Suddenly, it was all the Albanians’ fault. That’s what the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, suggested when under scrutiny over Channel crossings and the asylum seeker backlog in the House of Commons on Wednesday 2 November. She referred to “Albanian criminals” and told MPs that young, single men from Albania were “either part of organised criminal gangs and procuring their journey through… nefarious means, or they are coming here and partaking in criminal activity, particularly related to drugs – supply and otherwise.”
Dan O’Mahoney, the Home Office’s clandestine Channel threat commander, recently erroneously told MPs “between 1 and 2 per cent of the entire male population of Albania” had crossed to the UK this year (he later clarified that the percentage related to the population of men aged 20-40 – about 10,000 people).
Albania’s prime minister Edi Rama has since accused Braverman of “easy rhetoric” and “discrimination” against Albanians to distract from “policy failures” – dashing the UK government’s chances of a deal with the country to return its citizens migrating to Britain.
Braverman said she was “circumspect” about Albanian asylum seekers’ claims to be victims of human trafficking or modern slavery, calling their homeland “a safe country”. The Home Office has described Albania as a “safe and prosperous country”, claiming many Albanians were making “spurious asylum claims”.
So what’s going on?
More Albanians are arriving by small boats across the Channel
According to the latest Home Office statistics, from May to September 2022 Albanians made up 42 per cent of small boat crossings, with 11,102 arriving across the Channel (compared with 815 in the whole of 2021). This is in the context of a rise in small boat crossings in general, however. Almost 40,000 people have crossed the Channel in this way so far this year. (In 2020, it was 8,404.)
The Home Office doesn’t publish asylum claims by method of arrival, but people crossing the Channel make up between 35 per cent and 44 per cent of asylum claims inside the country (others use less visible methods of getting to the UK that are not in the media spotlight).
Albanians are more likely than Brits to fall victim to modern slavery
The Home Office’s latest modern slavery victim figures show that over a quarter (27 per cent) of potential modern slavery victims from April to June 2022 were Albanian: the highest figure since records began. In January to March, Albanians surpassed UK nationals as the most at-risk from modern slavery for the first time since 2017. (The Home Office deemed almost 90 per cent of cases in April-June 2022 as having “reasonable grounds” to be defined as modern slavery victims.)
In general, Albanians have always been in the top four nationalities in the UK at risk of modern slavery.
Adult males are more at risk
It also doesn’t follow that simply by being adult and male the 10,000 or so Albanian men who have migrated to Britain this year are not vulnerable. The latest figures show that for Albanian nationals referred as potential victims of modern slavery, the vast majority at 84 per cent were adults. Men in general are also far more likely to fall victim to modern slavery: 77 per cent of potential victims of all nationalities were male and 23 per cent female in April to June.
Albania is not “safe” for everyone
Albania is one of the poorest countries in Europe and has a high youth unemployment rate. There are pressures on men to provide for their families, amid a struggle to find employment. Albanian boys “often find themselves in exploitative situations and become desperate for alternatives”, said Lauren Starkey, a senior social worker at the child trafficking survivors’ charity Love146, who has been working for five years with Albanian young people aged up to 25. She has also written a thesis on the care and protection needs of trafficked Albanian boys and young men.
“They are exceptionally vulnerable to traffickers who offer them the chance at work and a better life in the UK,” she added. “People were previously smuggled or trafficked into the UK via hidden means, such as in the back of lorries, but as those routes have been closed there has been a shift towards small boat crossings.”
In her experience, Albanian boys and young men who come to the UK are not from “prosperous” backgrounds. “The majority are from very poor families with issues such as domestic violence and debts owed to loan sharks. They’ve been deceived into coming to the UK through offers of work and find themselves being ruthlessly exploited once they arrive.” They struggle to escape because of big debts held over their heads, the use of extreme violence, and threats to harm their families in Albania if they don’t pay, she added.
Organised crime is a problem
Albania has significant levels of organised crime. “Albania serves as a source and transit country for human trafficking,” finds the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime. “Albanian criminal actors are allegedly responsible for a large number of trafficking victims detected in Western Europe… Albanian organized crime groups are involved in both international and domestic human smuggling operations and cooperate with human smugglers in surrounding countries to facilitate the journeys.”
Albania ranks ninth of 44 European countries in the criminality score given by the initiative’s Global Organised Crime Index.
“Fleeing domestic violence, blood feuds and trafficking are all common reasons Albanian citizens may be granted asylum in the UK,” said Starkey. “Corruption within the government, police, and public services is rife and makes it difficult for people to seek protection there if they need it.”
Albanians are granted asylum
Last year, more than half of Albanian asylum claims (55 per cent) were successful at the initial decision stage – and far more will likely be successful after appeal, given nearly half of asylum rejections (45 per cent) are overturned at appeal. Eight-six per cent of Albanians who had successful asylum applications in the year ending June 2022 were women, meaning men are far less likely to be successful at the initial stage.
Albanians are the main victims of Albanian criminal gangs in Britain
Albanian criminal gangs do play a significant role in the UK’s illegal drug trade. They have a stranglehold over large swathes of the cannabis cultivation and cocaine distribution markets. This is a problem UK law enforcement has struggled to tackle.
Yet the “primary victims of these gangs are Albanians themselves,” said Starkey. “In my experience, most of the young people who are trafficked from Albania don’t know what they will be doing once they arrive. They believe they will be working in construction, and are then forced into criminality on arrival.”
Toxic rhetoric about Albanian men only helps criminal gangs
To investigate and shut down people-trafficking operations, as well as drug gangs, you need victims to come forward and cooperate with law enforcement. The demonisation of Albanian migrants by high-profile politicians risks having the opposite effect.
“Many victims tell us their traffickers used the immigration system to threaten them, by saying if they come forward they will be arrested and deported,” said Starkey. “When victims see this very narrative playing out in the media, it emboldens the traffickers.”
In the absence of visa schemes to allow people to apply to work in the UK legally, Albanians will continue to cross the Channel in small boats. Currently, for Albanians who want or are led to come to the UK, there are no other options.
“Failing to protect Albanian victims allows criminal gangs to flourish,” said Starkey. “By denying protection to those who need it, we rob them of the safety they need to be able to come forward and work to bring their traffickers to justice.
“The gangs are able to continue operating with impunity, knowing their victims will never speak out against them because they’re seen as ‘prosperous young men here to do crime’.”