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Albania: Looking Beyond Borders

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Albania: Looking Beyond Borders

Since 1990, the Balkan country of Albania has been traveling a bumpy road from totalitarianism to democracy, with sharp twists and turns in migration flows along the way. Brain drain, human trafficking and smuggling, remittance flows, and legal and unauthorized movement for economic reasons are some of the major migration issues confronting the Albanian public and policy makers.

The economic and social consequences of this transition period have fed migration flows. A current snapshot of this southeastern European country, which seldom grabs headlines, shows an average annual economic growth rate of five to six percent over the last five years, and an unemployment rate of 13 percent in the same period. The population is shrinking; its natural growth in 2002 was 12/1,000 and the birth rates 18/1,000, compared to 19.6/1,000 and 25.2/1,000 in 1990. The share of the total population living in urban areas increased from 36 percent in 1991 to 47 percent in 2001.The male-female ratio of the population is almost exactly balanced, the population of working age is around 1.8 million and the labor force is just over one million. About 93 percent of the population has completed or is enrolled in mandatory education, which extends to the high-school level.

Despite the recent changes, Albania's 3.1 million population is still basically homogenous: approximately 98 percent are Albanians and two percent are ethnic or ethno-linguistic non-Albanian groups. The minority population consists of Greeks, who are the main non-Albanian ethnic group, Macedonians, and Serbian-Montenegrins. Two ethno-linguistic groups, the Vallachians (Aromenians) and the Roma, are officially registered as ethnic Albanians.

Three Periods of Emigration

Generally speaking, Albanian emigration has had three key phases in modern times: an early outflow of emigrants before 1944, a more recent diaspora of those who left 1945-1990, and a significant outflow following the 1990 breakdown of the communist leadership that had been in place since 1944.

Before 1944, the U.S. and some Latin American states were the main destination countries. There are only scarce data to measure the flow of Albanian migration before the 1990s. Most of the people who left the country before 1944 did so because of economic push factors, and the Albanian governments during that time were mostly indifferent to these flows.

Meanwhile, in the second phase, a sort of political migration took place. Most migrants from Albania in this period left because of political factors. These included disagreements with the country's communist regime and the political pressure they expected to be placed on them, in some cases because of their collaboration with Italian and German occupiers during World War II. The Albanian government heavily discouraged this migration by establishing political and legal barriers to migration and labeling it a crime.

Yet another phase follows, that of post-1990 migration. This can be broken down into the 1991-1992 stream, which was wholly uncontrolled, when approximately 300,000 Albanians left the country; the 1992-1996 stream, when a similar number migrated, most illegally, despite the temporary improvement of the economy and better border controls; and the 1996-1997 stream, immediately after the collapse of various pyramid schemes, which wiped out the savings of hundred of thousands of people. In the national unrest that followed, a combination of unemployment, poverty, and economic hardships led to the migration of around 70,000 people within a few months. Finally, since 1998, a gradual improvement in economic, political, and social conditions and favorable immigration policies in two key receiving countries, Greece and Italy, have increased legal migration and reduced illegal flows.

Diasporas and Destinations

When choosing a destination country, key factors for Albanian migrants have been geographical, cultural, and linguistic proximity, as well as legal accessibility. Previous waves of migration to far-off countries, from which no significant numbers of Albanians returned, appear to have played a key cultural role in convincing Albanians to lean towards more nearby destinations. However, opportunities to obtain better jobs and legal status have still lured some Albanians farther afield.

Greece, Italy, and other European countries were the main destinations during 1992-1995. An earlier preference for Germany, Switzerland, and other Western European countries has become less pronounced due to their trend towards increasingly restrictive migration policies. The U.S. and Canada emerged as relevant destination countries after 1995.

For Albanians, Italy combines the attractions of a culturally preferred and geographically accessible country. To many Albanians living under the country's communist regime, Italy was a symbol of freedom and the West, and Italian radio and TV broadcasts were the most important way in which Albanians were exposed to the West. Italian is the most-used foreign language in Albania, and Italian arts and culture hold a clear attraction. All of these factors help explain why Italy has been sought out by Albanian migrants.

Greece is another country within comparatively easy geographical reach of Albanians. Illegally crossing the Greek-Albanian border does not require a large financial investment. People of the two countries also share certain cultural and historical similarities. And while Greek is not spoken in Albania to the same extent as Italian, except in the southern regions where the Greek community lives, recent migration has increased the number of Albanians who can speak Greek. This has shortened the linguistic distance between these neighboring countries.

The Western European countries mentioned above were favored during the early 1990s because of the scarce opportunities of Albanians to design and implement a migration project and strategy. The U.S. and Canada became significant destination countries post-1995, due to admissions policies favoring skilled and well-educated migrants.

The Latest Waves of Migration

The outflow of Albanians expanded rapidly in early the 1990s as a result of several factors. The economic situation at that time had all the signs of a crisis: inflation was around 350 percent; GDP was plummeting by 50 percent annually; the unemployment rate was rising rapidly; and "rapid urbanization" favored the emigration of well-educated people.

Albania in the early 1990s had, as it has now, a very young population and a well-educated workforce. In 1989, around 19.5 percent of the population was in the 15-24 age bracket, but the country had (and still has) limited job-creation capacities. The West was by then the ideal of Albanian young people due to such influences as Italian TV, which was easily accessible. Consequently, after a half-century of political isolation, Albanians instinctively identified the idea of liberty with free movement.

These factors, combined with economic and political transformations in Eastern and Central Europe, encouraged migration. Albania quickly became the country with the highest migration outflow in Europe, when measured in terms of the ratio of migrants to overall population.

During the first decade of transition (1991-2000), an absence of governmental control of migration flows was apparent. The scant efforts to extend the legal channels of migration were not sufficient to reduce or discourage these flows.

By the present day, approximately 25 percent of the total population, or over 35 percent of the labor force, has emigrated. The country has approximately 900,000 emigrants, now residing mainly in Greece (600,000), Italy (200,000), and most of the remainder in other Western European countries, the U.S., and Canada. Albania's migration flow has, since the early 1990s, been five times higher than the average migration flow in developing countries.

Push and Pull Factors Today

The potential for migration from Albania remains high due to such push factors as unemployment and poverty. Around 30 percent of Albanians are currently below the poverty line, and half of them live in extreme poverty, subsisting on less than $1 per day. The unemployment rate remains high, despite a recent slow decline. In addition, illnesses are a major concern and access to medical care is scarce, especially in rural areas. Four out five poor people live in rural areas, and the poverty rate among young people is higher than average. Approximately 40 percent of the poor live in larger and younger households.

These mostly economic hardships have at different points combined with episodes of political instability to boost migration flows. This was especially true in the period 1997-1998, when labor migration was coupled with forced migration.

In terms of pull factors, complex and contradictory migration experiences are convincing Albanians of the limitations of the possibilities actually offered by destination countries. While not as powerful as they were in the early 1990s, the impact of pull factors is still considerable. Cultural motivations, for example, are influential. There is a simple urge to experience an apparently alluring outside world, especially among young people. This was particularly true in the wake of the isolationist years of the communist regime.

Education is a key pull factor. A growing number of Albanian students are enrolled in universities in Italy, other EU countries, and the United States. Satisfying career interests outside the job-scarce Albanian environment is another key pull factor.

Research indicates that Albanians view migration as both an individual and a family survival strategy. Moving abroad is seen as an investment in the future, creating opportunities for a second generation of "migrants"—their children.

Migration Policies of Albania

The emigration of Albanians is regulated by the 2003 Labor Migration Act, which amended the 1995 Migration Act. It legally defines the government's responsabilities with regard to migration and emigrants: information, assistance, facilitating their integration into the receiving countries' labor market, social and human services systems, and promoting the return of migrants' social, human, and financial capital.

In a wider sense, Albania's current migration policies are aimed at discouraging real and potential migration flows by creating employment opportunities. One path to accomplishing this is creating new jobs in the country. Another is extending channels of legal migration through signing seasonal employment agreements with neighboring countries, especially Greece (1996) and Italy (1997), and other EU states. Also along these lines, Albania signed an Agreement on Language and Vocational Training of young people through employment with Germany. This agreement, signed in 1991, is still not in force because of the failure of the Albanian beneficiaries to return to the country after completing their training in Germany.

Policies to discourage illegal immigration include informing and assisting potential emigrants with regard to legal migration opportunities, as well as encouraging decentralized co-operation between the local authorities of inter-border areas. Albanian authorities are also engaged in facilitating the entry, installment into the labor market, legal regulation, and social integration of Albanian emigrants in receiving countries. They have made persistent efforts to negotiate with these receiving-country governments and ensure compliance with international conventions on labor and migration.

In terms of taking advantage of the Albanian diaspora, the government promotes the voluntary return of successful emigrants and tries to harness their financial, human, and social capital to boost the country's development.

Policies of the EU and Neighbors

EU state policies that affect Albanian migration are currently mainly inspired by a philosophy of stopping, controlling, and reducing migration flows, as opposed to favoring and liberalizing channels of legal migration. These policies are feeding a legal and institutional asymmetry in the global migration system, since they have resulted in an increase in illegal channels and flows of migration. In sending countries such as Albania, labor migration is considered an economic and social phenomenon, while in receiving countries it is considered a risk to public safety. Due to the EU's increasingly restrictionist policies, the flow of regular immigrants from Albania to Italy and Greece is currently declining.

There were several key channels of Albanian migration in the extremely busy period of 1990-1998. First, many remained in destination countries after the expiration of their tourist or other type of visa.

It is estimated that Italian consulates issue 35,000–50,000 visas per year to Albanian citizens, and Greek consulates about 60,000–70,000. Recently, Greek consulates in Albania started to issue visas for seasonal employment of Albanians in Greece, especially in areas along their common border. This is expected to reduce the number of "tourists" who become unauthorized immigrants. A contradictory trend is visible in Italy: the number of work visas issued has been cut after recent revisions to migration legislation, and the number of "tourists" transformed into unauthorized immigrants is consequently expected to increase. Other Albanians illegally cross state borders by taxi, ship, or airplane. Approximately 5,000 Albanians a month entered Greece and 1,500 entered Italy in the period 1991-2003, both legally or illegally. There are illegal border crossing by speedboat from ports and coastal cities (Vlora, Durrës), mainly to Italy and to a lesser extent to Greece (from Saranda). Strong measures to combat human smuggling have been taken in recent years by the Albanian, Italian, and Greek governments. Claiming Kosovar identity has been another important form of clandestine migration from Albania, especially since 1999, when Western countries started taking in Kosovar refugees.

Legal and Illegal Immigration

A high proportion of Albania's immigrants were unauthorized in the high-volume period of 1990-1998. Out of an estimated 150,000 Albanian immigrants in Italy in 1998, only some 82,000 were registered with authorities. The corresponding figures for Greece were 10,000 out of 400,000 at the end of 1997.

Italy and Greece changed their migration legislation in ways that promoted legalization of all illegal immigrants in their territory after 1999. By the end of 2003 there were 160,000 documented Albanian immigrants out approximately 200,000 in Italy, and 300,000 out of an estimated 600,000 in Greece.

Brain Drain

The specter of brain drain looms large over Albanian migration. In the period 1990-2003, approximately 45 percent of the professors and researchers at universities and institutions emigrated, as did more than 65 percent of the scholars who received PhDs in the West in the period 1980-1990. Thousands of university graduates left as well. The majority took along their family members. The reason for this migration is simple: a lack of employment opportunities at home. If the country's economic and social situation does not improve, Albania's brain drain will continue to be a concern, as Albanian legislation currently poses no obstacles to migration and pull factors look likely to continue to draw the educated.

This development has social and economic costs for Albania. High-skilled emigrants to the U.S. and Canada are taking with them a considerable amount of money, which represents a net export of capital. It is also a drain of those who would otherwise likely become leaders and domestic investors, promoting Albania's stability and development.

Moreover, studies show that once abroad, many highly educated emigrants do not work in their areas of specialization, including 74 percent in Greece, 67 percent in Italy, 58 percent in Austria, and 70 percent in the United States. While a few well-educated and high-skilled emigrants have succeeded in finding a job that matches their expertise, in general, Albania's "brain drain" is emerging as "brain waste."

Human Smuggling and Border Controls

Albania is part of Eastern Europe, many of whose countries became the source of clandestine migration to EU countries in the 1990s. The expansion of the EU in May 2004, with more open borders, is expected to deeply affect this issue, as Europe's gatekeepers are moving eastward and competition to enter the European labor market rises among citizens of the new EU and non-EU countries.

As part of this illegal migration, smugglers ferry fee-paying migrants from Albania across the Adriatic to Italy in speedboats. Human traffickers use the same route to move young women in the direction of Western Europe countries to work as prostitutes. These sophisticated and large-scale smuggling and trafficking operations are the business of several national, regional, and international gangs operating in the region. They are well-organized and very similar to the gangs operating along to the Czech-German border and other East-West European borders.

While Albania was long considered a source of smuggled migrants and a transit country from the East to the West, this has recently changed. It is now considered only a transit country, due to the successful cooperation of anti-smuggling and anti-trafficking networks, coalitions, and organizations. For its part, Albanian government has since 2002 added tough measures to reduce the illegal migration and trafficking of human beings, as well as to halt drug trafficking.


Albanian emigrants are known for their tendency to save money. The average yearly savings for long-term emigrants' families was 5,056 euros in 2002, which amounted to approximately 26.9 percent of their yearly income. They save part of this money, and send part of it home. The flow of migration remittances increased from $377.9 million in 1994 to $780 million in 2003. Given the weakness of Albania's banking system, remittances are mainly sent to the country through informal channels. The tendency to transfer money through formal channels has increased only in recent years, because of banking sector reforms and the decrease of emigrants' visits to their families in Albania.

Remittances are mainly used to meet daily family needs and improve quality of life, enlarge or construct new houses, and maintain traditional family ceremonies. Only a small part of them are deposited in the shaky banking system. In only a few cases are remittances invested in real estate, production, and the service or agricultural sectors. Such a model of remittances use alleviates family poverty, but does not create new jobs through investment, which would in turn boost incomes and thereby possibly prevent new migration flows. An individual, family, and local remittances dependency has been created, because remittances are not used as incentives to encourage economic and social development. The government intends to increase the impact of remittances on the country's development through legal, financial, fiscal, and institutional initiatives. However, these initiatives are still being drafted and do not appear likely to become reality immediately.

Immigrants in Albania

According to official statistics offered by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, approximately 6,000 foreigners entered Albania as migrant workers in the period 1996-2003. They are mainly employed in the construction, trade, service, and education sectors. Around 75 percent of them come from Turkey, China, Egypt, other Arab and Islamic countries, and EU countries. The latter are mostly specialists working for Western companies that operate in Albania. The majority of foreign immigrants are employed in Tirana, the capital of the country, and a few other big cities. Employment of foreigners is regulated by a 1999 Act that creates a liberal, attractive, and favorable legal framework for hiring such workers.

Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Albania's laws provide for the settlement of refugees and asylum seekers. Albania has acceded to the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its Protocol. It has also signed re-admission agreements with Italy and Greece, taking responsibility for deporting illegal immigrants from third countries who are entering Italy and Greece via the Albanian border. Albania is in process of signing similar agreements with the EU and the UK. At the end of 2003, there were around 300 refugees in the country, mainly Albanians from Kosovo and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, as well as citizens from Iraq and Turkish Kurds.

The period of time Albanian migrants spend abroad mainly seems to depend on the degree to which they can meet their own goals. There has not been significant return migration, meaning that migration of Albanians has tended to last more than 10 years. In some cases, the duration of their migration appears to hinge on developments in Albania. No matter what their emigration projects, analysts believe that a significant number of these Albanian emigrants could return home as soon as they see some economic improvement in their home country.


Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs of Albania, Tirana.
IOM Mission, Tirana.
IOM Mission, Rome.
Albanian Centre for Migration Studies, Tirana.
Centre for Economic and Social Studies, Tirane.
Provincial Observatory of Immigration, University of Lecce, Italy.
INSTAT, Institute of Statistics of Albania, Tirana.


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