Shpresa, is a charity that supports young trafficked Albanians in London. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian
Charity says asylum seekers from Albania travel to the UK primarily because of poverty and corruption
Staff at an Albanian charity in east London recently began helping a 16-year boy who was smuggled by boat into the UK last year, placed in a Home Office hotel on arrival, and then abducted by traffickers to work in a cannabis farm in Leeds.
The child is one of the 12,561 Albanian nationals who travelled to the UK by boat last year, and finds himself at the centre of a debate about illegal migration from this poverty-stricken former communist state.
“An older Albanian man at the hotel promised to help him find his sister who was living in London. Instead he was taken to work looking after cannabis plants,” said a senior member of staff at Shpresa, the charity. He was locked inside the cannabis house for three months, until police raided the site, saw that he was a child and reunited him with his sister.
Immigration statistics show that Albanians made up 28% of arrivals to the UK by small boat in 2022, the largest proportion of any nationality, followed by Afghans (20%). Of the Albanian arrivals, 85% applied for asylum, and about 12% said they were victims of modern slavery. This represents a sharp increase on 2020 when only 50 Albanians crossed in small boats.
The rise in arrivals from Albania was partly what led the home secretary Suella Braverman to talk of “an invasion on our southern coast” in November. The government’s position is that, as a candidate country for admission to the EU, Albania is a safe nation, and people who live there face “no serious risk of persecution”.
Dan O’Mahoney was, until January, the official charged with tackling the rise in small boats arriving in the UK as the “clandestine Channel threat commander”. He told MPs last autumn the “exponential” rise came about because Albanian criminal gangs had “gained a foothold in the north of France and begun facilitating very large numbers of migrants”. He estimated that 1-2% of Albania’s adult male population had made the journey in boats, a figure which Albanian officials dispute.
About 53% of asylum applications from Albanians were granted between January and June last year. Those working with new small boat arrivals at the Shpresa community centre on the fringes of east London’s Olympics development area, feel caught in the middle of a political row. Albanian arrivals are demonised by some politicians and parts of the media variously as economic migrants and criminals, while staff at the charity see people with high levels of vulnerability.
and clothing bank or to use the kitchen. Some people who have experienced domestic violence or run away from forced marriages received support from volunteers; staff also assisted women who have been trafficked into prostitution.
“We are stretched to the limits,” said Shpresa’s manager, who asked not to be named and said she felt uncomfortable with publicity at a time when there was hostility towards Albanian nationals.
While they acknowledge that there are a range of factors pushing people to travel to the UK, staff are dismayed at what they describe as a mischaracterisation of Albanians as exclusively economic migrants in search of better job opportunities. “How can a child be an economic migrant?” the charity manager asked, referring to the child trafficked into cannabis cultivation, who has since been helped to make a modern slavery application.
Young Albanian adults at an earlier group session hosted by Shpresa described the discrimination they have faced since news of the rising numbers of Albanians arriving by boats hit headlines in the autumn. “In 2015 people thought we were coming to take jobs or benefits. Now people are saying we’re all criminals,” said one young man, who was trafficked into the UK as a teenager. “It’s not a good time to look for work if you’ve got the word Albanian on your CV. We feel like we’ve become scapegoats in Britain’s political crisis over immigration.”
Ardur (not his real name), 25, said he had no desire to leave his parents and siblings eight years ago when he turned 17, but a dispute between his family and another family in the north Albanian village where he grew up had turned violent, and fearing he would be targeted, his father paid for him to be smuggled into the UK.
“We’re seen as not credible asylum seekers. People assume we’ve come for a better life. That’s true for some – people are poor, the country is corrupt and full of crime and hate, and there’s no future for young people. But I came because my life was in danger,” he said.
His asylum application was rejected, but rather than return home – his parents and younger brothers had by then fled to Germany – he began working in London’s underground economy. He spent months living and working at a car wash, sleeping in the garage area, among the chemicals, earning £10 a day. Later he worked on construction sites.
“I got the heaviest jobs, carrying bricks to the third storey, demolishing buildings; sometimes they wouldn’t pay at the end of the week because they know you can’t complain or go to the police. Young Albanian men don’t stick out as victims of trafficking because we’re white Europeans; people assume we’re Polish builders. No one is going to call immigration on us; no one guesses we’re being exploited,” he said.
In 2020 he appealed against his asylum ruling but is still waiting for a decision. His case is one of the 166,000 files in the Home Office’s asylum backlog.
The problems he has faced are typical, the Shpresa manager said. “There is a familiar narrative about girls and young women being trafficked and sexually exploited but we see a huge number of young men who are viciously exploited. It’s difficult to understand how violent and abusive the traffickers can be.”
Some of those who travelled may have been willingly smuggled, but have little understanding of what they are signing up for. “Criminals target poor people, in villages where nothing works. Once they agree, they’re caught in the hands of the traffickers,” she said. Recruitment campaigns on TikTok offer cut price small boat Channel crossings. One TikTok clip from last year shows a boat speeding towards the white cliffs of Dover, with the words in Albanian: “Fuck school. Let’s take the boat to England.”
Often the violence begins en route to the UK. “People who are trafficked here and then see their asylum cases refused have two choices – they can work underground or they can take on criminal work. They can’t go back home unless they’ve paid back the money they owe their traffickers,” she added.
Academics are puzzled by the sharp rise in arrivals; usually such rises are triggered by outbreak of war or a natural disaster, but Albania’s problems are chronic. Dr Andi Hoxhaj, lecturer in law, University College London (UCL), told a home affairs select committee inquiry on Albania that while some Albanians willingly migrate because of political instability, corruption, lack of employment and educational opportunities, others are tricked into travelling to Britain. UK-based Albanian-origin organised crime networks have strengthening ties to impoverished rural areas of Albania, and are focused on “luring young Albanian men to the UK to work and engage in illegal activities” – cannabis farming in particular, he said.
A joint research project between Liverpool University, UCL, and the University of Southampton called LOHST (Lives on Hold. Our Stories Told), last year interviewed 40 Albanian unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.
“We cannot fully explain the spike in Albanian crossings, but we know from our research that the reasons are complex and include a mixture of exploitation, cultural blood feuds, sexuality or sexual identity-related, trafficking and organised crime. The situations that have caused them to be exploited, trafficked and persecuted are generated by the dire economic situation and weak institutions and legal structures protecting vulnerable groups in Albania,” the project lead Prof Helen Stalford said.
A Home Office spokesperson said none of the Albanians granted asylum in 2022 (87% of them women, 11% men) had arrived by small boat, presumably because the department’s backlog means it is still processing historic cases. It is not clear whether last year’s surge will continue or if it was restricted to a few months in the summer of 2022. The increase in Albanian arrivals peaked between July and September 2022, when 45% of all small boat arrivals were Albanian; from October to December this figure dropped to 9%, and Afghan nationals rose to make up 33% of all arrivals.
Rishi Sunak signed a cooperation deal with the Albanian government in December, and said new guidance would be issued to immigration caseworkers to make it “crystal clear that Albania is a safe country”. He announced that Border Force officers would be embedded in Tirana, helping to disrupt organised criminals, the threshold someone must reach to be classified as a victim of modern slavery would be raised, and a dedicated new unit, “staffed by 400 new specialists” would expedite cases, so that “over the coming months, thousands of Albanians will be returned home” on weekly flights.
The Shpresa manager said she was concerned the focus on returns was misplaced. “We worry that the government is not fighting the criminals but is fighting the people who are being used and abused by criminals.”