In-depth | Albania

Albania is bleeding out

By - 24.06.2019

More than one third of Albania’s citizens live abroad.

Two and a half years ago, Aurel Istrefi found himself among thousands of people, embarked on the so-called refugee and migrant route that crossed through the Balkans, and further on toward the north of Europe. He managed to reach France, hoping to be able to continue toward the UK.

Like many other migrants, Aurel was waiting in Calais, France, hoping to jump on the train crossing the Channel to reach England. At the time, he was 21.

“It was dangerous,” Aurel remembers now, while speaking at his home in Tirana. “Many people have risked their lives. Many have broken their limbs while trying to do the same as me, catch the speeding train. Some made it, but I didn’t. The police caught me and brought me back to Albania.”

For Aurel, this was just one of the many desperate attempts to reach his dream of living in the EU.

He made his first attempt at 18 when he left to Greece. He stayed there for three months, working, irregularly, in construction. And once again, he came back to Albania — only to try another desperate attempt soon.

Aurel Istrefi has already tried to leave Albania twice and he is getting ready for another attempt. Photo: Denis Tahiri / K2.0.

His second attempt was when he tried to enrol in the French Foreign Legion, a branch of the French army composed only of foreigners. His friend helped him to apply and he left Albania again, hoping that he would finally gain EU membership this time. However, he failed.

Soon, he says, he will try again.

“I don’t see any hope for my future in Albania,” Aurel says. “Now, I have started a German language course, I will go to Germany.”

Reasons to leave

Aurel’s story is similar to those of many others in Albania who, disappointed with the situation in the country, are trying to reach western Eureopan countries and start a new life. Many decide to use irregular ways due to the imposed visa regime and regulations for non-EU citizens.

Those who are staying are observing how people are leaving, while cities and villages are becoming empty. Effects are visible also in hospitals, in schools, at universities and in every other segment of daily life.

Albanians are at the top of the list of Europeans who applied for asylum in EU countries during 2018, and 7th on the global list.

Due to unreliable official statistics, nobody knows how many people have left. However, according to the Ministry of Interior, 4,503,781 people hold an Albanian passport, while just 2,862,427 of those are living in the country.

The answer to the question, “Where are the others?” can partly be found in Eurostat data, according to which Albanians are at the top of the list of Europeans who applied for asylum in EU countries during 2018, and seventh on the global list.

It may come as a surprise that Albanians are right after citizens of war-torn countries like Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries in deep crises, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey, when it comes to asylum applications in the EU. Most of these people are heading toward France, Greece and the UK.

The Albanian government does little to stop this trend that is seriously affecting the life of its citizens, who do not believe that existing political structures can make a difference.

According to a soon to be published CRCA Albania poll conducted with 1,210 young people in April this year, 50 percent declared that they do not vote, while 84 percent said they don’t believe political parties can solve their problems.

This is part of the reason why many sociologists and economists in the country express their worries and call for reactions from officials. At the same time, they are trying to identify the reasons that people are leaving the country.

Professor of economics Dr. Arjan Kadare believes one of the main reasons is the poor economic situation in which people are not able to make enough money to live a decent life, and sometimes struggle to even afford the basics. He points out that according to the Albanian Institute of Statistics, the average gross pay in the country is 52,312 lek (420 euros), which is six to 12 times lower than average EU wages.

At the same time, unemployment in Albania is very high. According to data from April this year, among the army of unemployed are 58 percent of women and 39 percent of men.

Plans and realities

Skilled workers and people with advanced education are often amongst the people who are leaving. It is hard to find exact data about which professions are affected the most, but in daily life Albanians experience a lack of doctors and medical staff. As a consequence, they have to wait for a long time for even basic services, or seek help outside of the country.

If they leave, there is a significant possibility that they will meet doctors and nurses from Albania in EU hospitals.

Medical student Aleksander Gerveni is getting ready to leave Albania soon. He says that he has the support of his family, although deep down he knows they don’t want him to leave. Photo: Denis Tahiri / K2.0.

Among them soon could be Aleksander Gerveni (24) from Vlora who is in his last year of medical studies in Tirana. He dreams of becoming a doctor in the EU and already has a plan to go to Germany as soon as he completes his studies.

“I don’t know how the situation will be in Germany,” Aleksander says. “But what we know — and I’m talking about myself and my friends — is the current situation here, and that is the only problem. And we want to step away from this reality.”

The biggest support in his plans to leave the country and start life far away comes from his family. They have supported him financially during his studies, and they say they will do the same to help him to leave.

“They want me to have a better life, to have a chance to develop professionally,” he explains, adding that he is aware that “deep down” his parents want him to stay by their side.

For Aleksander’s family, getting him through university has not been easy. Each year, they have had to pay about 5 million lek (about 3,300 euro) for university fees, books, and living costs in Tirana. During six years of studying, Aleksander says he has spent almost 20,000 euros.

If he stays and finds a job in Albania, it will take him a long time to earn this amount of money. According to official statistics, the average monthly salary in Albania is 420 euros. However, Aleksander says that young doctors who have completed their specialization earn only about 320 euros per month.

No more patches for the wounds

Almida Qose (22), a medical student from Fieri, has similar plans. She is in her fourth year of university in Tirana, and is planning to find a way to leave very soon. “We’re in a state in which we don’t have any more patches to heal our wounds,” she says, unhappy about the choices she has to make.  

While trying to understand and explain to others the reasons why so many people are leaving, Arbi Agalliu, professor of economics at the Tirana European University, links the migration phenomenon to the inability to obtain secure and good employment.

At the same time, he points to another reason: “The lack of hope and perspective as the result of a tense political climate and a political climate that doesn’t do anything but create uncertainty and destroy these young people’s hopes.”

Professor Arjan Kadare points out that in the long term, the productive potential of the country is negatively influenced by the decrease of the labor force.

He argues that the departure of young people, or of people in general, undoubtedly has a negative impact on the economy as a whole.

His colleague, Professor Arjan Kadare, points out that in the long term, the productive potential of the country is negatively influenced by the decrease in the labor force.

“Considering that the youth and the active population is the one that is moving away, indirectly this results in faster aging of the population in general, which brings big problems with the financing of the pension scheme,” Kadare explains. “There are fewer employed people compared to the increasing number of retired people.”

The way that the pension scheme works in Albania is closely related to the number of employed people, who pay social insurance and health insurance. If the number of employed people is imbalanced compared with the number of people benefiting from pensions, then the scheme doesn’t work anymore.

But keeping the balance is difficult if the workforce is leaving the country while the number of retired people increases.

Possible consequences for society

Sociologists also point out the consequences that this will have on the entire society.

Entela Binjaku believes that most of those who are leaving now are unlikely to come back.

“A weakening of active social and cultural life, a decline in birth rates, demographic aging, and population decline,” are some of the possible consequences to which Binjaku points.

The consequences are visible in statistical data, such as the birth rate. Over the first three months of this year, the birth rate was 10.1 percent lower than in the first three months of 2018. In Tirana, the capital, the birth rate has also decreased by 9.4 percent from last year. In numbers, only 1,985 babies were born in the first three months of this year in Tirana, while in the city of Gjirokastra, only 97 babies were born.

Last year, the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation conducted research about the brain drain from Albania and concluded that institutions should reconsider the “laid-back approach” they have taken toward this issue. The authors recommended that the government should “fully come to terms with the likely long-term ramifications of this issue, such as the effect on the pension scheme, lack of qualified medical staff as well as brain-drain.”

To date, however, the government in Tirana has done little to answer these critics. Meanwhile, more people are leaving each day.K

Feature photo: Denis Tahiri / K2.0.