BAJRAM CURRI, Albania — Monika Mulaj’s son was in his second year at university in Albania studying to be a mechanical engineer when he decided to make a bold change: he told his parents he would leave his lifelong home for a new future in Britain .
“We had tried to accommodate all his requests, for books and clothes, food and some entertainment. But he was still dissatisfied,” said Mulaj, a secondary school teacher in the northeastern city of Bajram Curri, one of the country’s poorest regions.
Five years later, her now 25-year-old son works two jobs in Britain and hardly thinks about returning to his homeland. “Albania is in decline,” he complains to his mother.
His path has been shared in recent years by thousands of young Albanians who have crossed the English Channel in small boats or inflatables to look for work in the UK. Their odyssey reflects the country’s anemic economy and a younger generation’s desire for new opportunities.
In 2018, only 300 people reached Britain by crossing the channel in small boats. The number rose to 45,000 in 2022, partly due to arrivals from Albania, a country in southern Europe negotiating membership in the European Union.
Other migrants came from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Unlike many countries that encourage migration, Albania is considered safe by British officials.
Britain is attractive to Albanians because it has a better economy and better paying jobs than neighboring countries such as Greece or Italy. Many Albanians also have family ties in the UK. Birmingham, for example, has a large immigrant population from the Albanian town of Kukes, on the Kosovo border.
Bajram Curri deputy mayor Abedin Kernaja said young people are leaving because of low wages and the difficulty of building “a comfortable family life”. His two sons are in the UK
Xhemile Tafaj, owner of a restaurant on a scenic plateau outside the city, said: “Young people have no money to go to school, no job to work, no income at all.”
In such an environment, “only old men are left and soon there will be empty houses,” Tafaj said.
Northeastern Albania is known for its natural beauty of the Alps and green rolling countryside. The region is also famous for chestnuts, blueberries, blackberries and medicinal plants, as well as wool carpets and other handmade goods.
But those products offer little employment. The only jobs are in town halls, schools and hospitals, plus a few more in cafes and restaurants.
Petrit Lleshi, owner of a motel in Kukes, has been struggling to find waiters for two years.
“I wouldn’t blame a 25-year-old leaving because of the low salaries here,” Lleshi said. “What our country has to offer is not enough to build a decent life.”
Few migrants seek a visa. They generally pay smugglers 5,000 to 20,000 euros ($5,300 to $21,200) for the dangerous, illegal crossing.
Many migrants undertake the journey with the expectation of permanent employment, only to find out after arriving in the UK that they must work in cannabis cultivation houses for up to two years to repay the money from trafficking, according to reports from Albanian news outlets.
The steady flow of migrants has led to clashes between British and Albanian leaders in recent months.
British Home Secretary Suella Braverman described the arrivals as an “invasion of our southern coast” – words that Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama denounced as a “crazy story” and an attempt to cover up the UK’s failed border policy.
Albania also publicly protested what it called a “verbal lynching” by another British official who made comments about Albanian immigrants. Rama accused the new British cabinet of scapegoating Albanians because it has “entered a dead end with its new policies as a result of Brexit”.
Rama was in London on Thursday for immigration talks with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and accused British officials of “picking” Albanians for political ends. “It was a very, very shameful moment for British politics,” he told the BBC.
Sunak’s spokesman has said the UK welcomes and appreciates Albanian migrants coming to the country legally, but that large numbers of illegal boat trips to the UK are putting pressure on the asylum system.
In a statement after the meeting, Sunak and Rama welcomed the progress made so far following an action by an organized crime task force and new UK guidelines designating Albania as a safe country, with some 800 migrants returning to Albania since December.
They also decided to establish a joint team until the end of April to assess Albania’s prison capacity “with a view to the return of all eligible Albanian nationals to the UK prison system.”
Rama has argued that easing visa requirements would help reduce the number of people arriving illegally.
In response to the spike in migration, some agencies are investing in programs aimed at bringing opportunities to both countries: jobs for eager Albanians and a remote worker offer for UK companies
Elias Mazloum of Albania’s Social Development Investment group said immigration is “a cancer”.
“We are offering chemotherapy after a lot of morphine so far has only slowed down immigration,” he said.
Under his project, 10 companies in Ireland will employ 10 young Albanians to work remotely in an internship position that pays 500 euros ($530) per month in the first year. Participants receive a certificate from Ireland’s Digital Marketing Institute and are then hired remotely for 1,000 euros ($1,060) per month.
The vision is that the project will help establish a remote working ecosystem in the region.
“Albania, and the northeastern region in particular, has the advantage of operating from a blank canvas” to attract digital nomads and encourage young people to stay, said Declan Droney, a business trainer and consultant based in Galway, in the west of Ireland.
A UK project in Kukes supports small and medium-sized businesses in tourism and agriculture and will open a school teaching different trades.
The Albanian government has also offered incentives. Young couples who start a small business are tax exempt for up to three years, and couples returning from the UK receive 5,000 euros ($5,300).
Mazloum’s organization has negotiated with Vodafone Albania to offer free high-speed internet to home workers.
“The eyes can’t get enough of the beauty of this place – the food, the fresh air. This contributed to very hospitable people, ambitious young people who like to work hard,” said Mazloum. gives me a little bit of hope, they could make this place.”
Sylvia Hui and Jill Lawless in London contributed to this story.
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