Albania has a problem with asylum. Between 2010 and 2019, more than 193,000 Albanians applied for asylum in EU countries. When you consider Albania is home to 2.8 million people, this constitutes a significant portion of the population.
The phenomenon peaked in 2015 when some 67,000 Albanians applied in just one year.
Compared to its non-EU neighbors, the figures stick out like a sore thumb. In 2020, Albania had more first-time asylum applications to EU countries than Serbia, North Macedonia, and Kosovo combined. Figures for Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina were just a fraction of Albania’s total.
While the flow has somewhat decreased when compared to 2015, Albania is one of the world’s leading contributors to EU asylum claims and the second in Europe. Between April 2020 and April 2021, the EU accession hopeful contributed 4,750 first-time applicants, not considering second-time applicants and those lodging appeals.
In the UK, 2019 saw just under 4,000 applications for asylum, alongside 6,298 pending requests due to be decided on. In the same year, 279 received asylum. The following year, in 2020, Albania was in the top five for asylum requests in the UK, with 3,071 requests in the first instance. Some 38% were successful in their claim.
As one of the countries with the highest number of asylum applications, it ranks alongside Iran, Senegal, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This doesn’t bode well for the Western Balkan nation who had been told to slash numbers to join the EU.
Albania has been consistently asked to step up efforts against “illegal immigration and unfounded asylum seekers”. The European Commission’s third report assessing compliance with pre-accession criteria, published in July 2020, said the government should seek to understand why so many citizens are attempting to leave the country.
Over half of Albanians want to leave
A survey published in June 2020 by the Regional Cooperation Council found that almost half of Albanians actively plan to leave the country. This means they are looking for jobs, applying for visas, or preparing to leave. Over 60% have a desire to leave, according to 2019 figures published by Gallup.
Main contributors to Albania’s ‘brain drain’ are issues with underemployment, wages, corruption, the education system, opportunities, and the rule of law. Despite this and continuing waves of migration, the Albanian government has not yet announced any policies to really tackle these problems.
For those wanting to leave, there are several options typically available. They can secure a job and apply for a visa, emigrate illegally, or apply for asylum.
28-year-old Landi (name changed at individuals request) chose to pay EUR 2,000 to be transported through Europe and into the UK inside the cabin of a lorry.
“I planned to go and work and send money home to my family. But I got caught. Now I cannot enter the UK for five years. I cannot support my wife and two children on €250 a month,’ he said.
Albania’s minimum wage is just the lowest in Europe at just €242 a month, with many forced to work for less in the country’s flourishing informal economy.
Others opt for asylum; some are successful, some are not. Across the EU, the average rate of approval for Albanian asylum seekers is 4%. While it might not seem much, it amounts to hundreds of approved applications every year.
Hundreds of founded asylum cases each year
The country still grapples with problems such as blood feuds and revenge killings, domestic abuse, and so-called honour-based violence. It’s also a top country of origin for the trafficking of women and girls.
A 2020 interview with Petya Nestorova, the Executive Secretary of the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA), highlighted the risks of sending victims of crime back to Albania.
“It’s important to consider all of the risks before sending them back to Albania…In France, women have been granted asylum after being trafficked because returning to Albania is seen as carrying risks… this should be used more,” she said, adding that “returning women to places where they will be ostracised is not a way to combat human trafficking.”
Statistics from VATRA, an Albanian NGO that works with trafficked women and girls, said that over half are rejected by their families upon return. Every year, women and girls are at risk of being re-trafficked or being driven into the hands of criminals due to poverty.
Another worrying trend is the apparent increase in unaccompanied Albanian children seeking asylum. An Albanian child rights organization, CRCA/ECPAT, recently sounded the alarm over more than 60,000 minors who have applied for asylum outside the country during the last 10 years. This is equivalent to one in ten of all under 18s in Albania.
“During the last 10 years, the numbers of children from Albania requesting asylum have increased exponentially, creating a generation of unaccompanied children, vulnerable to violence, exploitation, slavery, and crime,” they said in an open letter, calling on Parliament to open an inquiry into the status and whereabouts of the missing children.
Albania is considered a ‘safe country of origin’. According to the European Commission, this means that based on the legal situation, the application of the law, the presence of a democratic system and prevailing political circumstances, there is generally no persecution, inhuman treatment, punishment, or risk of indiscriminate violence.
But despite this, a number of asylum cases are being approved.
Trafficking, violence, political attacks
Exit spoke to an expert country witness who provided information on Albania to the UK Home Office and in court cases for more than 20 years. They described the numbers and reasons why Albanians are applying for asylum abroad.
“I see shifts in numbers and reasons for asylum claims. In the 90s, it was those fleeing blood feuds. They have decreased gradually over the years, but I still saw 10 such cases in 2020. Trafficking of women, those fleeing planned marriages, and being trafficked into prostitution is the category with the most cases. About one third were successful in claiming asylum.”
They continued, “There are many other reasons I have seen for seeking asylum; severe domestic violence, specialist health issues, fleeing loan sharks, police mistreatment, and attacks due to political affiliation,” they added.
When asked if they felt these claims were founded or unfounded, they explained that by the time cases reached them, they had been intensively questioned, and more dubious cases had been weeded out.
“I just supply the missing link due to cultural misunderstanding, for example, why didn’t a woman, forced to marry someone against her will, report to the police? It has to be spelt out in court that such a woman has usually had minimal education, has NO idea of her rights, in any case, her family would prevent her, and that anyway the police would not take her seriously, and just return her to her family,” they said, adding this had happened in several cases.
In terms of political issues, in 2020, the head of the Institute for the Studies of Communist Crimes and its Consequences sought asylum in Switzerland over fears for his life. His work, rooting out wrongdoing in the former communist regime and calling for justice, sometimes naming those in positions of power today, resulted in death threats against him and his family.
Tufa told Exit.al in an interview that “I have received death threats since 2017. They are former State Security officers from communism times who today lead Albania’s political and administrative institutions.”
Dritan Zagani, former police chief of a regional anti-drugs unit, was forced to seek asylum in Switzerland with his family after he pointed the finger at a local gang and the now former-Interior Minister Saimir Tahiri for drug trafficking.
The Commission speaks
European Commission responded to questions on this topic by stating that Albania has put in place measures to address the issue of asylum applications lodged by its nationals.
While not mentioning cases of founded asylum, a spokesperson said they include “tighter checks at border crossing points, thorough exit interviews, information on the rights and obligations linked to visa-free travel, and close cooperation with Member States of destination.”
The Commission added that the number of applications lodged by Albanian nationals has been continually decreasing over the past five years from 27,545 in 2016 to 6,970 in 2020.
In terms of Albania’s criteria for EU accession, the Commission said they continue to deliver “tangible and sustainable results” and “efforts for prevention and repression of human beings has intensified.”
While numbers may be decreasing, they still remain high and hundreds of Albanians every year are being granted asylum in European countries. Furthermore, concerns remain that little is being done to tackle the root of the problem which includes poverty, corruption, and, to quote the latest US State Department Report, the failure to meet the minimum standards to eliminate human trafficking and protect victims.