Albania’s ghost towns: the crisis that caused the exodus
Albania has a population of 2.8 million people, according to data published at the start of 2021. Since the fall of communism in 1991 nearly 40% of Albania’s population has left the country.
Most Albanians who left in the 1990s and 2000s headed for Greece, Italy, Germany, the Nordic countries, the UK and the US. However, since 2020 Albania has experienced a new wave of migration. What makes this more challenging to explain is that there is no reliable data on the number of citizens who have moved away.
One significant reason is the COVID-19 pandemic, which had a massive effect on people’s welfare, employment and savings. The government offered very little support for people who were struggling, and the World Bank estimated that during the pandemic, about 22% of Albania’s population were below the poverty line. Local media suggest it will soon be more than 30% as the World Bank predicts rising costs and inflation, particularly with respect to food which represents the largest form of expenditure for most Albanians.
Cities, towns and villages are experiencing a constant exodus, and there are now “ghost towns” across the country. Kukësi in the north of Albania has seen more than 53% of its citizens leave. The cities of Shkodra, Fieri, Durrësi and Vlorë have each lost more than 15% of their population in the past ten years. Several villages have seen massive numbers leave, from Narta in the south of the country to Zogaj in the north.
Many of these places used to be bustling industrial towns with economies based on fishing or mining. But following the collapse of communism, a lack of government investment to invest in alternative industries has left many people without jobs and pushed the younger generation to emigrate.
The most common method of migration is for men to leave first. Later, when they have extra money and can provide housing, they bring their partners and children out to join them.
Albania has yet to assess all causes of the recent wave of migration. According to newly published information from the European Commission’s department for statistics, Eurostat, and Albania’s own institute of statistics, between 2008 and 2020, around 700,000 Albanians migrated to EU countries and now hold citizenship in an EU nation. The number who migrated elsewhere, or do not have citizenship, is not as clear.
Remittances (sending money home) from those who moved abroad have accounted for at least 31% of Albania’s GDP in the second quarter.
Mass migration has a significant upside for the Albanian economy. For political leaders this is a win-win situation as there is no accountability, since the diaspora cannot vote and there are fewer people to persuade during elections.
According to a recent Balkan Barometer survey by the Regional Cooperation Council, around 83% of Albanians want to leave and nearly 50% are looking into or applying for jobs abroad. The main justification given by citizens is that life in Albania is unaffordable.
The average monthly wage in Albania, according to the Institute of Statistics, is between 56,000 and 60,666 Albanian lek (ALL) (£425-£460). But some studies suggest it is less than ALL30,000 (£221).
In contrast, the cost of living is quite high. The average Albanian spends roughly 42% of their income on food, 20% of their daily income on diesel or fuel and the rest on electricity, water and clothing. The country is ranked 17th in the world for fuel prices and has one of the highest oil costs in Europe.
Property rights in Albania are extremely precarious. After the collapse of communism, the state gave most of the country’s land to the citizens for their use but does not fully recognise their ownership. Through legal loopholes or political connections, the state can take the land back or destroy any investment in the land without much notice, which has caused numerous social and economic issues in the post-communist era.
This leads to people having to pay bribes to keep their property and has also allowed organised crime, corruption and loan sharking to flourish. Many European companies say they will not invest in Albania because of the legal ambiguity surrounding the status of the land.
Corruption is widespread in Albania and has made several official institutions dysfunctional. Nepotism is common, and most public employment is based on patronage rather than competence. Major political roles are often linked to corruption or nepotism.
The EU has said Albania must tackle corruption before becoming a member. But most political parties lack the political will to reduce corruption and strengthen the rule of law, according to the European Court of Auditors.
Another factor that may have provoked migration is the devastation caused by a major earthquake in November 2019. It left more than 12,200 people without a home. Hundreds of people were injured and killed across five different municipalities. Overall, the earthquake affected about 10% of the population and many are still homeless.
Before 2020, many Albanians were optimistic that joining the EU would lead to better living conditions, as it did in Croatia, where the average monthly pay is now about €2,000 (£1,750).
However, the EU has dragged out the accession process with Albania for decades. It only began negotiations in the summer of 2022 after it became clear that having Albania closer to the EU was in its geopolitical interest, following the war in Ukraine and Putin’s strong influence in the Balkans.
All of this may have improved Albania’s position as a reliable ally for the EU and Nato, but as yet there has been no improvement in the country’s economy. More EU support could transform Albania into a healthier liberal democracy, rather than a country with many ghost towns.