Fatlum, a 60-year-old electrician living in Kukës county in the mountains of northern Albania, is sympathetic to the local young men who have tried their luck at illegally crossing the English Channel for an uncertain future in the UK.
“They have relatives there,” he said at a roadside café overlooking terraced valleys where there is little employment other than poorly paid agricultural jobs. “They go for honest work. Only those with inattentive families may end up with the drug gangs.”
There is a noticeable dearth of 20-something men in Kukës and almost everyone in the region appears to have relatives among the roughly 150,000 Albanians estimated to live in the UK, part of a national exodus that has jumped this year.
According to UK government figures, the number of Albanians arriving illegally via the Channel jumped 43 per cent between May and September this year. Suella Braverman, the home secretary, called the wave an “invasion” and described many of the migrants as “criminals”, leading to a an angry response from Albanian prime minister Edi Rama.
Situated at a crossroads between Greeks, Turks and Slavs, Albanians have a tradition of outward migration that dates back centuries. More recently, a generation took to the road in the 1990s after decades of extreme poverty and isolation under the Communist regime of Enver Hoxha.
This was followed by another exodus of people fleeing economic hardship, then another as ethnic Albanians fled war in neighbouring Kosovo around 2000. According to Instat, the Albanian statistics institute, about a third — or 1.7mn — of all Albanians now live in the diaspora.
For those who remain in the country, the average monthly salary is 60,000 Lek, or £450 per month, according to Instat. However, in remote rural areas such as Kukës, pay can be significantly lower and many people make ends meet through extra jobs that are not reflected in the official statistics.
Fatlum, who declined to give his full name, survives by looking after the houses of his three brothers working in London — two as electricians and one as a bus driver. “The big red double deckers,” he says as he produces a plastic bottle of fruit schnapps, or raki — from the boot of his BMW, which has UK plates.
The contrast between the economic opportunities available in remote valleys such as Kukës and the UK is enormous, said Edval Zoto, an independent consultant who is running a new UK government-funded outreach programme in the region.
“The situation in Kukës is at a watershed,” he explained. “Institutions crumble. Schools built for 300 kids now have 50. Jobs disappear, as do family safety nets. Tirana University closed its local branch. There is no career coaching, no vision for life locally.”
He added that the region’s young men are tempted by a world of easy money portrayed by traffickers using glitzy images and videos in a sophisticated social media campaign on Instagram and TikTok.
“Seen from rural northern Albania, London is unspeakably rich . . . and they do consume a lot of drugs,” Zoto said, adding parents in the area are terrified that their sons will be attracted by drug gangs.
“Albanian society is astonished at those TikTok videos,” he said. “They glamorise crime.”
The UK-funded programme, worth £8.3mn over four years, aims to counter the gangs’ social media campaigns as well as helping local youth find meaningful employment in Albanian businesses. This includes developing local tourism by training mountain rescue workers and guides, opening a tourist information centre and creating a youth centre where young people can learn languages and computer skills.
In the shorter term, while winter may slow migration, local experts expect the numbers to jump again next year.
Once an expensive procedure costing up to £20,000, involving fake documents, border bribes and flights or trips in box trucks, this year the cost of a UK trip has dropped to about £5,000 as smugglers instead use North African small boat operators in the Channel, widening the appeal of the route.
In a recent video, Alastair King-Smith, the UK ambassador to Albania, pleaded with Albanians not to believe the traffickers. “What you’re being shown on social media is not the reality . . . Do not go illegally,” he said.
Albania’s prime minister, who disputes British estimates of the numbers of Albanians crossing the channel, said in an interview with the Financial Times that he has discussed ways to crack down on drug gangs with successive British governments, but his proposals were never followed up.
“Back when Boris Johnson was foreign secretary, he (brought up) Albanian crime in London,” said Rama. “I told him, OK. Bring six professionals from your agencies to Tirana. We will put them in an office with six of our people, [with] full access to all our criminal records.”
He added that the proposal was also made to Theresa May, then prime minister, and to Priti Patel, former home secretary, but the joint task force never materialised.
“With a few people undercover in Kukës, you get whom to call, who is waiting from that side,” he said. “If you have the Brits [on board] you connect the dots. We are not talking about a million refugees. This is a small community.”
However, during Rama’s tenure Albanian gangs have built on a decades-long tradition of cultivating and exporting cannabis to create a powerful global trafficking network, according to a report by the US State Department.
“Albanian nationals play an outsized role in international narcotics trafficking and organised crime networks, and Albania is a key element of the Balkan route of drug trafficking into Western Europe and the United Kingdom,” it said.
“Relatively weak rule of law, corruption, and a high rate of unemployment are the primary drivers behind Albania’s drug control problem,” it added.
Rama rejects the allegations but Albania’s opposition Democratic party accuses the prime minister of building a corrupt and autocratic regime during his nine years in office, leaving average Albanians with little chance to get ahead except by leaving the country.
A rally called by the party to protest against corruption, poverty and emigration outside Rama’s office attracted tens of thousands on Saturday.
Aldo Bumçi, the Democratic party’s former foreign and justice minister, accused the West of turning a blind eye to Rama’s transgressions because Albania is a loyal Western ally in an area of instability.
“[Rama] has money, he is unbeatable, and the internationals are not saying anything,” said Bumçi. “That is why people are leaving in these biblical numbers.”