It is very important at this stage to briefly mark the terminological difference between an immigrant and a refugee. As we stand now by definition war refugees come from Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Eritrea. Refugee is a person who refuses to turn back to his country due to severe risk of life because of an armed conflict or other specific conditions linked to this.
During past centuries Albania has experienced many migration waves, the most considerable during the XV – XVIII century after the decapitation of the Albanian leader and fighter against Ottoman Empire Gjergj Kastriot Skenderbeu (1405-1468), where a significant amount of the population left the country heading to South of Italy mostly in the Region of Calabria, in Sicilia, Basilicata and Molise. Between the XVII and XX century some other popular destinations were Turkey and later on the United States and South America.
It is to be mentioned that after the World War II, the communist regime set strict laws of isolation, severely punishing each and every attempt of living in the country and emigration was outlawed. If a person would succeed to illegally cross the border, his family left behind would be prosecuted, deported and suffer consequences of that action.
Albania came out of the World War II with a population of 1.1 million and through the high birth rates which were the highest in Europe it reached 3.2 million in the early ’90s. This way, the democratic movement of the early‘90s found Albania with a very young population. 19.5 percent was in the 15-24 age bracket with a very high unemployment rate, deep poverty and consequently with the fall of the communist regime, a very high demand to emigrate.
Between 1989 and 2001 Albania had two major emigration waves. In total roughly 800k people emigrated as a form of foreign embassies break-ins and massive departures by ships in the early ‘90s. Italy’s port of Bari, the most common reaching port receiving immigrants from Albania, has witnessed in those years many thousands of Albanians who took the dream trip to reach Italian shore and from there, many other Western European Countries. Many did however not succeed and were lost in the sea.
The same happened in 1997 following a domestic civil unrest. The cutbacks on the sailings to cross the Adriatic resulted in many people illegally crossing the border with Greece where Albanians constitute the 60% of immigrants with an average of 600k settled in the area. It is to be mentioned that Albania’s migration flow has been five times higher compared to other developing countries.
During the Kosovo crisis in 1999, approximately 1 million people were deported from the country, from which 500k reached Albania. It was unbelievable to see how to my view this was managed by the authorities in a very short period. This was one of the greatest achievements Albania has ever had with regards to refugee’s settlement.
In 2001 another wave of immigrant crossed Albanian border with FYROM. Around 2000 persons were accommodated in transit reception facilities along the border between the two countries. They were never reported in media. As for many other countries, due to strict European immigration laws Albanian immigrants’ eyes turned over United States and Canada. According to the last 2011 Census Albania consists of 2,8 million inhabitants.
Albania is now facing a new moment in history. From being a country of origin it is now developing into a bridge to other countries or even a destination for many emigrants arriving from different parts of the world. They choose Albania compared to other neighboring countries in the hope to reach the EU.
There are many asylum seekers and refugees. According to official statistics of the Albanian Ministry of Interior the number of migrants entering the country illegally reached to 1600 by the end of October in 2014, 572 of these come from Syria. In the last year 144 people have requested and are referred to as asylum seekers, from these only 32 are Syrians.
Personally speaking, for many years now as Albanians we have been living with this reality of split up families, remittances support provided by the relatives who left their homes for a better life and more employment opportunities abroad. It is common to see many old couples who now live alone as their children are emigrants in other countries. They have faced the difficulties of integration and survival in a new context, through hard work in countries where they have many opportunities compared to what home offers. Migration is not only a wish, it’s often the only way out for many people who have nothing left to lose but life.