BAJRAM CURRI, Albania (AP) — Monika Mulaj’s son was in his second year of college in Albania, studying to become a mechanical engineer, when he resolved to make a daring change: He told his parents he would leave his lifelong home for a new future in Britain.
“We had tried to fulfil all his requests, for books and clothing, food and a bit of entertaining. But he was still dissatisfied,” said Mulaj, a high school teacher in the northeastern town of Bajram Curri, which is in one of the country’s poorest regions.
Five years later, her now 25-year-old son is working two jobs in Britain and hardly thinks of returning to his homeland. “Albania is in regress,” he complains to his mother.
His path has been shared in recent years by thousands of young Albanians who have crossed the English Channel in small boats or inflatable dinghies to seek work in the U.K. Their odyssey reflects the country’s anemic economy and a younger generation’s longing for fresh opportunities.
In 2018, only 300 people reached Britain by crossing the channel in small boats. The number rose to 45,000 in 2022, in part because of arrivals from Albania, a country in southern Europe that is negotiating for membership in the European Union.
Other migrants were from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Unlike many countries that fuel migration, Albania is considered safe by U.K. officials.
Britain is attractive to Albanians because it has a better economy and higher-paying jobs than neighboring countries such as Greece or Italy. Many Albanians also have family ties in the U.K. Birmingham, for instance, has a large immigrant population from the Albanian town of Kukes, on the border with Kosovo.
The deputy mayor of Bajram Curri, Abedin Kernaja, said young people leave because of low wages and the difficulty of building “a comfortable family life.” His two sons are in the U.K.
Xhemile Tafaj, who owns a restaurant on a scenic plateau outside town, said “young people have no money to follow school, no job to work, no revenue at all.”
In such an environment, “only old men have remained and soon there will be empty houses,” Tafaj said.
Northeastern Albania is known for its natural Alpine beauty and green sloping landscape. The region is also famous for chestnuts, blueberries, blackberries and medicinal plants, as well as wool carpets and other handmade goods.
But those products offer scant job opportunities. The only jobs are at town halls, schools and hospitals, plus a few more at cafes and restaurants.
Petrit Lleshi, who owns a motel in Kukes, has struggled to find waiters for two years.
“I would not blame a 25-year-old leaving because of the low salaries here,” Lleshi said. “What our country offers is not enough to build a proper life.”
Few migrants seek a visa. They generally pay smugglers 5,000 to 20,000 euros ($5,300 to $21,200) for the dangerous, illegal crossing.
Many migrants undertake the trip with the expectation of a secure job, only to find after arriving in the U.K. that they must work in cannabis-growing houses for up to two years to pay back the trafficking money, according to reports by Albanian news outlets.
The steady stream of migrants has provoked clashes between British and Albanian leaders in recent months.
U.K. interior minister Suella Braverman has described the arrivals as an “invasion on our southern coast” — words that Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama blasted as a “crazy narrative” and an attempt to cover up for the U.K.’s failed border policies.
Albania also publicly protested what it called a “verbal lynching” by another U.K. official who made comments about Albanian immigrants. Rama accused the new U.K. Cabinet of scapegoating Albanians because it “has gone down a blind alley with its new policy resulting from Brexit.”
Rama was is in London Thursday for talks on immigration with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and accused U.K. officials of “singling out” Albanians for political purposes. “It has been a very, very disgraceful moment for British politics,” he told the BBC.
Sunak’s spokesman has said the U.K. welcomes and values Albanian migrants who come to the country legally, but that large numbers making illegal boat journeys to the U.K. are straining the asylum system.
In a statement after the meeting, Sunak and Rama welcomed progress to date following a taskforce action on organized crime and new U.K. guidance designating Albania a safe country, with around 800 migrants returning to Albania since December.
They also decided to create a joint team to assess Albania’s prison capacity until the end of April “with a view to returning all eligible Albanian nationals in the UK prison system.”
Rama has argued that easing visa requirements would help reduce the number of people arriving illegally.
In response to the spike in migration, some agencies are investing in programs that aim to offer opportunities to both countries — jobs for eager Albanians and a supply of remote workers for businesses in the U.K.
Elias Mazloum of Albania’s Social Development Investment group said that immigration is “a cancer.”
“We are offering chemotherapy after a lot of morphine used so far only has delayed immigration,” he said.
Under his project, 10 companies in Ireland will employ 10 young Albanians to work remotely in an apprenticeship paying 500 euros ($530) per month in the first year. Participants get a certificate from Ireland’s Digital Marketing Institute and then are hired remotely for 1,000 euros ($1,060) per month.
The vision is for the project to help establish a remote-work ecosystem in the region.
“Albania, and in particular the northeast region, has the advantage of working from a blank canvas” to attract digital nomads and encourage its young people to stay, said Declan Droney, a business trainer and consultant in Galway, in the west of Ireland.
A British project in Kukes supports small and midsize businesses in tourism and agriculture and will open a school teaching different professions.
The Albanian government has also offered incentives. Young couples who launch a small business will be exempt from taxes for up to three years, and couples who return from the U.K. will receive 5,000 euros ($5,300).
Mazloum’s organization has negotiated with Vodafone Albania to offer free high-speed internet to remote workers.
“The eyes cannot get enough from the beauty of this place — the food, the fresh air. This added to very hospitable people, ambitious youth who like to work hard,” Mazloum said. “Imagine if you give a little hope to the people here, what they could make this place.”
Sylvia Hui and Jill Lawless in London contributed to this story.
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