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Embracing Emigration: The Migration-Development Nexus in Albania

Embracing Emigration: The Migration-Development Nexus in Albania

LeePhelps MountainsofTirane Flickr

Poverty and unemployment have driven more than one-third of Albania's population to emigrate in the last 25 years. (Photo: Lee Phelps)

A recent surge in the number of Albanian asylum seekers driven to leave by economic motivations points to the country’s ongoing struggle to increase economic growth and job creation. A country of entrenched poverty, Albania is one of the poorest in Europe, with a rising poverty rate of 17.9 percent and a youth unemployment rate of nearly 32.5 percent in 2014. Albania currently has one of the world’s highest emigration rates, relative to its population, at -3.3 migrants per 1,000 people, and a total emigrant population of more than 1.25 million in 2014, according to UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs data. In recent decades, hundreds of thousands Albanians have moved to countries that appear to offer more opportunities, validating survey results indicating that many considered emigration as the only way to escape the country's chaotic economic and political situation.

The 2008 financial crisis derailed much of the positive economic growth Albania had experienced since the end of the communist regime in 1990 and spurred flows of both new emigration and more than 150,000 returnees as the economies of Greece and Italy—the main destinations—were particularly hard hit. In the first half of 2015, thousands of Albanians sought “economic asylum” in the European Union, mostly Germany, to escape the desperate living conditions in Albania. At the same time, the number of refugees and asylum seekers transiting through Albania en route to the European Union from Syria and other Middle Eastern conflicts increased 20-fold.

Despite the serious and ongoing problem of political corruption, as an EU-candidate country, Albania has put much effort into aligning its policies on migration and asylum to international standards. With its struggling economy, the government has moved to link its migration and development policies to capitalize on both the experience gained abroad by returnees and its overseas diaspora communities.

This country profile reviews Albania’s migration history, before exploring current drivers of emigration and the recent rise in the number of asylum seekers and returnees. It then examines changes to government policy and their impact on the migration-development nexus.

Albania’s Long History of Emigration

International migration has been a historical constant for Albanians, starting with a mass out-migration in the 15th century, and continuing during the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Between 1468 and 1506 following the death of national hero Skanderbeg and the Ottoman invasion of Albania, 200,000 Albanians (one-quarter of the country’s then total population) moved to the Dalmatian Coast, Greece, and Italy. Several centuries later, during a period of major emigration from the second half of the 19th century on, large Albanian diaspora communities were established, significantly in Athens, Bucharest, Cairo, Istanbul, and Sofia. These permanent emigrants continued to play an important role in Albania’s economic, social, and political life. At the turn of the 20th century, Albanians began migrating to more distant countries including the United States, Argentina, and Australia. By the mid-1940s, 60,000 Albanians (mainly from southern Albania) were living in the United States. During the communist regime (1945-1990), international migration from Albania largely stopped as moving abroad was outlawed and punishable by imprisonment for treason. Consequently, the collapse of the socialist system, the immediate opening of the country, and the radical and chaotic transformation of the economy produced massive migration flows as people sought a better future, either abroad or elsewhere in Albania.

Figure 1. Map of Albania

Source: United Nations, Map of Albania, No. 3769 Rev. 7, June 2012, available online.

Post-Communism Migration

Albania has the highest migration flow in Europe. One-third of the population has left the country in the last 25 years leaving a resident population of 2.89 million. The number of emigrants is now higher than the resident Albanian labor force, which in 2014 was around 1.07 million. The accumulation of migration potential during the communist era and its explosion after the fall of the regime explains the intensity and evolving character of contemporary Albanian migration. Much of this outflow was irregular, as Albanians crossed into other countries, chiefly Greece and Italy, without authorization.

The post-communism migration phase can be broken down into a series of “intense, irregular, and rapidly evolving,” episodes, according to a previous study by the author. The first occurred in mid-1990, when nearly 5,000 Albanians entered several Western European embassies in the capital Tirana, and were granted refuge in those countries. The second took place in March 1991 when approximately 26,000 Albanians, mostly young men, crossed the Adriatic Sea to southern Italy in overcrowded boats. The Italian government also treated these arrivals as refugees. The third migration peak occurred in 1997 with the collapse of a pyramid savings scheme. Hundreds of thousands of Albanians involved lost their savings, calculated at approximately USD $2 billion, or 15 percent of Albania’s gross domestic product (GDP). Due to the resulting economic hardships, unemployment, and poverty, around 70,000 Albanians chose emigration as the only route to economic survival.

The Kosovo refugee crisis marked the fourth episode in 1999. Unlike the earlier events of mass emigration, this episode saw more than 400,000 Albanian Kosovars cross the border into Albania between late March and June fleeing the forces of Serbia’s Slobodan Milošević. By year’s end the majority had returned to Kosovo, but the major inflow and subsequent destabilization of Albania, financial hardship, and lack of resources drove many Albanians to leave, largely to Northern Europe. Emigration motivations in the immediate post-communist era thus varied from economic factors and poor living conditions to dissatisfaction with the political system and political violence.

Several geographic patterns of emigrant origins within Albania emerged in the course of this migration. First, the heaviest emigration (mainly to Greece) occurred from southern Albania, close to the Greek border. Northern Albania also experienced considerable migration, largely to Greece and Italy, and more recently, to the United Kingdom and other European Union (EU) Member States. The third pattern encompassed “elite” migrants; high-status people migrating as students and professionals from central Albania (Tirana, Durrës, Shkodër, and Elbasan) to various European countries and the United States. Albania remains a migrant-sending country, continuously producing emigration flows. In addition to migrating for employment, Albanians have left the country for study abroad, family reunion, or religious and humanitarian activities.

Drivers of Contemporary Migration

The first wave of Albanian migration after 1990 was driven by a combination of push and pull factors. With the fall of the communist regime, life in Albania became unsupportable. The image of Europe served as a magnet for people desperate to escape their country. Twenty-five years later, Albanian emigration continues to be driven by poverty, unemployment, and poor living conditions. Economic push factors have become more dominant than attraction to the Western European ideal of earlier decades. Education, however, remains a key pull factor. A growing number of Albanian students—4,000-5,000 annually in recent years—have enrolled in universities in Italy, France, other EU countries, and the United States. Satisfying career interests outside of job-scarce Albania is another key pull factor.

Albania is one of the poorest countries in Europe, though there has been some improvement since democratization began in the 1990s. Poverty in Albania declined from 25.4 percent in 2002 to 12.4 percent in 2008, according to the Living Standards Measurement Survey (LSMS) conducted by the World Bank and Albania’s Institute of Statistics (INSTAT). But with the 2008 financial crisis, the poverty level has since started to increase, reaching 17.9 percent in 2014. Measured according to purchasing power parity (PPP), the poverty level in 2012 was 62.1 percent, and the purchasing power of Albanians one-third that of European consumers. Approximately two-thirds of the population lives below the poverty line. The enclaves of poverty have moved and are still moving within the country; the coastal area is the poorest region in Albania, with a poverty level of 17.6 percent as of 2012.

An increase in migration flows accompanied the increase in poverty, and the poorest regions correspond with the map of migrant-sending areas. Unemployment also remains at a high level: as of the start of 2015 the unemployment rate was 17.3 percent. While the pressure of economic push factors remains high, political, religious, or ethnic drivers of emigration are almost nonexistent. Albania has made visible progress towards reaching political stability, consolidating democratic institutions, respecting human rights, and safeguarding religious and ethnic tolerance.


The map of Albanian migration was established by the explosion of spontaneous migration flows in the 1990s. The majority of Albanian migrants have settled in Greece (approximately 600,000) and Italy (500,000). In Greece, Albanians are by far the largest immigrant group, while in Italy they constitute the second largest immigrant group after Romanians. The estimated 150,000 remaining have settled largely in Canada, France, Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Channels of Albanian Migration

The Albanian diaspora is diverse and includes labor migrants, family members, students, refugees and asylum seekers, and unaccompanied children. The largest Albanian migrant communities are workers, family members, and students. The first half of 2015 has also seen an increasing flow of asylum seekers to Germany and other EU Member States.

Shift from Irregular to Legal Migration

Albanian emigration largely occurred through irregular channels from 1990 until 2010, when the European Union granted Albanians visa-free entry to the borderless Schengen area. Prior to 2010, thousands of people illegally entered destination countries by crossing the Albania-Greece land border; crossing the Adriatic Sea to reach southern Italy; flying from Tirana international airport to EU countries, the United States, and Canada using fraudulent documents; overstaying tourist and student visas; and using Kosovar passports to enter EU Member States, particularly the United Kingdom, as they were more readily accommodated due to the 1999 Kosovo crisis.

A high proportion of Albanians remained unauthorized in Italy and Greece until 1998. In 1998, around 82,000 of 150,000 Albanian immigrants were registered with the Italian authorities; in Greece, 10,000 of 400,000 were registered by the end of 1997. Italy and Greece changed their migration legislation and promoted legalization of irregular immigrants after 1999. By the end of 2003, there were 160,000 registered Albanian immigrants out of approximately 200,000 in Italy, and 300,000 out of an estimated 600,000 in Greece. Albania signed bilateral agreements on seasonal labor migration with Greece in 1996 and Italy in 1997, paving the way for legal migration to both countries, upon receipt of a work contract.

With the European Union’s decision to lift visas for Albanians, illegal migration to Greece, Italy, and other EU and Schengen countries has decreased. Although in lower numbers, irregular emigration continues through channels including crossing land borders without authorization, overstaying Schengen visas, applying for asylum for reasons other than persecution, abandoning their children in host countries, and irregular transit through Schengen countries en route to the United Kingdom, the United States, or Canada. Despite its reduction, illegal migration remains a dimension of contemporary Albanian migration.

Host Country Reactions

The reactions of the Italian and Greek governments towards Albanian migrants have varied over time, running “from an initial welcome followed by a more mixed, ambiguous and ultimately repressive receptionto a moremoderate reaction,” according to a 2005 study by the author and scholar Russell King. The first migrants to Italy in winter and spring 1991 were accepted as refugees. However, the Italian government’s response was much less welcoming to the second and third waves in 1991 and 1997 which were not granted refugee status. The Greek government displayed similar reactions, welcoming the first group of Albanian migrants as refugees in 1990-91 since they were considered to have escaped Albania for political reasons. Subsequent arrivals were rejected and hundreds of thousands of Albanians deported annually. With each new wave, Albanian migrants—once seen as anti-communist heroes—began to be viewed as criminals in the eyes of Italian and Greek media and society.

These shifts in attitude have paralleled the media’s framing of Albanian migrants and the changing political relationships between Italy/Greece and Albania. Scholars Gazmend Kapllani and Nicola Mai found that the Greek media has represented Albanian migrants “as criminals, as the embodiment of poverty and backwardness, and as the invader and enemy.” The Italian media has invoked similar negative stereotypes, with Albanians perceived as “undesirables and criminals” who were “persistently associated in the media with human trafficking, drugs, prostitution, and violent behavior,” according to Russell King and Nicola Mai. These stereotypical identifications of Albanian migrants influenced public opinion and the development of migrant-reception policies. Political relationships also played an important role. Political tensions between Greece and Albania have often resulted in harsh reactions and hostile policy decisions from the Greek government towards Albanian migrants.

Since 2000, when regularization of Albanian immigrants accelerated through new legislation, Italian and Greek attitudes towards Albanian migrants shifted in a positive direction. The heavy stigmatization has largely faded, Albanian migrants are better integrated into the host societies, and xenophobia towards Albanians has not visibly risen. This happened in parallel with the transformation of Albanian immigrants from a burden to a sponsor of the welfare system, as most became legal workers and residents in both countries.

The economic crises in both countries since 2008 have had serious implications for Albanian immigrants, however. The unemployment rate of Albanians dramatically increased, and Eurostat data show that in June 2015 Albanian unemployment in Greece was twice the national rate of 25.6 percent. The extreme level of the crisis has led to the high rate of return of Albanian immigrants from Greece and Italy, as discussed below. There have been few signs, however, of deteriorating relations between Albanian immigrants and the native population in either country. As an established immigrant community the crisis instead seems to have encouraged a sort of solidarity between natives and Albanians in both countries.

Migration Policy and Management

Albania’s migration policy has been guided by the Strategy for Migration Management, 2005-2010. The strategy, developed with assistance from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and funded by the European Union (to which Albania is a candidate country), focused largely on management as a labor exporter. The three main policy areas included addressing the root causes of emigration through economic development and job creation, reducing irregular and promoting legal emigration channels, and protecting Albanians abroad. In 2008, the government passed the Strategy of Integrated Border Management and the Plan of Action, 2008-2013 and in 2010 the Strategy for Reintegration of Albanian Returned Migrants and the Plan of Action, 2010-2015. No further action plans have been articulated, though new legislation addressing certain aspects of migration management has since been passed.

There is visible asymmetry between emigration and immigration legislation in Albania. The Emigration Act of 1995 regulates the management of migration outflows. More recently, the Foreigners Act of 2013 and respective government decrees regulate the management of migration inflows to Albania, while the Asylum Act of 2014 guarantees to foreign citizens or stateless persons the right of asylum in Albania. Legislation on international migration defines the state institutions responsible for developing policies and managing migration. However, considering Albania’s vulnerability in the global migration system, the government has limited power to manage migration outflow and no leverage to require that receiving countries meet all international standards on delivering services to Albanians. Within Albania, however, immigration and asylum legislation has met EU and international requirements to guarantee the necessary conditions for economic, social, and cultural integration of foreigners, including workers, asylum seekers, and refugees legally residing in Albania.

Recently, Albania has signed a number of readmission agreements or protocols, including with the Czech Republic (2012), Malta (2011), Montenegro (2011), the Republic of Moldova (2013), Romania (2013), Serbia (2011), Slovenia (2011), and Turkey (2012). The government has also signed agreements on the free movement of Albanian citizens with Macedonia (2011) and Montenegro (2011) and agreements for exchange of information on migration and asylum with Austria (2013) and the United Kingdom (2013). Though necessary preconditions for EU accession, these agreements and protocols—and the willingness of the Albanian government to implement them—have not been followed by an increase in development assistance to Albania from EU Member States.

Albania’s migration policies from 1992 to 2010 focused on extending legal emigration channels and supporting Albanian migrants’ integration in the host country’s society and labor market. Albania also developed policies to accommodate foreign workers and improve the admission of asylum seekers and refugees. During the last years, the government’s policies have shifted towards promoting the synergy between migration and development and enhancing the return of successful migrants. Additionally, the government has assisted the reintegration of those who have returned following the Greek financial crisis. However, there are insufficient legal, regulatory, and institutional frameworks to manage emigration, return migration, and the use of financial, social, human, and symbolic migration capitals as a source of development.

Migration and Development: Maximizing the Benefits of Remittances and Returnees

The main goal of current government policy is to maximize the benefits of financial, human, and social capital gained through migration. Migration of Albanians has served as an essential resource to aid the survival of migrants’ families in the homeland. Remittances have been among the most significant economic resources, reaching a peak of nearly 952 million euros in 2007 constituting 15 percent of GDP, according to data from the Bank of Albania (see Figure 2). Remittances have since declined due to the economic crisis in receiving countries, decreased incomes, increased cost of living in host countries, and the growth of education expenses.

Stated efforts to support the migration-development nexus include the use of remittances, some modest efforts for the promotion of investing and business opportunities in Albania by the Albanian Investment Development Agency (AIDA), and the use of human and social capital gained through migration for the social and economic development of Albania. The government has failed to harness remittances as a powerful source of development, however, and there have been few significant efforts to use fiscal and financial incentives to stimulate the return of successful emigrants likely to contribute to development.

Figure 2. Remittances Received in Albania, 2003-14

Source: Bank of Albania Statistical Report, accessed from Open Data Albania, Remittances in the 2002-2014 Period and Their Dynamics in the Last Year, 2015, available online.



Albania has experienced a delay in the return of successful emigrants who might help further the country’s development goals. Return migration first became significant in 2005. The flow of successful returnees, however, has been less than those who returned because of hardships abroad. The ideology of return has thus mostly been the ideology of failure. The effects of the financial crisis on the Greek and Italian economies since 2008 have particularly stimulated return and raised challenges for individual contributions to development. Between 2008 and 2014, estimates of 150,000 to 180,000 emigrants returned to Albania, the majority from Greece. Most have requested governmental support to reintegrate into the Albanian economy and society, including social and health assistance and support for their children’s education. Few have been able to direct their resources towards the country’s development. According to a 2013 IOM/INSTAT study, only 8 percent of returnees surveyed said they invested in at least one project. The remaining 92 percent said they did not invest for three main reasons: insufficient capital limiting the availability of financial recourses required to start a business, no prior plan to invest, and lack of experience and training in investment.

The use of different capitals gained through migration has been decidedly uneven. Financial capital sent through remittances has effectively increased household consumption. However, human capital gained by migrants has not been incorporated into the country’s efforts to modernize its system of vocational and educational training or the development of a labor force adaptable to the market’s needs.

Increasing Flows of “Economic Asylum Seekers”

Beginning in early 2015, a surge of “economic asylum seekers” left Albania, heading largely to Germany. The majority were from central and southern Albania (Vlorë and Fier), with a significant flow also from northern Albania (Kukës and Tropojë). In the first six months of 2015, 22,209 Albanians applied for asylum in Germany, compared to 3,913 applications during the same period in 2014, according to official German sources. Albania ranked fourth in the number of asylum seekers to the European Union during the first quarter of 2015, according to Eurostat data.

Albanian asylum seekers, particularly those directed to Germany, were encouraged by signals that the German government was revisiting its migration policies, looking to attract new foreign labor. Many Albanians called themselves economic asylum seekers, as did the media, and offered motivations including unemployment and poverty as reasons for leaving Albania in their asylum interviews. Economic motivations are not recognized under the 1951 Geneva Convention, which defines a refugee as an individual persecuted or fearing persecution based on belonging to a political, religious, or ethnic group. Given their perception that Germany was seeking workers, many Albanians adopted the term economic asylum seeker as an argument to incentivize their accommodation in Germany, perhaps not understanding it would disqualify them for asylum. Many may have been misled by smugglers to believe this was a viable route to gaining residency in the European Union, according to Manfred Schmidt, president of the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.

The German Embassy in Tirana launched an ad campaign in June with the headline “no economic asylum in Germany,” to deter further asylum seekers. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, during a July visit to Albania, reiterated that no economic asylum seekers would be admitted to Germany and that the labor market would only be open to qualified workers. Germany is now considering whether to add Albania and neighboring Kosovo and Montenegro to a list of “safe countries,” which would fast-track processing and removal of failed asylum seekers from those countries.

Immigration to Albania

Recent years have witnessed an increasing flow of immigration to Albania. The number of immigrants legally entering the country steadily increased from 5,663 in 2010, to 8,330 in 2013, according to Albanian government data. In 2013, the majority arrived from Turkey (1,712), Italy (1,553), Kosovo (773), Greece (496), and China (298). Foreigners residing in Albania include economic immigrants, students, family members, employees in humanitarian and religious activities, refugees, and asylum seekers.

In parallel with the overall increase, there has been a growth of labor migration and immigration from EU Member States to Albania. Work permits issued to foreign citizens—mainly from the European Union, Western Balkans, Turkey, and China—increased from 3,881 in 2010 to 5,937 in 2013. Labor immigrants from EU Member States doubled from 1,572 in 2010 to 3,293 in 2013. Those from the Western Balkans increased from 601 in 2010 to 1,032 in 2013, while the flow of migrant workers from China and Turkey has remained steady. Immigrants have settled mainly in Tirana (67 percent) and other big cities such as Durrës (15 percent), Shkodër (8 percent), and Vlorë (5 percent). Many are employed in construction, trade, and other services.


Albania is commonly used as a transit country for refugees and asylum seekers. From 2010 to 2013, the number of people using Albania as a transit country increased 20 times, largely driven by political instability and conflict in the Middle East. Most migrants illegally entered Albania from Greece and moved north, intending to enter Montenegro, Kosovo, or other Western Balkans countries en route to the European Union. The flow of unauthorized immigrants residing in Albania in 2013 increased four times over 2010. Additionally, though small, the number of people requesting asylum in Albania increased significantly from 10 in 2012 to 158 in 2013. About 140 asylum seekers have been referred from reception centers outside Albania.

Moving the Migration Agenda Forward

Though migration push and pull factors are less intense than 25 years ago, Albania is still producing high emigration flows, with government policies ineffective in discouraging the outflow.

Migrants have often been the focus of political debate in Albania. The government's migration policy agenda, however, is not responding to that of Albanian emigrants. Political and governmental rhetoric has focused on issues such as migrants’ right to vote in destination countries. Meanwhile, emigrants and returnees have sought more support for their economic and social integration as well as legal and fiscal incentives to invest their financial, social, and human capital gained abroad in Albania’s development. At this stage there are insufficient legal, policy, and institutional measures to support the government’s goal of synergy between migration and development.

Several key questions remain on the migration agenda. As well as seeking support in host societies, emigrants have demanded more rights back home in Albania—in particular the right to vote in national elections. Despite the significant size of the emigrant population, the regional and global trend to offer overseas voting, and successive campaign promises by political parties to implement such rights, Albania remains one of the few European countries that has yet to allow electoral participation for emigrants.

Furthermore, a number of successful transnational ventures in Albania—largely found in big cities such as Tirana and Durrës, and Korça and Gjirokastra near the Greek border—generated by migrants mostly with experiences in Italy and Greece have led to the birth of transnational networks and entrepreneurship among Albanian migrants. These ventures could be a useful resource to further the government’s development goals. This will require the government to generate policies, incentives, and resources to support these networks in order to promote the migration-development nexus.

Albania has placed great focus and made strides in migration management since the fall of the communist regime. Continued instability in the neighborhood and the ongoing migration crisis in the main destinations of Italy and Greece may challenge the country’s existing management framework as thousands of emigrants return and economic growth stagnates. The government’s ability to successfully design and implement policy to tap into the financial and social capitals of migrants to aid Albania’s development remains to be seen.


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