During my childhood in Albania in the 90s, the father of one of my friends was a human trafficker. We called him B the Cripple. The man had not always dedicated himself to this. Before the country changed from a communist to a liberal state, he worked shifts at the shipyard, where he made fishing nets and repainted boats.
In fact, he didn’t look like a smuggler: he was small, anemic, and had a limp. He did not choose to be a trafficker, the privatization reforms that accompanied the arrival of political pluralism forced those responsible for the shipyards to fire the workers, so B el Cojo and his wife found themselves without work from one day to the next. . He didn’t consider himself a trafficker either: he thought it was a job like any other. He was getting paid to help people get to Italy on inflatable boats, and he needed the money to feed his children. He was somewhat afraid, but he was not ashamed of his livelihood. For decades, Albanians had been killed by his state every time they tried to cross the border. In the few cases in which they succeeded, the relatives left behind were deported. At last, the Albanians were free and B the Lame was helping them realize their dream of living in a more prosperous country. He spoke of it with a bit of pride.
One night, Lame B disappeared and never came back. Some said they had killed him; others, that he had drowned in the Adriatic Sea, eaten by the very fish for which he had woven nets.
A blessing and a curse
For Albanians, since the end of the Cold War, migration has been both a blessing and a curse. It has been a blessing because, without the remittances from Albanian emigrants, their families would have had to deal with the devastating impact of “shock therapy” neoliberal reforms that promised to turn an isolated and failed communist state into a burgeoning capitalist paradise. It has been a curse because, contrary to what the propaganda of the British Conservative Party would have you believe, nobody likes to leave their country just to annoy the inhabitants of another. Even setting aside the dangers of illegal crossings, and even when legal routes exist, migration tears families apart, and the brain drain is an open wound in the country.
Every year, the Albanian state invests in doctors and nurses who soon after graduation leave their country, attracted by higher salaries and better living conditions in the West. When you support a points-based immigration system or agree that the UK should invest in attracting highly skilled immigrants, you are supporting a form of exploitation. Albanians will work and pay taxes so that the British elderly are cared for by Albanian nurses. Albanian hospitals will suffer from shortages so that UK patients can receive proper medical care.
Western governments don’t care about any of this. Migration for them is a statistic. B the Lame was one of hundreds of thousands of Albanians whose fate was sealed by migration. I am another one. For the British Government and its Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, we are both criminals.
An “invasion” of Albanianseven putting aside the plausibility of that metaphor in a country with one of the lowest rates of asylum seekers in Europe, suggests a sudden turnaround and a distinctive and perverse intention to target the UK.
The truth is that, since the end of the Cold War, Albania has had the highest rate of migration per capita in Europe, a trend that, according to the United Nations, will continue for at least two more decades. After the financial crisis of 2008-2009, when the EU strangled countries like Greece (where more than half of the migrant population is Albanian), remittances dropped considerably.
The COVID-19 pandemic dealt another blow to an already weak and highly unequal country, as many businesses closed and healthcare costs rose. It didn’t help that our Western European “allies” hoarded vaccines without worrying about the long-term consequences for other countries. But despite all this, in the summer of 2021, and after the withdrawal of NATO from Afghanistan, Albania – a country of 2.8 million inhabitants and one of the poorest in Europe – agreed to take in 4,000 rejected Afghan refugees. by the richest NATO countries.
It is true that in the last year the number of Albanian immigrants has increased, both in the EU and in the UK. This is alarming for Albania, but hardly something that would cause the collapse of a G7 country. Albanians know from information on social media that post-Brexit there is a significant labor shortage in the UK. They hope to replace the EU workers the UK has lost as a result of Brexit. They also know that the Pas-de-Calais has become an increasingly vulnerable point, since sharing information with the French authorities is now more complicated, the deterioration of links with European agencies means that British agents have to ask the Albanians data that they would have previously obtained from the French. In short, this is a very British problem, more specifically the Conservative Party.
Some 140,000 Albanians live in the UK today, from construction workers to doctors, from lawyers to cleaners, from businessmen to academics. The vast majority have integrated well into the host country: they pay taxes, stand in line, apologize even to inanimate objects, swear allegiance to the monarchy. When everyone is labeled as a criminal, their differences, their personal stories, their contributions to society, become invisible. The ideal of democracy is hostage to the ugly reality of martial metaphors. When an entire minority group is singled out as an “invader”, the integration project breaks down. Only violence remains, a world divided between friends and enemies, which fuels anger and legitimizes hostility.
Albanians have become the latest victims of an ideological project that imposes negative stereotypes, xenophobia and racism on minorities, and all this to hide their own political failures. Unfortunately, they continue to look up to the UK as a model of stability, liberal integration and good governance. You know, of course, the recent turmoil: through social networks in Albanian, I discovered the meme that presented Rishi Sunak as Prime Minister of the month. But they treat it as a one-off rarity. This could explain why, although the Albanians rightly took offense at being called invaders, none of them pointed out the paradox of treating the Albanians as enemies, on the one hand, and asking the Albanian government to cooperate as an ally, on the other.
In response, the Albanian authorities suggested that the state is willing to cooperate with the UK to resolve the migration “crisis”. In fact, they have been cooperating all along, as Minister Braverman herself admitted. I am skeptical about the likelihood of success in cooperating with a government that has created the very emergency it is trying to solve.
However, the real key lies in morality and not in effectiveness. Braverman’s comments were gratuitous, insulting and damaging to the tens of thousands of Albanians who contribute to their adopted country while carrying the trauma of leaving theirs. As UK citizens, we should call for his resignation. As Albanian citizens, we should ask the Albanian authorities to refuse to cooperate without prior apology.
Lea Ypi is the author of Free: Coming of Age at the End of History (Anagrama will publish it in Spanish this winter).
Translation of Emma Reverter