There’s something really bizarre about Prime Minister Edi Rama parading around Italy, posing for photos, offering to paint murals, and talking about how much Albania has changed in the last 30 years.
What exactly has changed Edi?
After the fall of communism, widespread political and social unrest coupled with food shortages led to Albanians seeking refuge abroad. Now that the borders were open following almost 50 years of closure, they sought to leave in droves. Many fled to Greece, some into the at-the-time Yugoslavia. Others stormed foreign embassies in Tirana, seeking political asylum and transport to other countries. Some 3000 Albanians entered the German embassy and were allowed to leave for Germany, via Italy.
On 7 August, the Vlora was docked in Durres after it returned from Cuba. Its engines were out of use and it was in the process of being repaired. Meanwhile, crowds had gathered in the port in the hope of boarding any ship to travel to Italy. With no one there to stop them, thousands boarded the vessel. Some jumped in the sea and climbed up ropes, others hung from ladders for the duration of the voyage.
The ship’s capital Halim Milaqi was unable to reason with them and set sail for Italy.
While Albanians may not be leaving on hijacked vessels, they are leaving en masse to escape corruption, poverty, nepotism, and a lack of opportunities. Exhausted from 30 years of the “same old”, these deeply patriotic people believe that the only chance they have of a decent future is in Europe or North America.
Much has been written about Albanian’s wish to emigrate and it’s a well-known fact that up to 83% of the country wants to leave. Almost 50% are actively reviewing or applying for vacancies abroad or are preparing to leave.
In fact, in 2019 a whopping 360,699 people left the country, equivalent to 12.4% of the total population. A similar number left the year before. According to INSTAT who published the data, the main reasons for leaving were financial insecurity, lack of opportunities, and general living conditions.
The Albanian diaspora is the largest in the world, with some 4.5 million Albanians living abroad.
Tens of thousands have residence permits abroad, hundreds of thousands have received second country citizenship, in some cases giving up their Albanian passport in the process. Thousands more try to enter countries illegally in trucks or by overstaying their visas and working illegally. Thousands more apply for asylum and refugee status, some with unjustified requests, but many with serious fears of political persecution, LGBT discrimination, issues with criminals, trafficking (which the government doe willfully little to tackle), and blood feuds (another issue the state tries to pretend doesn’t happen).
In 2019, almost 4000 Albanians applied for asylum in the UK, and 279 were granted the status. A further 6298 requests are waiting for a decision.
I had the opportunity to be a party to details some of the cases; the stories of survivors of sex trafficking and LGBT hate crimes were both genuine and truly shocking. I have seen files of individuals who have been mercilessly persecuted and refused justice due to differing political opinions from the governing party. And let us remember, this is 2021 and in a country about to properly start its EU journey!!
In terms of asylum applications in the EU, between 2010 and 2019, 193,000 requests were filed. The number of applications peaked in 2015, two years into Rama’s first mandate when people probably realized the way things were going.
A 2020 report on why people apply for asylum noted inadequate healthcare, not having enough money to meet basic needs, the government demolishing their homes, ethnic discrimination, and having zero childcare options meaning they are unable to work.
So when Rama was awarded a prize from the Governer of Puglia Michele Emiliano, forgive me for raising an eyebrow. Rama responded “I don’t know if I really deserve all this…” He then went on to say how things have changed in the last 30 years and that he couldn’t believe the pictures [of people during the mass exodus] were Albanians.
Let us also not forget that Rama comes from a family of communists, the regime who were directly responsible for people wanting to leave- not to mention widespread atrocities and human rights crimes. Let us also not forget that Rama told us that his father, who signed several execution warrants, was “on the right side of history”.
The statistics show that very little has changed. They aren’t packing onto hijacked boats, but they are leaving en masse via way of work, family, and asylum. I cannot help but think on what merit or basis this award was given, after all, Rama is just the Prime Minister of a country everyone wants to leave.