Stark reality of Albanian brain drain: The community of Cerrik used to be thriving. Now it’s a ghost town… because its brightest young people would rather take their chances on dinghies to UK than spend another day in corruption-plagued country
- Cerrik is a pretty little Albanian town an hour’s drive south of the capital, Tirana
- Decades ago, the centre was thronged with activity but times have changed
- When Communist regime fell in 1991, government and industry left Cerrik
- Locals among the 27,000 population explained that everyone has left overseas
- Many of Albania’s brightest people, including doctors and teachers, are fleeing
Built during Communist times to accommodate workers at a new oil refinery, Cerrik is a pretty little town of pastel-coloured houses, an hour’s drive south of the Albanian capital, Tirana.
The past weekend marked its 70th anniversary, yet no one I met in this forlorn — and fast-shrinking — rural community of 27,000 people had much appetite for the planned civic celebrations.
As with many Albanian towns, life centres on a central square named after the national heroine, Mother Teresa, whose parents were born in the country.
Decades ago, when the refinery provided hundreds of jobs and the nearby fields were replete with citrus groves, this gathering place thronged with activity.
It was particularly popular with young people, who congregated here in the late afternoon after their work shifts and school lessons had ended.
When the Communist regime fell in 1991, the refinery soon followed. With little or no government investment, there is no longer any industry in Cerrik.
When I arrived in the square at dusk, the few faces I saw were old and dispirited.
Hunched at her stall, Bukurie Hamiti, 63, who lives with her husband and five family members in a two-room flat, was trying to sell sunflower seeds at 5p a bag to supplement her £55-a-month state pension, but there were no takers.
‘It used to be so busy at this time of day, but everyone has left,’ she shrugged. ‘The young ones have all gone to live with you, in England.’
Doctors, teachers, bankers, lawyers, entrepreneurs; the educated middle-classes who could turn Albania from a failed kleptocracy into a nation whose citizens would prefer to stay and build their futures rather than risk their lives in rubber dinghies. Pictured: Migrants arrive in Dover
Passing by on her evening stroll, Bejaze Dine, 70, stopped to tell me how every last member of her family — six children and 11 grandchildren — had moved overseas, though in her case to Germany, Greece and Italy (the route to England being too hazardous, and the jobs of too low a station).
‘I miss them all, but I can’t blame them for leaving. There’s nothing for them here. In the Communist days, life was 100 times better,’ she seethed. ‘Back then, everyone was working, and not everything was about money.’
Sufficiently disillusioned to lament Albania’s tyrannical dictator, whose death in 1985 marked the beginning of the end of the Communist era, she marched off shouting: ‘God save Enver Hoxha!’
She might as well have howled at the moon, for there was no one in the square to hear her. Even the surrounding cafes and bars were eerily empty.
It was as if the town’s younger generation had been wiped out by some age-selective plague. And, in a way, it has. The scourge ravaging Cerrik, and so many other Albanian towns, is migration.
As one discovers when spending time here, however, the story behind this extraordinary exodus is not nearly as straightforward as it appears from Britain.
For it’s no longer only the poorly educated, unskilled (and, yes, in some cases criminal) elements in Albania who are deserting this benighted nation for the illusorily gold-lined English shores. Now many of Albania’s brightest young people are fleeing, too.
Doctors, teachers, bankers, lawyers, entrepreneurs; the educated middle-classes who could turn Albania from a failed kleptocracy into a nation whose citizens would prefer to stay and build their futures rather than risk their lives in rubber dinghies.
When the Communist regime fell in 1991, the refinery soon followed. With little or no government investment, there is no longer any industry in Cerrik (pictured)
Despairing at the corruption and nepotism that block their ambitions, every bit as much as the low wages, Albania’s youthful cream is leaving in droves.
Indeed, according to Endrit Shabani, 37, an Oxford-educated Albanian academic who wrote a PhD thesis on his country’s brain-drain, the evacuation compares with that of the mid-1990s, when there was a total breakdown of law and order.
Travelling through the country this week, I’ve seen the ghostly truth of this at every turn.
Cerrik resembles a Klondike town after the goldrush. Shops have no customers, homes stand empty, the schools have so few pupils that only a handful of classrooms are used.
Local education director Dr Mirela Mucaj told me the number of students has fallen by 272 in the past year, and recently two schools have been closed altogether.
‘It’s mainly due to emigration, mostly to England but also to Germany,’ she said, admitting she hopes her own daughter will find work in Britain when she graduates in computer engineering.
Outside Tomorr Sinani high school, which can accommodate 430 students but has only 150, Krisld Tabaku, 16, told me living in London was his ‘great dream’. Typically, he knew little about the realities of life there, beyond a romantic image gleaned from films.
An adjacent school, specialising in veterinary studies and agriculture, ought to have 650 students but has only 126.
There, even the janitor aspires to live in Yorkshire, like his brother-in-law, who has a thriving property business in Leeds. He fails to understand why — at 51, and with no skills — he was refused a visa.
Despairing at the corruption and nepotism that block their ambitions, every bit as much as the low wages, Albania’s youthful cream is leaving in droves. Pictured: Migrants arrive in Dover
Paid a pittance and disillusioned by a system that blocks their path to the top of their profession, many young teachers are heading for England, too.
Before leaving for Albania, I spoke to Ervini Kumaraku, 29, who last summer quit his English teaching post in a high school in Ura Vajgurore, another small town south of Tirana, to manage a restaurant in Weston-super-Mare.
Now sharing digs with other Albanians, in a basement flat near the seafront, he ‘hates’ living in Britain because he’s homesick, misses his wife, and loathes the weather and food. Yet he stays because he has quadrupled his ¤500-per-month teaching salary.
Back in Tirana, with its impressive new developments — apartment blocks, offices and hotels, chic restaurants and designer shops (many of which are accepted to have been funded by the laundered profits of overseas crime) the brain-drain is less obvious.
Earnest-looking undergraduates beetle about the university campuses. Yet even here things are not as they seem.
The University of Tirana’s prestigious physics faculty once produced world-renowned scientists. But this year the sense of apathy is such that only ten undergraduates have matriculated.
Back in Tirana (pictured), with its impressive new developments — apartment blocks, offices and hotels, chic restaurants and designer shops (many of which are accepted to have been funded by the laundered profits of overseas crime) the brain-drain is less obvious
On the steps of the nearby polytechnic, where he has just attended a mechanical engineering lecture, I meet a 22-year-old master’s degree student called ‘Xheson’ (for reasons that will become obvious, he declines to give his real name). As he begins to tell his story, this young fellow seems the type of character Albania needs. Someone who bucked the migratory trend.
Though he admitted entering Britain illegally at 17 — working all hours to pay traffickers £7,500 to ferry him across the Channel — he stayed only a few months before realising he had made a grave mistake and deciding to return home.
But while living with a relative, in North London, he fell in thrall to an Albanian ‘drug lord’ who shopped him to the police, then purported to help him — a ploy sometimes used to gain control of underlings, he says.
Unlike some compatriots, Xheson had the wherewithal to escape back to Tirana, where he enrolled at the university.
However, he says he couldn’t afford the lifestyle to which he aspires on an engineer’s salary: about £450 a month. He is doing the degree only to gain ‘esteem’.
The business he now runs is far more lucrative. Having set up a cryptocurrency account, he has become a banker for contacts he met in the London underworld.
‘They send me their money, I look after it safely and I take some ‘tax’ for myself,’ he says with a grin.
When politicians and academics told me, this week, that incentives were needed to help Albania retain its budding entrepreneurs, this wasn’t what they had in mind.
Largely controlled by cronies of the ruling socialist party, with its populist Prime Minister Edi Rama (a 6ft 6in former professional basketball player), pictured, the Albanian media is notoriously supine when it comes to official corruption
Yet how can Albania’s powerbrokers expect young people to live exemplary lives when the society they have created is rife with corruption, and so many of them have their noses in the trough?
Largely controlled by cronies of the ruling socialist party, with its populist Prime Minister Edi Rama (a 6ft 6in former professional basketball player), the Albanian media is notoriously supine when it comes to official corruption.
However, Lindita Cela, a brave Albanian investigative reporter, tells me that 12 politicians, including mayors and MPs, have either been convicted or investigated recently for crimes ranging from drug trafficking to murder.
‘The Albanian parliament has never had so many criminals,’ she says. ‘In the past, they stayed in the background. Now they are centre stage.’
The rival political parties inevitably blame one another. During my 90-minute interview with opposition leader Sali Berisha, 74, he made a raft of allegations against Rama, who ousted him as a prime minister in 2013.
The Democratic Party chairman spoke of a £400 million government waste-disposal project where incinerators were never built; new schools and roads that cost Albanian taxpayers far more than similar schemes in EU countries because millions goes astray.
‘Edi Rama is, by corruption, stealing the nation, and it is devastating,’ he said. ‘I have seen the British media saying [mass emigration from Albania] is about poverty. But . . . poverty is entirely due to stealing public funds from the government. Tirana has become a cradle of corruption’.
As a result, he said, migration was destroying Albania.
He highlighted reports that Mr Rama flew by private chartered jet 137 times last year, costing Albania £22 million.
He says the PM has allegedly amassed a £200 million fortune; and built a huge villa outside Tirana, claiming to have paid for it by selling artwork and a book he wrote, or using funds provided by his wife, Linda, a banker.
The University of Tirana’s prestigious physics faculty once produced world-renowned scientists. But this year the sense of apathy is such that only ten undergraduates have matriculated. Pictured: Panorama of Tirana city
However, as government MPs are quick to point out, Mr Berisha is not without his own skeletons. While he was already prohibited from entering the U.S. for alleged association with organised criminals, the ban was recently extended to include Britain.
The Democrats’ leader claims the accusations have been trumped up for political reasons.
Whatever the truth, MP Lavdrim Krashi is deeply concerned by the dubious standards of behaviour he has encountered since returning home to enter parliament last year, after working for 20 years as a senior housing manager for Brent Council in North London.
‘The main reason I decided to come home was to bring some ‘Britishness’ to the Albanian political system,’ he told me. ‘By that, I mean transparency, openness and integrity. There’s a lack of all these things in Albania when it comes to public servants. The way people look at it (if you’re a politician) is that you’re entitled to do anything you want.
During my 90-minute interview with opposition leader Sali Berisha (pictured), 74, he made a raft of allegations against Rama, who ousted him as a prime minister in 2013
‘There’s a perception that if you are in power — and this applies to the opposition, as well — you are entitled to drive a 2022-plate Range Rover and wear expensive clothes. I’m wearing a £199 suit from M&S — I’m probably one of the cheapest-dressed members of parliament.’
These expectations, he says, extend to owning expensive properties and businesses.
So where does the money come from? ‘Well, it doesn’t come from their salaries, which are about £1,000 a month after tax.’
Mr Krashi moves on to jobs. The best positions, in the public sector and in private companies, are seldom filled on merit.
Everything depends on who you know, your political links or corrupt payments.
The system saps young people’s hope. Kills their spirit. That much is evident from the huge number of ambitious young people gravitating to Britain, not just in boats but by way of student and skilled migrant workers’ visas.
Families routinely take bright young boys out of school at 14, 15 or 16 and send them to Britain alone, he said, knowing the law prevents young people being deported. While working for Brent council, he saw how they slipped through the net into criminality.
When I asked Mr Krashi whether the prime minister he serves was right to blame failed British asylum policies for the Albanian migration crisis, as he did last week, he replied unequivocally: ‘No. The main failure is from us. We are failing our young people.’
Belatedly, the Rama administration is at least making a show of stopping the rottenness at the core of Albanian society.
Unbelievable though it may sound, teachers here have needed no professional qualifications to work in schools. Henceforth that will apparently change.
Mr Krashi (pictured) highlighted reports that Mr Rama flew by private chartered jet 137 times last year, costing Albania £22 million
Meanwhile, there has been a visible crackdown on endemic corruption in the public health sector. Since the fall of Communism (and perhaps before) it has been accepted practice for doctors to be paid ‘tips’ — bribes by any other name — for favourable treatment.
Operation queues can be jumped, and better standards of care can be obtained by slipping a few thousand Lek into the pocket of a specialist’s white coat.
Two months ago, however, the authorities set up a sting to show this would no longer be tolerated. As anaesthetist Fitim Marku accepted a bribe, his ‘patient’ revealed himself to be an undercover police officer and arrested him.
Outraged that an example has been made of one of their poorly rewarded colleagues (Marku probably earned around £500 a month) while politicians cream off millions with impunity, doctors across the country are supporting him.
And at Tirana’s medical university, the case has made the next generation of Albanian doctors even more determined to practise abroad. Indeed, more than 3,000 Albanian doctors and other health professionals have been hired under a fast-tracking recruitment scheme in Germany, and the same could happen here, were the NHS to relax its requirements.
If that happens, Albania’s loss would be Britain’s gain. The same can be said for many of the sharp, enterprising, unfailingly friendly young men and women I met.
They are far removed from the stereotypical image of Albanian migrants, an image fostered by the small minority of undesirables who cram into those sagging dinghies.
Yet surely the outflow of talent must be stemmed? If not, there will be no one left with the will or wit to rebuild this beautiful country — and Albania’s demise will echo across many more empty Mother Teresa squares.
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