The only effect of Suella Braverman and Rishi Sunak casting Albanians as a threat is more xenophobia in the UK, and anger and perplexity in Tirana.
On a Saturday this past November, Albanians in Britain gathered in London’s Parliament Square to protest what they described as the hateful, xenophobic and discriminatory language used by the government around a perceived rise in irregular migration to the UK. While the protesters were keen to assert their belonging and contribution to Britain, the political Right jumped on the images of “foreigners” around the statue of Churchill. Never one to miss an opportunity to sow discord, Nigel Farage accused Albanians of disrespecting the war effort – in blithe ignorance of the two nations’ shared history.
A day later, on Remembrance Sunday 2022, this history was on display in Tirana, where a group of British and Albanian citizens stood solemnly in front of a war memorial as the haunting sound of The Last Post was played by a lone trumpeter. The purpose of the ceremony was to commemorate the lives of the British and Albanian soldiers who fought alongside one another as allies against fascism.
British-Albanian diplomatic relations have clocked their first centenary this year. Since 1922, it has seen joint participation in the war against Nazi Germany, a 51-year-long freeze under the Communist rule of Enver Hoxha, and, today, a wide range of agreements and collaborations: military exercises, tax treaties, reciprocal tourism, and membership of NATO, the UN and the OSCE.
Now, however, relations are strained on a new frontier: immigration.
At the end of October, British Home Secretary Suella Braverman called migrants, including Albanians crossing the English an “invasion”. Significant parts of British media ran with the rhetoric, soon crafting a narrative of a veritable army of young Albanian men disembarking on England’s benighted shores – looking to traffic drugs and sex, engage in organised crime, and, at the same time, live luxuriously off the generosity of British taxpayers.
While the lurid imagery was far-fetched, it is true that during the summer, the number of people crossing the Channel in rubber dinghies increased significantly. It is also true that up to a third of those making the perilous journey were from Albania – a relatively safe, albeit poor European country, and an aspiring EU member.
But while the Albanian mafia is very real and its tentacles spread throughout Europe and beyond, you can’t say that every Albanian entering the UK via the channel is a criminal – or set to become one the minute they set foot there.
For Albanians wanting to live, work, or study in the UK via legal means, requirements are tough. Significant sums of money in the bank, high salaries, and guarantors are just part of the process, meaning it is out of reach for the majority of the population. Many that receive offers from prestigious educational institutions find it hard to get the relevant paperwork to carry out their studies, and family members visiting Albanians resident in the UK often get turned away.
Nevertheless, the majority of asylum requests by Albanians are approved: 53% in the first instance, and of those declined, around 50% are approved on appeal. Among them are women fleeing horrific domestic and sexual violence that cannot get justice or protection such as those who have escaped from people traffickers and shunned by their families due to stigma. There are members of the LGBTQI community who cannot work, rent a home, or walk in public alone because of the harassment they receive. Then there are others who flee criminals and revenge killings, and the occasional case of political persecution.
But as the UK bars asylum seekers from working while their applications are processed, many begin their working life in the UK in the informal economy – in kitchens, as cleaners, in hotels, and anywhere where they can be paid cash-in-hand. Some, particularly those with a debt to pay for their transit, may find themselves working it off in cannabis farms or in drug trafficking structures.
Instead of starving the shadow economy of human trafficking, modern slavery and black-market labour, the UK’s policies on asylum are feeding it.
Recently, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a five-point plan, which will make it impossible for Albanians to seek asylum in the country. It also envisages stepping up sea patrols, and, perhaps most bewilderingly, suggests stationing British border guards at Albanian airports, something that has not been commented on yet by authorities in Tirana.
Communist Albania maintained a tight grip on its citizens’ freedom of movement and for many years, no one could enter or exit the country without explicit permission from the politburo. Those that tried were shot on site and their families sent off to prison camps.
This makes democratic Albania rather a poor audience for implicit and explicit demands from the UK to stem the flow of migrants. In a recent interview, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama told me that he can’t tell young people not to leave – as they have the right and freedom to do so – but he hopes that some will come back, bringing with them new skills.
“I don’t really see it as a tragedy. I see it as a part of this period of history and also as part of life,” he said, even as he deplored exploitative people traffickers.
Rama has been clear that the responsibility for stopping Albanians from entering the UK lies with the British government. Speaking to BBC Newsnight, he said the government was fuelling xenophobia, singling out a community and using Albania as a scapegoat for their own political failures.
In Tirana, my Albanian friends shook their heads, sighed, and felt ashamed of how they were being perceived by the world. Very aware of Albanians’ reputation as criminals and drug traffickers xenophobia and lazy stereotyping, they feel torn between pride for their nationality, embarrassment, fear and anger. But when I spoke to an Albanian friend living outside of London with his two young children, it was clear that the impact of the government rhetoric goes beyond embarrassment and shame. A successful businessman and long-time legal, resident of the UK, he was distraught that his daughters had come home asking why their friends were not playing with them, saying that Albanians are criminals.
I heard similar stories from other Albanians living throughout the country who said their young children had been reduced to tears and ostracised in the playground. As a mother to an Albanian citizen, I even experienced it first-hand when on the phone to the passport office. When inquiring about the status of her citizenship application, the gentleman on the phone made a joke about “another Albanian wanting a British passport.”
Needless to say, I didn’t feel inclined to laugh. It’s unclear how anything – illegal immigration, xenophobia, or the plight of asylum seekers – will be helped by Braverman’s and Sunak’s decision to single out Albania as a scapegoat.
Originally published on The Lead.