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Easing the challenges of restarting life in Albania: Migrant families return home


In Albania, poverty, unemployment, social exclusion and lack of services drive its population to emigrate. The last years saw the number of migrants who return home increase significantly. The most recent wave of returns is related to tens of thousands of Albanians being refused asylum in EU countries. As many children and their families face psychological, educational, social and economic challenges of restarting life at home, Terre des hommes (Tdh) helps them to reintegrate and improve their living conditions.

I had the opportunity to have an inside view of this situation and hear the stories of two families that went through the burden of such an experience. To meet the families, I traveled to Lezhë, a county in the Northern part of Albania, where Tdh is active since 2016. Edlira Bashmili, Tdh Child Protection Officer in Albania, and Nermina Loka, the Child Protection Worker of Lezhë Municipality, joined me.

In downtown Lezhë, we reached a small second hand market where we were greeted dearly by smiling Alma and her husband Agim, who are part of Albania's Egyptian community. They later shared with me the experience of their harsh journey filled with mixed emotions, as they tried to start their life anew in Western Europe, but had to return home.

At the market, they own a stall with second hand clothing. They adapt their offer according to demand. On that sunny, but chilly and windy day, they were selling warm socks, hats, and scarfs – to help people face the cold weather. While we were discussing, some customers approached and myself too, couldn't resist buying a scarf.

The family was able to initiate this small business with the support of Tdh that offers up to 500 EUR to return migrants who are willing and capable to engage in such activities. So far, 80 families in Albania benefited from these grants, and at least other 80 families will get one during the current year. This kind of support gives return migrants the opportunity to rebuild their life, but not with empty hands. Additionally to improving their living conditions, it contributed to their self-confidence and social reintegration.

"This activity brings us some money for food and our daughters' school supplies, and we manage to save a bit, maybe one day we’ll be able to have our own house", mentioned Agim. Since they were not able to cover housing costs, "Nermina managed to convince the leaders of the municipality to pay for the rent of this family", underlined Edlira, "she is very hardworking and committed".

Nermina’s position and the Child Protection Unit are specifically dedicated to the protection of children and were officially created in Albania nine years ago thanks to Tdh efforts. "It is a very challenging job, with numerous responsibilities, but I find it personally rewarding and I receive training and coaching from Tdh, which helps me a lot. I can always call Edlira and ask for advice. I just wish there were more child protection workers across the country, there are too many children that need assistance", told me Nermina. Children and their families in Lezhe are certainly lucky to have her as a representative at the level of local authorities.

Alma and Agim said that their family enjoys being at home for already almost two years since they returned from Germany. They recalled with dread their experience there. They had to live in a camp with very poor living conditions and were treated badly. Their daughters, Anisa and Greta, couldn’t go to school, while waiting for a response to their asylum request. The news of their application being refused caused Alma a heart attack.

They feared Kanun, a set of traditional Albanian laws that include vendettas, and at first hesitated to return, so they have decided to push their luck and went to the Netherlands. "We have good memories of this country. We applied again for asylum and had to wait eight months, but all this time my daughters were able to attend school. And we received papers confirming their studies. Thanks to this, they didn't have to repeat a school year in Albania and were able to continue with their former peers", detailed Agim. The Netherlands couldn't provide them asylum, due to being already refused in Germany. They were returned to Germany, where Agim was jailed for three weeks. "A very traumatizing experience for my daughters, seeing me in handcuffs and being treated as a big criminal", said Agim. Upon return to Albania, Anisa and Greta received psychological and social integration support from Tdh. Now Alma and Agim prefer to look to the future and they hope that their teenage daughters will get good jobs at home.

Their story is not unique in Albania. Although unprepared migration involves risks and may lead to violations of children's rights, it is unlikely it will stop as long as adequate opportunities do not exist at home. Currently, about a third of Albanians are estimated to live abroad, while 56 percent of the population is willing to leave the country for a better life elsewhere.

The increase of Albanian asylum seekers over the past few years coincided with the so-called refugee crisis, which challenged EU countries. Based on data from EUROSTAT, about 142,000 Albanians applied for asylum in EU countries during 2014-2017, with more than 60 percent of them choosing Germany and about 18 percent France. The vast majority of applications were refused, as Albanians were classified as economic migrants. I wondered why Albanians decided to seek asylum in EU and I found out that misinformation played its important part. Without a doubt, people need to be better informed about the risks, possibilities and conditions of obtaining asylum, and the complexity of the process.

As Vincent Tournecuillert, the manager of Tdh migration programme for Europe, further explained to me: "We do not contest the legitimacy of EU member States to send back migrants whose application for asylum had failed. What we are asking for is an appropriate set of services to insure the dignified conditions of return. Families are returned in high numbers and the specific rights of these children must be taken into consideration. A case per case approach is needed to guarantee a safe and adapted return. This approach must be transnational with clear mechanisms between the country of origin and the country of destination. Child rights are for all children - not only for nationals!", while Jezerca Tigani, Tdh Country Representative for Albania and Kosovo, added: "European governments must ensure that, when returning a child to their country of origin, whether unaccompanied, separated or with a family, the best interest of the child is examined and return is made only if it is found to be in the best interest of the child."

Discussing with colleagues from Tdh Albania really helped me better understand the Albanian context and what is Tdh doing in the country since 1993. Being from Moldova myself, the subject of migration is quite familiar to me and naturally I made comparisons between the two countries.

And to come back to my day in Lezhë... We farewell Alma and Agim and headed to a small nearby village where I met Zana and her 3 children – twin sister Klara and Klea (8 years old), and Erjon (12 years old). Children knew we were coming, so they waited for us with curiosity at the entrance. We didn’t have the chance to meet the father Tonin, who was at work, but there was a very young forth child – "he’s our neighbour, he’s always around, he enjoys playing with my kids", specified Zana.

The family manages a store, positioned right at the entrance of their home courtyard. "Tdh offered us some money and guidance for opening the shop. We mainly sell non-perishable foods, to be on the safe side. If villagers forget to buy rice or pasta in the town, they come to us. We don't earn a lot, but this income is important, it contributes to our daily basic needs", said Zana. "I'm also very happy that this work allows me to be home with my kids", she continues.

We were welcomed into their house, where Zana continued their story. "I dreamt of going to Germany for two years, to work hard and earn some money to build our own house in Albania, because we don't have one here. This one is my brother's.” So they did try, they invested all the money they had in making this "dream" come true. After living in the camp for four months (this seems to be the standard), they received a refusal for their asylum request, but they decided to not appeal the decision. "When you make an appeal, you have to pay a lot of money to lawyers, but also you continue living in the camp. We didn’t want this, because the conditions there are very bad. My kids were not allowed to go to school and they were always getting sick", explained Zana.

With no adequate preparation for their return and reintegration, the family was back in Albania, but they had nothing. Nermina took over the case and asked Tdh to support the improvement of the family's situation. As the small house they received from Zana's brother was in bad shape, Tdh helped them renovate it and buy a heating stove and washing machine. Children attended the after-school activities provided by Tdh, to make up for the months they missed school. "We like going to school, we have friends there", says one of the twin sisters. And they also visit the community centre, where they engage in psychosocial and recreational activities and communicate with their peers. Zana still hopes they’ll have a chance to migrate and improve their life. The heavy rains last week really damaged the roof of the house.

The case of this family, as well as the situation of about 30 other families, is continuously monitored by the child protection worker and, if needed, further support is offered.

The day would have not been complete without a visit to the community centre. As we arrive there, children were playing "Chicken and Fox" outside, having a really good laugh. Immediately afterwards they went inside and discussed the activity. "I enjoyed it a lot, because we had to collaborate among each other", mentioned one girl, who is a return migrant. The professionals working in the centre made a tour of the place for me and explained the services it provides. 

Tdh created four such multi-functional community centres in Albania. They are established and carry out their activity in partnership with local authorities and local civil society organisations. Here, children receive psychosocial support, attend after-school classes and numerous activities that contribute to the development of their cognitive and creative abilities. In 2017, 2700 children and 375 parents benefited from the services of these centres.

"We carry out regular meetings with parents. They come here to improve their parenting skills and discuss common challenges, including related to reintegration and employment. It’s also a place where migrant families that were returned and the ones that plan to migrate meet and share their stories, concerns", explained Lindita Marku, the representative of the Community Center. The employees of the centre are ready to provide a wide range of information related to child protection and migration. Besides aiming to ensure the smooth reintegration for those returned, the centre works to prevent engagement in unsafe migration.

As the sun sets, I leave Lezhë with a hopeful thought knowing that families receive support and are able to make a living and enjoy life in their home country. On the other hand, many more need help and more returns are expected. I know Tdh is committed to continue its work on easing the burden of starting life all over, nonetheless more local and international resources have to be mobilized to ensure adequate protection for children who are affected by migration.

By Arina Cretu, Tdh Regional Communications Officer