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By Veterans Aid

Threats of deportation will not stop dangerous Channel crossings

(Alamy)

6 min read

Albanians are the new villain of choice, it seems. If a TV show or a movie needs a good bad-guy, chances are these days they’ll make him Albanian.

In the movie Taken, when Liam Neeson goes on a rampage through Europe and utilises his “very particular set of skills” against a criminal underworld to recover his kidnapped daughter, who better to blame than a gang of evil human traffickers from Albania?

Edi Rama, the prime minister of Albania, has had enough. “There’s more to Britain than Mr Bean”, he said on a recent visit to the United Kingdom, “and there’s more to Albania than Taken”.

He’s right. No nation should be reduced to a stereotype. And Albania, a country I was proud to live in for three years, deserves better. Albania has a rich culture with beautiful language, rich poetry and literature and fascinating history. Albania has given the world globally successful pop super stars in Rita Ora and Dua Lipa. It has given us premier league football players. Jim Belushi, silver screen star, is the son of Albanian immigrants. The most famous Albanian of all in modern times is Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, known to most as Mother Teresa.

The UK government’s ‘stop the boats’ campaign helped pile on the pressure to get people out of Albania

Albania, a country only marginally larger than Wales, punches above its weight in terms of positive global cultural impact. With stunning scenery, unspoilt beaches, archaeological and historical sites of interest and a breath-taking mountain range, it has become the latest must-visit destination for the savvy tourist, at a fraction of the cost of the rest of Europe.

Yet while thousands of us are heading to Albania for our holidays, many Albanians are being detected travelling in the opposite direction on dangerous small boat crossings: 54 in 2020, 815 in 2021, and, in 2022, 12,304.

What is causing a migration surge of 1500 per cent? Why are so many of these young travellers being exploited and criminalised as they travel across Europe? And why the exodus? There is no war in Albania, no state-sponsored persecution of minorities, no political clampdown on freedoms. I went back to Albania to try to find out what was going on.

Returning after 20 years, the airport was no longer the draughty and dilapidated hangar I remembered, collapsing into the deserted, unfenced landscape where cows freely wandered onto the runway. Instead, I arrived to a beautiful glass building, with all the amenities, signages and securities I would expect from a European airport. I discovered that Tirana, Albania’s capital, had undergone a similar transformation. The buildings were taller. The air was cleaner. The shops were well stocked. 

I visited Kamez, a grey overpopulated suburb of the expanding capital. The teenagers hanging around on the dusty streets all had friends who had left for the UK. They all knew the relative advantages of small boats over articulated lorries, and how much more they could earn on a UK building site than any job they could think of getting in Albania. They too were planning to leave, propelled by the desperation of economic poverty, the hopelessness of poverty, of opportunity, and the expectations of their parents relying on their support – even if it meant risking their lives to cross the Channel and work in England’s grey economy.

It's no wonder criminal gangs are swooping in promising cheap and easy crossings. The UK government’s “stop the boats” campaign helped pile on the pressure to get people out of Albania before it’s too late. The gangs even offered special deals while Britain mourned the Queen and elected a new prime minister.

These gangs are helped by other pull factors. Albanians know Britain has labour shortages. They are under the impression that Britain is less racist than other European countries. Every day they see the incredible role the UK plays in the music, TV and film industries. Our strong reputation for democracy, freedom and justice seems to override any anti-immigration headlines. We are seen to be a society that is welcoming, respectful and multicultural.

It is estimated that up to half the population of Albania has left over the past 30 years to live in Europe – most of them in Italy or Greece. Recent analysis from Balkan Barometer indicates that of the remaining Albanians, 83 per cent want to leave. They do not intend to work with criminals – they hope to earn money legally and honestly. However, those who are poorest are most likely to be tricked, coerced or tempted by the promise of fast money by criminal gangs.

Talking to young Albanians, I sympathised with those who felt they had no other choice to find work and money, purpose and hope, than to pay a gang to get them to England.

There is a strong presence of faith groups, NGOs and charities that are prepared to come together and support the government to find solutions and stem the exodus. Together, we discussed how to bust the myths, lies and misplaced promises of the criminal gangs, how to leverage investment to provide opportunities to the villages in Albania that are most vulnerable.

The provision of safe and legal routes for these young Albanians to come to the UK may, ironically, also help to prevent this surge in migration. None of them would pay traffickers £3,000 to come to the UK in a dinghy and work with a criminal gang if they could get on a daily Whizzair flight for £40 and legitimately earn a living. They could help meet labour shortages in the UK, send money home to their families in Albania, contribute their taxes to the UK economy, and choose to return to Albania when they can afford to.

Instead of fuelling the dangerous journeys with threats of deportation, thereby funding the criminal underworld, we could open up more skilled visa routes to those willing to work in areas such as construction, social care and fruit picking. 

In recent years we have seen a sea change in the way that the UK government and faith communities have collaborated for public benefit and the common good. I believe in Albania there is an opportunity to expand on this. Albania is a unique and exciting country with a majority Muslim population and strong Christian communities, unified by their desire to see their country flourish. Supporting this form of civic engagement and capacity building would be of strategic benefit not only to Albania, but to the wider diplomatic and development mission of the UK.

Albania is a migration success story waiting to happen. The scene is set for an influx of investment and opportunity building initiatives. There are young men desperate for jobs, villages ripe for development, and churches, faith groups and NGOs raring to cooperate with government.

Britain and Albania have much to gain from a joined-up approach. Together we can change not only the stereotype, but the story.

 

Dr Krish Kandiah, director of the Sanctuary Foundation

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