12 Feb 2018 / 12:16

Albanian Minors Risk Everything to Escape Poverty Trap

Aleksandra Bogdani
Tirana, Shkoder and Fier

Thousands of Albanian children have left home to seek asylum in the EU – claiming their parents abandoned them.

Elton* slumps in a chair with his arms folded across his chest, and explains why he returned to his family home in Shkodra in the north of Albania, from France last year.

“I wanted an education, but I was told: ‘Take your bags and leave.’ I was shown the door.”

He looks like any European teenager: sneakers and skinny jeans topped off with a bright T-shirt.

But in July, when he was just 16, Elton left his home without, he claims, his parents’ knowledge, in search of a better life – seeking opportunities that still have not materialised since Albania emerged in the 90s from the isolation of its harsh communist regime.

There are thousands of Albanian children who have done the same.

Data from Italian and French authorities, as well as Eurostat, show that in the last four years in Italy, France and the UK alone, there are currently around 3,000 Albanian children aged 7-17 years old who have applied for asylum, claiming as the legal basis for their claims that their families abandoned them far from the family home.

BIRN met and spoke with the families who, ashamed of their poverty and with no hope for the future, have sent their teenagers away to lie and say they were abandoned; the juvenile runaways who insist they will flee again no matter what their parents say; and families who borrowed thousands of euro to travel with their children and bid them farewell far from home in a desperate attempt to build a better life.

The young people we spoke to were united in their belief that Albania could offer them nothing in comparison to EU states – but all had their hopes dashed on arrival to unwelcoming, faceless bureaucracies.

Twenty seven years after the collapse of communism collapsed, Albania is still the second-poorest country in Europe, and families say their children face a bleak and uncertain future in a country riven with corruption, where only people with political connections or money for bribes can expect anything other than menial work.

Albania’s deputy interior minister Rovena Voda.

Queried by BIRN, Albania’s deputy interior minister Rovena Voda said that migration wave was a concern, but the government was doing everything in its power to curb it and to improve the economic conditions on the country.

“We are rigorously applying the rules for the visa free travel and we are protecting the most vulnerable groups. Economic growth is also the main challenge of our government,” Voda said.     

Elton is in the second year of his studies in high school in Shkodra. Even with a university education, his father Agim, 43, says corruption is so ingrained here that without political connections and money, even with a degree from Tirana University, his son would end up as a waiter.

In his home in Shkodra, Agim, says he had mixed feelings when he learned that his son had left for France to seek asylum.

“I was worried, but at the same time pleased, because to be honest, he is a burden for me,” he says. “When you can’t support you child, what life is that?”

Eurostat data shows that since 2008, income levels have fallen across Albania, and now stand at just 26 per cent of the EU average. Chronic unemployment stands at 14 per cent. A 2017 Gallup study ranked the country as the world’s third-most eager nation to emigrate – trailing Sierra Leone and Haiti.

A staggering 56 per cent of all Albanians want to leave the country, a Gallup poll found in 2017.

“Migration and smuggling flourish where there is a strong desire to leave the country,” Albania’s ombudswoman Erinda Ballanca told BIRNBallanca told BIRN.

“People don’t want to do this if they are doing well in their homeland,” she says.

In 2014-2015 there was a mass wave of Albanian and Kosovo Albanians to the EU fleeing poverty and lack of opportunity, hoping they would be granted asylum.

However, in 2015 Albania and Kosovo were declared “safe countries of origin” with the result that very few requests are now being granted – but migrants are undeterred.

In spring this year, Albania hopes to open accession negotiations with the EU. However, for many years the path towards European integration has been blocked by internal political rivalries and high levels of domestic corruption.

The current wave of unaccompanied children seeking asylum does little to improve the country’s international standing. The majority of these minors come from the poor and undeveloped areas of northern and north-eastern Albania. However, families in the suburbs of big cities such as Fier, Elbasan, and Korca have also been affected.

Once asylum seekers turn 18, they may apply for temporary leave and work contracts and their chances varies from their level of integration.

In the UK, a major destination for Albanian teens, most are obliged to return home, but most escape from the asylum centers and go illegal.

No future

Elton spent two months in an asylum centre in Nancy, France. Photo: Ivana Dervishi

Elton set out to France in the hope of a finding an education – a move that was not supported by his parents, as they are subsistence farmers who need all the help they can get.

Elton planned the trip with his uncle, and had no trouble crossing the border to Montenegro at Muriqan, he says. Together, they drove across Montenegro, Serbia, Hungary, Austria and Germany before they arrived in Nancy, a small city 800km east of Paris.

Albanian minors cannot legally travel without formal documentation stating parental consent. Elton had that consent form, but he said nobody asked for that at village of Muriqan on the border of Montenegro.

“We just showed our passports and had no problems,” he says. Elton had obtained the parental consent by lying to his father that he would travel to relatives in Italy for a short vacation.     

Elton, who speaks good English, says he had no trouble finding the asylum camp upon his arrival. From there, local government officials transferred him to a social center.

Unaccompanied minors are usually housed at children’s homes or with local foster parents. For those over 16, other arrangements may be made place, such as NGO centers or hotel accommodation under the guardianship of local social services.

However, once Elton arrived, his hopes of a new future vanished swiftly.

“From the off, the social worker said I had very little chances of staying. She explained I would have to wait nine months for a court decision [on my status]. I asked several times for the opportunity to go to school or to take French classes but they answered: ‘You can wait, or leave.’ When I understood I wasn’t going to get an education, I realised it was a waste of time and filed a request to come back.”

Most EU countries run voluntary return programs, coordinated by the NGOs IOM or Terre Des Hommes.

Police records show he is one of the 466 minors repatriated to Albania in 2017 when their asylum claims failed. Albanian authorities stopped a further 871 minors at Albanian borders in 2017. However, security measures alone will not stop the wave of migration among Albanian youth, say officials.

“Albania is not a country where these children can fulfill their dreams. The government owes us a better future,” says Ballanca.

Poverty trap

The house of a 15-year-old boy in Petove, Fier, who left home out of shame from poverty. Photo: Ivana Dervishi

Agim says he has worked hard all his life, but has not been able to save a penny. Then, after his son left, the police charged him with abandoning a minor. The case was dismissed when Elton arrived home.

Abandoning a child under 16 years old is a criminal offense in Albania, punishable with up to three years in jail, and the government is considering enforcing such sanctions more keenly after EU pressure.  

Agim scorns the government’s desire to seal the border, and blames it for his family’s predicament. “The lack of jobs is the main problem. You need to pay a bribe of 5,000 euro to get a job [in the public sector],” he says.

It is a common complaint. About 180km south of Shkodra, lies the village of Petove, in the Fier region.

The village is divided by a paved road and most people here survive through seasonal work in vegetable greenhouses or overseas remittances. The residents of both share the same problems, though: insecure jobs and the impossible expense of a decent education or future for their children.

Besnik* hesitates for a few minutes before opening the door of his house. “We are ashamed to be parents,” he says of his decision to send his son overseas. “But what other choice did we have?” he asks.

Besnik would not be classed as living in poverty, but last August, he sent his son Sajmir* first to Denmark, and after that to Italy.

The family took out a €1,100 loan and father and son first tried to cross together into Macedonia, but the police were suspicious and turned them back. The next day, they took a bus through Kosovo and crossed the Morin border after the driver of the bus hid the boy in the toilet.

After arriving in Denmark, Sajmir was scared, and begged his father to relocate him in an EU country closer to home. Besnik agreed, and travelled south.

“We left Albania in 40°C heat, but it was rainy and cold there,” says Besnik.

“I wanted him to stay in Denmark because it’s a nice country. But he was scared, and felt he was too far from home. He insisted on going back to Italy, so we took the next bus and travelled to Perugia.

He said goodbye to his son in front of a police station there, and for 10 anxious days did not hear any news. After a phone call came, the family were relieved, but their son’s adventure did not last long. Social workers in Italy had discovered that he had an aunt in Italy and dropped him at her doorstep.

“The aunt asked for him to be taken back to Albania because she hardly can raise her own children,” says Sajmir’s mother. “He cries every day and wants to go back.”

“He cannot stay here [in Albania] a day longer, he would end up in bad company,” she sobs.

“My heart is broken but I am only thinking of what is best for him,” she added.

Besnik has two neighbours: the father of a 15-year-old who has sought asylum in Lyon, France, and the mother of another 16-year-old boy who has fled to Turin, Italy.

“My son started high school and for three months all we did was fight,” says Gezim, 53, who is unemployed. “I could not support him financially.”

Gezim does not know how his son got to France, and does not want his son to come back home – that, he says, is an option that would be catastrophic for his son’s future.  

“Here, he lost everything – there, he is learning French and is waiting to start school. For a parent to separate from his child at such fragile age is difficult, but I can’t give him a future here,” he says.

Another mother says poverty forced her son to leave.

“My son would cry and ask to leave. He was really good at school, but he would come home with his friends and he was ashamed to tell them that he lived here,” she says, pointing to the rotten beams in her house.

‘Together with another child, they hailed us a taxi’

Albania’s ombudswoman Erinda Ballanc.

The parents’ expectations for their children’s future in the west are not based in reality; many believe that minors will be given food, shelter, education and a residence automatically.

But data obtained by BIRN shows that it is almost impossible for Albanian minors to receive asylum. Unlike adults, abandoned children do have the right to shelter and social services until they turn 18.

However, this does not come without a price. Elton says bullying was rife at the social center in Nancy.

His hopes of learning French, and going to school, were not quick to materialise. For ten weeks, he says, he used the center as a dormitory, while spending the day wandering around the city aimlessly. During his time there, the number of children at the center increased from 40 to 70.

When he understood that the he had no chance of an education, asked to be repatriated to Albania.

“Together with another child, they hailed us a taxi and put the plane tickets in our hands,” he says.

“We traveled 400km from Nancy to Brussels with a stranger.” Police at the airport were surprised that no social worker was with them, he says. When he arrived in Tirana, Elton entered the country as a tourist and was not interviewed.

The migration unit of European Commission did not reply to BIRN’s request for comment on the case.

Elton’s dream of being an engineer now seems more distant than ever. “My generation is delusional, they think everything will be ready for them,” he says.

‘He would cry every day for his brother’

Poor neighbourhood of Fier. Photo: Ivana Dervishi

In Lyon, Edmond Bogdani, the executive director of the foundation for the protection of children, SEA-AL, says young asylum seekers suffer great trauma as they drift through social centers.

He has housed 50 Albanian minors and nine other nationalities since he established his social center in 2013, and says many of those housed there are desperate to return home.

Once a minor has been sent to a social center, the authorities have to verify if he is actually an abandoned child, meaning they can’t speak with family members at all.

“Four months ago, we received four minors all at once: two brothers of 15 and 13, a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old. All of them had suffered psychological trauma and did not want to stay,” recalls Bogdani.

“I also had a case where [a family] left one of two twins. He would cry every day for his brother,” he added.

Bogdani says Albanians’ already slim chances of asylum and integration are fading. Of the eight minors he assisted in 2013, only four have obtained temporary leave to remain.

“The local council has not awarded any new contracts for young adults [to live and work in the region], including Albanians, during the last year,” he says.

Revolving doors

Endri* from Fier, was deported from Greece last year after 25 days in a solitary cell was. Photo: Ivana Dervishi

The repatriation of minors is a complicated process, which begins with an evaluation of the children’s families, and is finalised with the creation of a friendly environment to support the children once at home. But Albania seems incapable of addressing the problems of economic stagnation and unemployment.

Organisations that help the Albanian government reintegrate young, repatriated asylum seekers also warned that once in Albania, many try to leave the country again, which holds new dangers for them.

Jezerca Tigani, of Albanian and Kosovo for the child relief organisation Terre Des Hommes, says that children at high risk of trafficking should not be repatriated, and criticised the Albanian government for what she sees is as uncritical aquiescence to EU demands.

“Albania should review its bilateral readmission agreements with the EU counties,” she says.

“EU accession should not be used as a lever to repatriate vulnerable Albanian children.”

With the help of organisations such as Terres des Hommes and IOM, children are helped to reintegrate to Albania through microbusinesses for the family, and vocational training or university education for the youths.

However, such programs are restricted to a vanishingly small number of returnees – just 12 out of 466 in 2017.

Valbona Tula, director of the National Social Service Shkdora – the institution that evaluates the economic conditions of the families of young asylum-seekers, says: “We should visit families door to door to deal with their problems. Only then we will be on the right path.”

Good intentions aside, BIRN found that some of minors that had been registered by the social services as repatriated had left the country again.

A 16-year-old from a village in Elbasan had returned to Germany, while another youth repatriated from Germany told BIRN he had left for another country, which he refused to name.

“Now I am 18, and I can go whenever I want,” he says.

However, this is not the case 17-year-old Endri* from Fier, who after 25 days in a solitary cell was deported from Greece last year.  

Unlike the other youngsters we interviewed, Endri was in search of a job and not of an asylum center. During the repatriation process he met a social worker for Terre Des Hommes, which now funds his education he is enrolled on a 9-month welding course.  

“If there were no support, I would have to hit the road and head to Greece again, but now I want a diploma. I want to be somebody in life,” he says.

But even this ambitious youth has half an eye beyond the poverty trap inside Albania’s borders: “Welding is a sought-out trade, even abroad.”

*All names have been changed.

Article was enabled through the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence Alumni Programme.

Fellow Bio

/en/file/show/Aleksandra Bogdani.jpg

Aleksandra Bogdani

Aleksandra Bogdani has spent the best part of a decade covering crime, corruption and courtroom stories in Albania. 

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