Greece. As for the UK, back in 2019, almost 4,000 Albanians sought asylum there, and another 6,300 were awaiting decisions.
Albania’s current issues have been informed by its tragic past. The country was isolated for almost 50 years by the brutal communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, who oversaw the murder, persecution, and mass imprisonment of his people. More than 30 years since the transition to democracy, school children have learned little about this era, and more than 6,000 people are still missing.
Lori Amy is a Professor in the Department of Writing and Linguistics at Georgia Southern University who lives in Albania and is researching links between the country’s contemporary issues and its past traumas.
Amy said this mass exodus is not a new phenomenon. Between 1989-2001, a period of transition and civil conflict, some 710,000 people left the country in multiple waves. Between 2010-2019, more than 193,000 applied for asylum in the EU, peaking in 2015 with 67,000 applications in a year.
She believes this failure to confront the past is part of the reason why people want to leave.
“An entire history of trauma from the Ottomans, the First Balkan Wars, Communism, civil war in 1997, mass emigration in waves, purges… there has been no reconciliation ever. Reconciliation is needed with the entire history of trauma.” She said trauma is passed through generations, and with no reconciliation, and a lack of historical awareness, people feel “they have nothing to be proud of, or to hope for.”
Additional reporting by Arbjona Cibiku.