The cost of Albania’s abandonment: Minors, victims of emigration

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  • The pressure to leave Albania, to escape poverty, has led to the emigration of more than 2,000 Albanian minors who have sought asylum in European Union countries. The routes these minors use vary, including heading to the UK by boat against a payment of 4,000 pounds per person. Local authorities seem to be neglecting this phenomenon with a lack of statistics and effective policies to curb it. Families often hide the departure of their children to avoid criminal responsibility.

    Authors: Ina Allkanjari and Dallandyshe Xhaferri

    A group of people gathered together, each joining a group that at night climbed into rubber boats. As soon as one was filled, it would depart; then the second boat would fill and depart, and so on. Then seven hours at sea until reaching England. The journey from Calais, the French port at the Strait of La Manche, to the shores of England cost 4,000 pounds, around five million old leks.

    Such a boat shouldn’t carry more than forty people. At 2 in the morning on August 15th of last year, on that boat, Anthony (this is not his real name) says that they had crowded about sixty people.

    The ferries, which passed close by, created waves.

    “Even though we had raincoats, we were soaked and our hands were numb.”

    They had two children, one and two years old, with their parents, as a family. “I held one of them in my arms. We all held our children during the journey.”

    If they were lucky, they would encounter British coastguards who would take them onto their frigates and bring them ashore. Meanwhile, the dinghy would be left in the water near the beach.

    The majority of those on board the dinghy, including Entoni and a friend of his, were 15-16 years old, minors. Regardless of where they ended up, they would immediately seek asylum.

    It’s difficult to pass through a place like an airport or take a regular trip as a minor without at least having authorization documents from parents, but throughout the history of illegal emigration from Albania, a significant number of those leaving for the West have been unaccompanied minors. It’s a phenomenon that’s not widely discussed.

    Cases are in the thousands, says Altin Hazizaj, director of the Child Rights Centre Albania (CRCA/ECPAT Albania), a Non-Governmental Organization in Tirana. “When it comes to abandoned children, there is no official statistic, but at least from what we see, the numbers of these children range from 2,000 to 5,000 and 10,000. We are talking about all of Europe,” – Hazizaj explains.

    According to Eurostat, the EU’s statistical department, 2120 unaccompanied children from Albania have sought asylum in European Union countries. Last year, 34 percent of the 11,600 Albanian nationals who applied for asylum in the EU were children. Such figures rank Albania fifth, immediately after much larger and more troubled countries like Afghanistan, Syria, or Iraq. Recent data from the UK Home Office, which reported 275 cases of minors from Albania being used for purposes of slavery in the first three months of 2023, really makes you think about the costs of this type of immigration.

    “Children are used as factors of poverty,” says Gëzim Tushi, a sociologist in Tirana.

    The departure from Albania involves a series of legal duty breaches by parents, ranging from neglecting parental responsibilities to abandoning compulsory education. However, very little is spoken about the extent of this phenomenon, and if you ask institutions in Albania, little is known. The Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, which should be concerned with Albanians worldwide, does not have information and delegates to the Ministry of Interior. The Ministry of Interior, in turn, states that the State Police no longer keeps statistics on minors found in Europe since 2013.

    It is also not known how many of the over 30,000 minors that the Ministry of Education reports as have dropped out of school since 2006 have emigrated. This institution has not broken down this number into children who only drop out of school and those who also leave the country.

    Table of the Ministry of Education, School Dropout Rates in Compulsory Education in Albania

    However, another piece of information from the State Police, stated that in the last four years, 287 cases of minors being reported missing or losing contact with their families have been reported, but in all those cases, the children have either been found or contact has been re-established, makes you think that the reasons might be elsewhere.

    The trend, seen in many Western countries, whether regulated by law or not, for minors who emigrate illegally not to be repatriated but to be included in integration programs in the countries they are in, has encouraged many Albanian adolescents to take that path themselves. This happens at a time when the pressure to leave Albania in order to escape poverty remains high.

    The majority of those who end up in EU countries, about a third, aim for Italy, a neighboring country with a long history of Albanian migration. In 2021, the number of unaccompanied minors from Albania there was 1186, in 2022, it was 1347. The vast majority of them were boys.

    Official data from the Italian Ministry of Labor and Social Policies for the year 2021

    The figures in that country are not as high as in the times when Albanians needed a visa to go to European Union countries, which favored massive illegal emigration.

    Official data from the Italian Ministry of Labor and Social Policies for the year 2022

    “Back then,” says Madjana Nuredini, a lawyer specializing in labor and migration law in Padua, “Albanian minors were more numerous than those coming from poor countries in Africa, but even now, in Italy,” she says, “Albania is fourth, after Ukraine, Egypt, and Tunisia.”

    To a large extent, such migration pressure is explained by the new techniques for obtaining residency permits in countries like Italy. Asylum is no longer an option for Albanians from Albania because they travel to the EU without visas, and Albania is considered a safe country. However, six years ago, Italy passed a law that prohibited the repatriation of minors who had immigrated there illegally and required the state to legalize and integrate them.

    “Now children are used to obtaining residence permits (in Italy), “permesso,” says Nuredini. “Being a minor helps them get their residence permits faster. Then they often help their parents obtain them.”

    In the summer of 2021, at the age of 16 and having completed one year of high school, Erlisi (not his real name, his initials are E. C.) took the ferry to Italy and set off with his mother. But when he arrived at the Police Directorate in the Milan area, he went alone, was accepted as an unaccompanied minor, and was taken to an asylum. He stayed in the asylum until he was 17 and a half.

    “I didn’t work, I just went to school to learn the language. I lived in the asylum with an Albanian man, and I talked to my family through friends I made.”

    He was afraid to contact his family directly.

    “I was scared whether I would get the “permesso” or not. There’s racism in Italy.”

    Erlis did not experience what Jurgen Dervishi from Divjaka did, who explains how he found a way to escape to Italy in 2013 when he was not yet 16 years old. He settled in Arluno, a town in the west of Milan, where his uncle’s family with residence permits lived. He paid a lawyer 1500 euros to sort out the paperwork and started working as a bricklayer with a construction crew whose owner was Albanian.

    “I didn’t attend school for a year. I just wanted a job.”

    After obtaining his residency, he managed to bring his mother to Italy.

    It’s a phenomenon that authorities, both in Albania and beyond, seem to struggle to address. None of the individuals we spoke to appeared to be concerned about dropping out of compulsory school years.

    For unaccompanied minors’ emigration, for example, the Penal Code can hold families accountable for child abandonment wherever it has occurred, whether in Albania or abroad. However, it seems that Albanian institutions are not very proactive in addressing this issue. The Albanian Prosecutor’s Office can take legal action against parents in cases of children leaving as abandonment of their role, but they mainly deal with rare cases where a decision has been made in a Western court for this matter.

    And in Albania, says Altin Hazizaj of CRCA, “families will not report the disappearance of children because they have legal responsibilities.”

    During our research for this article, many family members have told us that unaccompanied minors who leave the country are declared as orphans in the West so that parents are not criminally prosecuted either in Albania or abroad.

    Even in the West, according to Hazizaj, “all states pretend to do something, but in fact, they do nothing. [Now] the impression is created that no one cares about what happens to them.”

    To go to England, you can find many ways. You can do it like a 16-year-old from the north, who left for Vienna by bus last February with an Albanian passport and authorization from his parents. In Vienna, he took the plane to London with the passport of a 19-year-old Bulgarian and, when he arrived there, applied for shelter as an abandoned child.

    And everyone takes their own path. The family in Albania says the sixteen-year-old was adopted by a British couple who know him as an orphan.

    During the journey in the dinghy, where Entoni was, whom we spoke about at the beginning of the article, who had left France for England, he encountered a British border patrol boat.

    “They took us in the middle of the sea,” he told us in a WhatsApp call. “Then they took us to a camp. They held me for only two days, but they held my friend for three months.”

    He says it is not difficult at all to find networks to get to Britain.

    “With the people who directed me to the dinghy, I had contacts in Albania as well; we are from the same region. They are good guys and offered me to go there and work in a marijuana cultivation house, in Middleton, a town in the northeast of Manchester.

    “Several teenagers who are part of the same group do the same job.”

    Ky shkrim është pjesë e projektit që mbështetet financiarisht nga Zyra e Mardhënieve me Publikun e Ambasadës së SH.B.A. në Tiranë. Opinionet, gjetjet, konkluzionet dhe rekomandimet e shprehura janë te autor-it/ve dhe nuk përfaqesojnë domosdoshmërisht ato të Departamentit të Shtetit. / This article is part of a project that is financially supported by the Public Relations Office of the US Embassy in Tirana. The opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the Department of State.