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Europe Keeps Door to Poor Albanians Closely Guarded

Altin Raxhimi Tirana, Shkoder, Pristina and Barberino, Italy

Relaxation of EU visa rules benefits middle-class professionals but leaves poor and unskilled families as trapped as before.

Sofie Palija and her husband, Nikolle, spent a lot of time this summer mulling over which suitor would make the best husband for their 16-year-old daughter. Of their six children, two sons already work in Italy, sending about 500 euros back home every month.

The money is vital aid and has already helped the boys’ parents escape a life of unproductive drudgery on a farm in the mountains. Now they live in a poor suburb on the outskirts of Shkoder.

Their eldest daughter is also abroad, married and living in Attleboro, in the United States, while the second oldest is engaged to a man in the Bronx. “I hope I can marry this one abroad, too,” Sofie sighs, referring to their 16-year-old. “God knows how hard we have had it here!”

Since the troubles and upheavals of the 1990s, Albania’s economy has grown by 6 or 7 per cent a year, lifting many out of extreme poverty, creating a fragile middle class and making a handful of people very rich. But the fast pace of Albania’s development has bypassed families like the Palijas. They still see emigration as their main exit route from poverty.

Recently, the European Union announced it would relax visa restrictions on travellers from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, making it simpler, easier and cheaper for certain categories of people to obtain permission to stay in the bloc for short periods of time.

But the changes will not benefit poor families like the Palijas, lacking skills and connections. They will continue to face the same hurdles when trying to reach the West as before, and be forced to use the same tricks to get past them.

Meanwhile, critics of the EU’s proposals say the recent visa changes may end up reinforcing burgeoning divisions in Balkan society, afflicting the afflicted and helping those who least need help.

The middle classes - already doing nicely

The new EU visa regime will certainly be a boon for the middle classes and skilled workers. For the likes of businessmen, academics and journalists, obtaining short-stay and multi-entry visas will be simplified, meaning they will not need to supply so much paperwork in the form of bank statements, property deeds, work papers, advance hotel reservations and travel tickets when seeking permission to enter.

New rules are imminent as part of the package, which should make it easier for highly-skilled workers to get residence and work permits.

For all, the move to facilitate visa issuance means new limits on processing time, which should spare applicants hours of humiliating queues outside consular offices, and a cut in application fees, from the usual 60 to 35 euros. Students and pensioners will no longer have to pay at all.

The arrangement is due to come into force in January 2008, benefitting Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia. It follows steps taken by all these states to stem illegal immigration of their nationals to the EU. It falls short, however, of creating a visa-free regime, something they all seek.

Franco Frattini, the European Justice Commissioner who helped craft the agreement, says the deal is only a first step towards an agreement that will lift visa restrictions altogether.

But Kosta Barjaba, a political scientist working for the Albanian government, says the principal beneficiaries will be those who need help least. “The middle class has already had some access to move around,” he maintains. “It is the low-skilled with no connections who need it more and who will find it harder.”

Barjaba is referring to people like Arjan Stajka, a 37-year-old computer programmer now working in Tirana for the family construction business. A product of the emerging middle class, he travels abroad only for holidays or on short business trips.

His job in Albania is good enough for him. Stajka is not unusual in Albania these days. Well-dressed youths lounging in fancy bars, blaring Western music from the loudspeakers, are a common sight today in the capital, Tirana. Demand for new apartments there has not abated since the late 1990s and has given the city the look of a vast construction site.

The growth in consumption has powered an explosion in the number of shopping malls. More and more people are also buying second homes on the Adriatic coast. A group of millionaires, mainly successful entrepreneurs, has also come about as a consequence of the boom and the growth in private banking.

One indicator of the sharp rise in disposable income in Albania is the rising number of families spending considerable sums on the education of their children abroad.

More than 50,000 youths have studied in Italian universities over the past ten years, and most of their expensive educational and living costs have been covered by their families.

Another sign of the growth in incomes is the recent aggressiveness of local banks in offering mortgages in response to the expansion of the housing market.

Arjan Stajka has enjoyed the fruits of the boom in Albania in the five years since he left Italy. In the 1990s, he joined the exodus abroad, moving to Italy and registering as an illegal immigrant at a time when the Italian government was offering to “regularise” the status of such people.

He waited tables in a restaurant in northern Italy, studied computer programming in Milan, but then left for home as life there began to improve.

Stajka now bemoans the effort he once made at guessing the local Italian mores. “You start the day trying to do things like them and behave the way Italians do but it wears you out,” he recalls. “You may speak their language flawlessly, but you have it acquired, and they were born with it. You never get there.”

Now living happily back in Tirana, he has tried his hand at building computer networks and managed movie theatres and bars before starting work as an assistant to his brother-in-law, manager of a construction company, negotiating deals for land to develop. His travels in the EU are now easy and short, conducted purely for business and leisure.

Why everyone was so keen to leave

Migration patterns from the Balkans to the West have differed sharply from country to country in recent years. The phenomenon has been far less acute in Slovenia, already an EU member state, or in relatively prosperous Croatia, than in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania or Kosovo.

These countries have exported between 20 and 30 per cent of their populations. About one in every five Kosovo Albanians lives and works abroad, for example. Such figures are comparable in size only to Armenia and Moldova among the former Communist bloc countries.

Serbia and Montenegro are also among the 20 countries in which remittances accounted for more than a tenth of the national economy, according to a 2006 study by the World Bank. But Albania has offered the most dramatic example of economic migration.

Russell King, director of the Sussex Centre for Migration Research, in Britain, likens it to the massive migration of the Irish to America and England after the Potato Famine of the 1840s.

Very few Albanians braved crossing the country’s borders during the Communist era. Not only was it highly dangerous but it also exposed their families to political persecution.

But when the Communist regime collapsed and the economy virtually imploded, almost everyone wanted out. “For Albanians, leaving the country was not a choice,” says James Korovilas, an economist at the University of the West of England who studies the effects of migration. “They had to. They were left with nothing.”

By then, Albania had been sealed off from the outside world for 50 years. Suddenly, the country was drenched with seductive images of wealth beamed from Italian television stations to newly acquired Albanian television sets. Once the border fell, Albanians seized the opportunity to go.

Some climbed over the mountain passes into Greece, or packed onto old ships heading towards the coast of Italy. Many reached Italy on flimsy rubber dinghies, buying false passports and identity papers before they left and passing themselves off as Kosovo Albanian refugees who were fleeing persecution at the hands of the Serbs.

Now, out of 4 million Albanian citizens, around a million live abroad.

In the face of this mass exodus, there was little the Albanian government could do. Re-sealing the border was not an option. A scheme to create a few hundred seasonal jobs in Germany in the early 1990s was judged a failure because some of those who took advantage of the scheme disappeared and never returned.

More recent plans involving the issue of temporary permits to work in Argentina on farms or in French vineyards also did not work out.

Paulin Palija, Sofie’s eldest son, joined the exodus to the West at that time. He sailed in a rubber boat from Albania to Italy in 1998, aged 17, having bought a Kosovo Albanian identity card on the black market in Shkoder. When the Italian police caught his party on the shore, he registered under a new name and told police he wanted to join his cousins in Germany.

He and a few women were among a handful not sent back to Albania that day. He changed several construction jobs and when I met him this summer in Barberino, a small town outside Florence, he was chopping wood for Sardinian fireplaces.

In the countries they mainly went to, Albanians were greeted with unpopular news headlines concerning gang violence and trafficking in drugs and women.

Newspapers throughout Europe were awash with accounts of the wild crimes the Albanians were allegedly committing: Thugs burning the beard of an Orthodox priest in the Greek mountains, selling cocaine and pimping in Italy. The word for “Albanian” gained dismal connotations both in Italian and in Greek.

Not everyone thought this stereotyping of an entire nation was just or accurate. One Italian left-wing journalist, Gian Antonio Stella, compared this hostility to the racism that Italian emigrants themselves had experienced in the early 20th century in his 2002 book, The Horde: When We Were the Albanians.

“It is surprising that the wave [of emigration] was maintained when the hosting environment was so hostile,” Russell King notes.

It’s jobs – not controls – that will stop the flow

In order to win a better deal with Brussels over visas, Western Balkan governments have had to demonstrate a commitment to stop illegal emigration from their countries, mainly by reinforcing their border controls and improving visa security.

Brussels says if governments in the region make visible efforts to rein in illegal emigration and improve their economies, it will be easier to relax visa controls over the movement of people from the region to Western countries.

Albania, which found it hard to control the use and movement of rubber dinghies by people-smugglers, banned their use altogether. It was also the first European country to agree to take back people that had reached the EU from its territory.

The government further introduced computerised border posts and has pledged to equip all citizens with identity cards - a requirement that had lapsed since 1990 - within a year.

It has a long way to go, however, before its border controls can be said to be up to the mark. In the hilly pass where the border with Montenegro lies, in the village of Muriqan, solar power panels provide the only electricity for the two huts housing the Albanian border police. “They keep the computers working,” one policeman explains. What happens at night? “There is no electricity,” he admits.

Although Albania’s economy is growing, it faces major hurdles, which means the country is unlikely to be able to stem the outflow of its population in the near future.

One problem is power shortages. The country cannot meet the growth in demand for private electricity use. Households now account for about 70 per cent of Albania’s electricity consumption, which is growing overall by about 10 per cent a year.

If the economy is to continue growing, the demand for electricity will at least double, but the country has only a certain capacity to import power because of poor connections with the regional network, while the potential for domestic production is also limited.

Unemployment has remained at 12 per cent over the last three years. At least half a million Albanians out of a population of about 3 million remain in poverty, concentrated in the rural areas, where farm plots have been atomised as a result of post-communist land reforms and productivity is low.

A lack of significant foreign investment and industry, meanwhile, has limited the size of new businesses, few of which employ more than four people, according to Lois Labrianidis of the University of Thessaloniki.

Overall wages remain among the lowest in the region. According to MIGA, a World Bank unit, the average Albanian professional earned an average of 8,100 dollars last year and a skilled worker about 3,500 dollars, compared to about 14,000 dollars and 5,700 dollars respectively in neighbouring Macedonia.

Ilir Gedeshi of the Centre for Economic and Social Studies in Tirana, CESS, says there is still very little confidence in the ability of the state to provide for the population’s basic needs. No wonder, he adds, that so many want to leave for basic economic reasons and not because of lifestyle choices or professional opportunities.

Critics of the recently agreed EU visa reform maintain that the thinking behind the deal is fundamentally flawed and that the EU offer will only aggravate societal rifts and economic problems by “cherry-picking” the best educated and the most skilled.

“This happens with all rich countries,” Corrado Bonifazi, a demographer from the National Centre for Research in Rome, says. “They all want to get the best and the brightest.”

About 40 per cent of people that CESS interviewed recently said they wanted to move abroad – mainly because so few jobs are available. Only 19,000 of the 300,000 Albanians who entered the workforce in the past five years have obtained registered jobs in the country, though many more may be working in the untaxed “grey” economy.

Almost all economists agree migration pressures in Albania will only abate when Albania’s economy starts to deliver jobs and wages at levels comparable to those on offer in the West, which will not be for at least a decade.

The EU embassies in Tirana receive at least 220,000 visa applications from Albanians a year, according to Ditmir Bushati of the Axhenda Institute, a Tirana think-tank that has studied EU visa policy. He says half of them are turned down flat.

Poor Albanians like the Palijas remain caught in a bind. Nikolle and Sofie both applied for American visas to visit their eldest daughter in Massachusetts last May, on hearing that she was suffering from post-natal depression.

They met a consular officer who smiled and spoke good Albanian but who turned them down, saying he was not convinced they would not overstay in the US as illegal aliens.

“The new visa policy may not make things better,” notes Juli Vullnetari, a researcher at the University of Sussex who has studied the phenomenon of migration from Albania.

No amount of tightening up border controls looks likely to curb the phenomenon of illegal migration, either. New channels constantly open up, just as older ones are closed off.

Last July, the Albanian police arrested a group of policemen who had set up an illegal channel for emigrants to reach Greece. That same month, a group of smugglers was apprehended in Serbia, taking Albanians through Serbia and Croatia into Italy.

Panos Hatziprokopiou, who has studied migrant communities in Thessaloniki, believes that where there is a will, there will always remain a way. “Those who are restricted and want to go, will go, whatever the means,” he says.

Fellow Bio

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Altin Raxhimi

Altin Raxhimi from Tirana, Albania, is an experienced journalist currently working freelance from Albania for a host of English-language publications, including BIRN, www.reportingproject.net, Inter-Press Service and The Chicago Tribune