Depending on where you look, it seems that between 60% and 83% of Albanians want to leave their country.
A recent study by Gallup found that Albania placed fourth in terms of countries its citizens most want to leave, beaten only by Haiti, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Even Syrians were more inclined to stay in their war torn countries, than Albanian’s in theirs.
Albania also sits at the top of the “Brain Drain Index” which measures the number of young, educated people who want to leave the country permanently.
32% of Albanians that fit in this category said they wanted to go, and never return.
So far, the Albanian government has done little to encourage citizens to stay or to fight the extraordinary levels of dissatisfaction that are driving such patriotic people to abandon ship. With the opening of EU Membership accession talks just around the corner, it would be prudent for the government to work towards creating an Albania that will not end up being deserted, the moment membership is granted.
But why do so many people want to leave?
It seems that one of the driving forces behind the mass exodus is corruption.
“Corruption is everywhere and you will never get justice,” say’s Lorena, a young woman who dreams of travelling abroad to open a business.
She adds: “If you start a business, someone can come from the government and give you high fines or ask for bribes- you have no choice but to pay.”
Klodian, who successfully emigrated to Australia where he lives with his family, explains that the government has “only enriched themselves and their relatives and nothing more. We are ruled by crime and the wrong people. It makes me beyond sad but people have no other choice”.
He adds: “The reality is that they have no other choice unless the reform that the EU claims to be implementing, actually happens.”
Thirty years after the Communist regime fell, the Socialist Party, a direct descendant of the Communist party, is in power and ruling with an increasingly heavy hand. Many Albanians feel let down by what has happened politically and furthermore, they feel hopeless than anything will change.
“Communism reigned but after it ended, everyone had high hopes, myself included,” one man tells me.
“The hope of living in Albania is dying from a 25-year-old accumulation of political drama, corruption in every sector and the culture of impunity,” he adds.
Arlinda, a teacher from Tirana explains that she feels abandoned by all of the politicians and their policies over the last 30 years.
“No one, not a single politician I can think of has ever worked for us or for our country- just themselves,” she says.
The recurring theme with everyone I spoke to is that they don’t actually want to leave, but they feel they have no other option as the quality of life is not enough for them here in the current climate.
Kristi, a 23-year-old student tells me: “Everyone knows that the big fish eats the small fish- we are the small fish. I want to leave because I want a better life and I know that can never be here.” She adds: “I might just come back here to die.”
After corruption and the failures of the political class, salaries and poor working conditions are the other main reasons for people wanting to leave.
“Nothing can be secured with a minimum wage of EUR 200- if you are an engineer or an architect with five years of experience, your salary is still no more than EUR 400. Also, if you don’t work more than 9 hours per day (without overtime) you will be fired,” says Lorena.
“My salary is not enough to pay rent, bills, and to buy food. My company doesn’t even pay insurance as it is required to by law, but I cannot complain as they will just make me out of the work if I do,” she continues.
Saimir explains how the “deep social inequality”, exacerbated by the political elites is ripping the country in two. “They get richer, we get poorer and more hopeless- that is just how it is”.
Elisa, an educated woman in her mid-20s says she feels intellectually downgraded. She explains how the lack of recognition and meritocracy in every aspect of society, combined with what she claims is politicians that treat people like they are stupid, makes her despair.
“I cannot stand the ignorance imposed on us every day- I cannot stay in a country that has lost its human values yet still brags about having them. I want to live in the EU where it is possible to be valued because of what you know, not who you know.”
Another young woman who works full time to fund her studies tells me that she can no longer bear to live in a country where you have to sacrifice so much to get educated only to then realise how worthless your diploma is.
“In Albania, meritocracy doesn’t work- you have to have a friend to help you or you have to become close to the boss,” she tells me.
These conditions and the situations that are forced upon everyday citizens, leads some to take drastic measures. Some try to travel to Europe illegally, others apply for asylum, and some resort to crime to make some kind of living for themselves.
Arber is 22 and was studying engineering when he was arrested. Found with a small amount of cannabis on him, he spent three months in prison before being released with a permanent stain on his record. He explains that he started selling cannabis and small quantities of cocaine to fund his studies.
“I couldn’t afford the books or exams, I got a job working nights but it was impossible to work 50 hours a week for EUR 200 a month and then go to school during the day. I thought by selling to friends I could make some extra money until I finished my degree.”
He was caught and now he has a criminal record, he has been kicked out from the University, cannot find work, and has had his hopes of travelling abroad to live dashed forever.
“I was desperate,” he tells me, “What else could I do?”