Albania, The Brutal Demographics Of A Neverending Exodus
Since the fall of communism in 1991, the small Balkan state has been slowly but inexorably emptying itself, at the pace of incessant waves of emigration. With an aging and declining population and a birth rate in free fall, it is facing all kinds of challenges.
MEMALIAJ — It is 1 p.m. on a summer Saturday, and only the barking of a dog breaks the silence in the street of this small Albanian town. The sun illuminating Minatori Square doesn’t change a thing: there’s not a soul to be seen in this former mining town in Southern Albania. On the steps leading up to the cultural “palace," there is no one. Behind the drawn curtain of the old kepuce italiane ("Italian shoe") store, no one. In the red-brick buildings that threaten to crumble into ruin: no one.
“There’s nothing here anymore. No work, no money, no bread. Everyone left after the end of the dictatorship," says Stefan Arian, a 60-year-old man who speaks rusty Greek, sitting at the Café Qazimi, one of the few businesses still open. It’s hard to picture that, not so long ago, this abandoned town was one of Communist Albania’s great working-class centers. Built from scratch in 1946 to exploit the nearby coal mine, the city counted up to 12,000 inhabitants in its heyday. Barely more than 1,000 remain.
Memaliaj isn't the only one: Kukës, Zogaj, Përmet, Narta — there are dozens of such towns and villages in Albania. From North to South, the small Balkan state is criss-crossed by semi-ghost towns, with few or no inhabitants. It is the mark of a unique demographic phenomenon: since the fall of the communist regime 30 years ago, the country has been slowly but inexorably emptying itself through incessant waves of emigration.
“People have lost hope”
“Emigration has become a mentality in Albania, even among high earners,” explains Ledion Krisafi, a researcher for the country’s oldest think tank, the Albanian Institute for International Studies. “The most important thing to understand is that people have lost hope: after thirty years of transition, they expected much more, and they don’t want to lose their time anymore.”
Albania is a special case in the small world of migration experts. From 1946 to 1991, the population was held captive by one of the world’s most bloody and repressive regimes: victims of the paranoia of the Communist Party’s first secretary Enver Hoxha, Albanian comrades were not even allowed to own a car, and had to obtain express permission from the administration to leave their region.
1.68 million emigrants now live abroad — more than one out of three Albanians.
Then came the reopening of borders, an anarchic transition, the economic collapse of 1997, insurrections, the war in Kosovo and the start of an exodus. “We left one night in 1999, my mother holding my head close to her knees to prevent me from taking a bullet through the bus windows," recalls a woman who has lived in France for many years and who does not wish to give her name for fear of reprisals, more than 20 years later.
Complex and constantly evolving, Albanian emigration has considerably changed since 1991. The preferred destinations are no longer neighboring Greece and Italy, but Germany, the UK, France and the U.S. Departures are no longer illegal, but usually on a temporary visa; emigrants are no longer just poor young men, but Albanians from all walks of life.
One constant, however: every year, some 50,000 people, most of them between 18 and 40 years old, leave in search of a better life. As a result, 1.68 million emigrants now live abroad — more than one out of three Albanians.
On Jan. 1, 2023, the country’s official population was 2.76 million inhabitants, according to Instat, the Albanian statistic institute. These calculations, based on a 2011 census, are generally considered optimistic. It’s 13% less than the last census conducted under the communist dictatorship, in 1989, even though natural population growth (the ratio of births to deaths) has been positive for the past 30 years.
A street in Gjirokaster, Albania.
A disputed law
Add to this the lowest birth rate in the country’s history (1.32 children per woman) and the rarity of people returning, and Albania faces a “toxic demographic cocktail made of mass emigration, low returns, high potential for future migration and a low and declining birth rate," according to researchers Ilir Gedeshi and Russel King in a 2018 study. The study, which surveyed more than 1,400 households across the country, concluded that 52% of Albanians aged between 18 and 40 would like to emigrate abroad.
We can’t tie them to their chairs.
Albania is paying a high price for this exodus, particularly in terms of economic development. “One of my developers left for Facebook in Ireland, another for Worldplay. It took me months to replace them. We’re offering them salaries 10 times higher. We can’t tie them to their chairs," says Bora Ferri, who founded a small payment company, Mpay, ten years ago, and is also head of the France-Albania Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
In the healthcare sector, the number of departures is such that the government is working on a disputed law: if newly graduated doctors don’t spend their first three years in Albania, they will have to pay back their tuition fees.
But the labor shortages are not limited to skilled trades — far from it. In tourism, agriculture and, above all, textile, the lack of manpower is glaring and should spread to all sectors by 2030, according to the most bleak studies. “I can offer higher-than-average vacations, five weeks’ paid vacations, Christmas presents and a yearly trip, but I can’t find anyone," laments the French entrepreneur who has been based in southern Albania for 15 years.
There’s a paradox here. Despite the mass departures and accelerated aging of its population, Albanian society remains fairly young, with a median age of 38. Yet among 15-29 year olds, the unemployment rate is over 22%, with a significant proportion of long-term unemployed. Supply does not meet demand. For many of those we spoke to, this is the result of a 2005 reform authorizing private training: alongside the free, high-quality public universities, there are now many “businesses” offering expensive courses with no prospects.
“Everyone has a degree in Albania. It’s a real pride for families. But everyone also wants a qualified job in dead-end sectors, while there are no technical schools for the industries in demand. Add to this the exorbitant healthcare costs, poor public services and corruption, and these unemployed people become natural candidates to leave," says Eno Ngjela, head of the economic department of the United Nations Development Program.
Among the poorest in Europe
Like him, all observers also note the low wages offered, often below the minimum wage of 40,000 leks (€381). Thirty years after turning its back to communism, and despite starting at the same point as Poland or Croatia, Albania is still one of the poorest countries in Europe. According to the World Bank, GDP per capita is just $6,800, compared with an average over $37,000 in the European Union.
Bora Muzhaqi is well aware of this and many other pitfalls. In her office on Boulevard Deshmoret e Kombit, in the heart of Tirana, where Prime Minister Edi Rama also officiates, the Minister for Youth lists the measures launched since the creation of her portfolio in 2021: accelerated IT training programs for thousands of long-term unemployed people, free day-care centers and partnerships between Albanian and international universities.
“We are not trying to stop people from leaving; rather, we’re trying to bring back those who leave, because they enrich the country,” says the Minister, who claims that examples of returnees are multiplying “more than we can count." So far, 96,755 Albanians have come back since 2011, according to Instat, compared to some 700,000 departures over the same period.
A photo of a square by night in Tirana, Albania.
More than half the population gone
And yet, there are signs. Like on July 1, in Gjirokastër, where it’s becoming difficult to make your way through the historical center: a noisy, joyful crowd, both Albanian and foreign, is hurrying towards the castle for the closing of the folklore festival.
“It’s crazy. I’ve never seen so many people in Gjirokastër before," says Jori Muho, town councilor of this town steeped in histor — a Unesco World Heritage site where, just a few streets away, the dictator Enver Hoxha and his most famous opponent, author Ismail Kadare, grew up.
Here, in any case, tourism is a solution to our problems.
Gjirokastër is the capital of the largest county in South Albania — the same county as Memaliaj, the devastated working-class just 30km away — and yet it has suffered from the onerous exodus in the region, which lost 55% of its population since the fall of communism.
Tourism, “a solution”
But in recent years, the city has come back to life: from 10,000 visitors in 2015, it now welcomes over 200,000 every year. In 2019, the government invested several million euros to completely renovate the historic Old Bazaar district, redoing the facades and installing running water in all buildings. Tourists followed, and so have expatriates.
“If you look around you, everything was still empty a few years ago,” says Juri Muho, pointing to the tall, three-hundred year old building. “Now, all these businesses are run by Albanians who returned from abroad. Here, in any case, tourism is a solution to our problems.”
Giannis Zhapa is not unmoved by the town’s revival. In the family house’s garden, this young man in his thirties, who now teaches engineering science in Scotland, only comes back for “weddings, baptisms and funerals." But he’s sure of it: “I’ll come back and live for my golden years. And maybe even before!”
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