BIRN pieces together the paths taken and prices paid by Albanians seeking better lives in the UK but who, in many cases, face years of illegality and exploitation.
By Valbona Bezati
By the time he was 14 years old, nine of Besi Handroj’s classmates had left their homes in the northern Albanian region of Puka for the United Kingdom.
In 2014, aged 15, Handroj decided to join them, dreaming of a ride on the London Eye and a career that would help him subsidise his unemployed parents and get his sisters a decent education.
For his first attempt, Handroj’s family paid 1,500 euros for a fake ID from European Union member Romania in the name of ‘Nikolas’. Handroj left for Italy where he planned to board a plane to London but Italian border police turned him back.
For the second attempt, a week later, Handroj took the bus to neighbouring Greece and then headed to France by train. There, with the help of “the guys” who provided his fake ID, Handroj joined an Albanian woman and her child on a ferry to Britain. But when the child started screaming in Albanian, police on the boat checked their papers and, again, sent them back to France.
For Handroj, it was a case of third time lucky. Slipping out of an immigration centre in France, he spent a few days sleeping in parks before crossing to Belgium, where some friends of his uncle helped him get into a “safe lorry” with 25 other Albanians. After 10 hours, they had made it. The ride cost Handroj’s family £5,500.
“I don’t remember much of the journey because I slept for most of the time,” he said. “It was very cold, about two or three degrees [Celsius], end of February. But I remember some grownups shouting at the kids inside the lorry to not make any noise because we might get caught. Everyone was accompanied by a relative or a friend. I was all alone, only 15 years old.”
Six years later, now 22, Handroj has refugee status, based, he said, on the threat to his life in Albania stemming from debts owed by his father. He earns around £120 per day as a plumber, roughly equivalent to the monthly minimum wage in Albania. And he has already helped his older brother, Gerti, join him in the UK. Yet, asked would he do it all again, Handroj replied:
“No, never. It wasn’t worth it because after all that I had to live with a kind of foster family that didn’t treat me well. I had to work from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in construction for £50 a day when I was only 16 and for five and a half pounds an hour as a glass collector in a bar for five years.”
“I had to deal with a lot of trouble and I was alone all this time. This has changed me forever. I don’t even know what kind of relationship I have with my family now.”
Handroj’s story is far from unique. Albania regularly features in the top five countries of origin of asylum seekers in the UK, in such company as Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Eritrea, and the number of unaccompanied Albanian minors like Handroj is rising.
It took years for Handroj to get on his feet. Many others do not, their illegality and tender age leaving them vulnerable to exploitation in slavery and prostitution.
Albanians make up the largest group of foreigners in prisons in England and Wales, roughly 10 per cent of the more than 9,200 foreign nationals, while Albanians are the most common victims of modern slavery in the UK, according to official statistics.
“On reaching adulthood and their residence permit is generally rejected, some return to their country of origin and some disappear from the system, joining the contingent of illegal immigrants,” said Naim Hasani, a UK solicitor originally from Albania and specialised in immigration, asylum and human rights cases.
“A huge problem is the use of children and young people by criminal elements for various trafficking reasons, forcing them to work as slaves or for prostitution.”
Longing to leave
Three decades since the collapse of the Stalinist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha and the opening of Albania’s borders, some 60 per cent of the country’s adult population say they want to leave, according to a Gallup poll published in December 2018.
In June, some 49 per cent of Albanians said they were in the process of completing the paperwork to do so, according to the Balkan Barometer survey conducted by the southeast European Regional Cooperation Council.
“Roughly speaking, young people leave because they have lost hope that they will be able to provide for themselves a better future in their own country,” said Albanian sociologist and professor Ergys Mertiri.
“They face difficulty finding employment and they face low living standards and a lack of future prospects and security,” Mertiri told BIRN. “Many of them leave because they judge that their work, skills, knowledge or education are not valued enough in Albania. Everyday they face a lack of justice in employment, nepotism, etc., which makes them feel insecure.”
Particularly worrying is the emigration of young, educated Albanians – the ‘brain-drain’ phenomenon. Thirty-two per cent of Albanians in this category say they want to leave.
“There is a very valuable category that emigrates because they do not value Albanian education,” said Mertiri.
“This mainly concerns good students, but also many of those who have parents with a good income level. They want a good education, which this country does not offer, so they try to find this outside. But, of course, most of them do not come back.”
Since the UK is not part of the Schengen zone, Albanian citizens cannot even visit without a visa. Yet many are drawn by the prospect of a decent wage, higher living standards and the fact the language barrier is not so great given most Albanians learn English in school. A trend has emerged in recent years of Albanians in the UK posting pictures on social media depicting lavish lifestyles.
So determined was 25-year-old Deni Muca to reach the UK, he tried 24 times in the space of two months in 2015, bouncing between borders and ports in Spain, France and the Netherlands, without success.
Muca, from the village of Picar near the capital, Tirana, told BIRN that he and a cousin tried everything from smuggling themselves inside holiday caravans to hiding in lorries, spending more than 5,000 euros in the process and racking up fines of more than 7,000 euros from border police.
In Bilbao, Spain, Muca recalled spotting a car in the port with UK licence plates. Believing it was about to board a ferry departing for England, he climbed into the boot. “I stayed there for two days, just lying down. I didn’t know if I was awake or asleep. I ate just a few biscuits. I didn’t move at all.” Nor did the car. When the owners came back, they noticed the car windows were steamed up and called the police.
Stung by the experience, Muca is working as a welder and trying to save 20,000 euros to pay experienced people smugglers to finally get him into the UK.
Pick a route
Through interviews with Albanians who have entered the UK illegally, BIRN has identified six main routes:
Calais to Dover by lorry: Xhoni Smaka, from the northern town of Kukes near the Kosovo border, took this route in 2013, aged 14. “It was four in the morning when I got into the lorry,” he said. “I was with my cousin; it was around a four-hour ride. As soon as I got an SMS on my phone saying ‘Welcome to the UK’, we cut the cover of the truck and jumped out while it was still moving, not knowing where we were.” This route currently costs around £17,000, according to smugglers BIRN spoke to.
By lorry from the Netherlands: Albanians usually board trucks at the Hoek van Holland port near the North Sea and travel to the UK by ferry.
By lorry from Belgium: According to Belgian federal police, the Ghent area between Brussels is a focal point for smugglers to get migrants into lorries heading for the UK. Ani Karaja told BIRN he paid £8,000 to take this route in 2017. The Belgian police say the price now runs to 15,000 euros, or just over £13,000.
By ferry from Spain: Sources told BIRN that the Bilbao to Portsmouth route operated by Brittany Ferries is particularly popular with Albanian migrants.
By plane from Italy or Greece: This route is an option only for Albanians who can get hold of fake identification documents, most often Italian. Marjo Sota told BIRN he travelled to Bergamo in northern Italy on his Albanian passport and bought two tickets, one to Tirana, in Albania, and another to London, leaving at similar times. “I passed the police check and all other checks with my real passport. Then just before going to the gate, I went to the toilet and got rid of my Albanian ticket and hid my real passport,” he said. Then he headed to the gate for the London flight. “I was lucky the lady who checked my documents before boarding didn’t speak to me in Italian. When I arrived at Gatwick airport [in the UK] they checked my fake ID and asked me for extra ID. Fortunately, I’d prepared a fake driving licence under the same name. I made it into the UK for less than 1,000 euros.”
Italy to the UK via Dublin: In 2018, The Independent reported that smugglers were “abusing soft Ireland border checks” between Ireland and the UK to get people into the UK, citing the National Crime Agency.
Citing UK immigration authority figures, Hasani said many Albanian women seek asylum as victims of trafficking or domestic violence. Some Albanians apply on the grounds that they are fleeing a blood feud or persecution for their sexuality, while others try to obtain residence papers by marrying a British or EU citizen.
Handroj’s brother, Gerti, has decided to pursue the latter.
The 24-year-old paid £8,000 to reach the UK smuggled inside a lorry with three other Albanians and eight Chinese citizens.
“I was determined – I would definitely go to London,” he said. “The only way I was going back to Albania was if I was dead.”
Four years later, he is still illegal, unable to open a bank account, rent a house or board a train without worrying about being picked up by immigration officers. He has worked a host of low-paid jobs, from 14-hour days washing cars for £42 to heavy manual labour.
“The only way I can see to get legal is to get married to a girl with a UK or European passport,” he said, “so I can finally get my papers.”
Valbona Bezati is an Albanian communications specialist, lecturer and journalist, based in London. She currently is writing about issues related to human rights and dealing with the past, in addition to studying for a master’s degree in Advertising and Public Relation at Richmond – The American International University in London. Bezati holds a master’s of science in Public Relations and received her bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Communication Sciences from the University of Tirana. She has also studied Mass Media and Communication in Budapest, Hungary.
This article has been produced as part of the Resonant Voices Initiative in the EU, funded by the European Union’s Internal Security Fund – Police.
The content of this story represents the views of the author and is the sole responsibility of BIRN. The European Commission does not accept any responsibility for use that may be made of the information it contains.