I’m standing near the foot of a mountain that looms over Has in north-eastern Albania, staring at a bright red phone box that appears to have been transported here from the streets of Nineties London. To one side, a row of squat, post-Soviet-style residential buildings and then, across the road, a sign. It reads “Britain Resto Lounge”, with an image of Big Ben where the ‘i’s should be. Down the road is the Bar London; next week, the municipality will unveil a statue of the late Queen. Has is a surreal town. If its reality is pervasive and obvious poverty, its aesthetic, at least in parts, is Britpop as envisaged by a commissar.
There is a reason for this. Has is known as “Little London” because so many of its people have left for the UK to find, if not a better life, at least some form of work. Its population was once 17,000 but now, thanks to migration, it hovers at around 5,000, of which only 14% are employed. According to its mayor, Liman Morina, more teenage boys leave the town for England than from anywhere else in Albania. He recently explained that 80% of “his constituents survive thanks to the “hard and honest work of their relatives in Britain”.
Yet Has is more than a peculiarity; it is an intense microcosm of a wider youth exodus afflicting Albania. Remittances (sending money home) now make up 31% of the country’s GDP. In the first six months of 2022 alone, emigrants sent home €376 million. In the UK, this is a story about migration. But in Albania, it is a homily: about what happens to societies whose people no longer believe in anything.
The man’s hair is slicked back fastidiously. He sips a drink in the bar of the Hotel Gjallica, in the town of Kukes, just up the road from Has. He clutches a dark rucksack like it’s a sick child. His name is Agim Mazreku and he is a local legend. Back in the Nineties, he was a successful currency trader and wrestler — a surreal combination that seems somehow perfectly normal here. When Albania’s financial system collapsed, Agim withdrew all his savings and stuffed the cash into a dark rucksack that he never let out of his sight. He was a wrestler; he could handle himself. Then one day the gangs came. Armed with guns, they took it all. Ever since, he has wandered the streets with an empty rucksack — a testament, both to his loss and that of his nation.
During the Nineties, Albania was an even tougher place than it is now. For almost 40 years, the country was ruled by the Communist tyrant Enver Hoxha, who lead an insurgency against the Nazis and then set about brutalising and imprisoning his own people. Hoxha was a strict adherent to Stalin’s take on Marxist-Leninism and he made Albania as close to a European North Korea as it was possible to get.
Eventually the people got tired of it all. In 1989, student uprisings led crowds to tear down Hoxha’s statue. Multiparty elections came in 1991; a year later, the Democratic party won for the first time. After decades of extreme communism, Albania was now officially capitalist.
What happened next was, of course, a disaster. People now had a chance to take part in the capitalist ideal: to accumulate wealth. But the sudden transition to a market economy meant there was little understanding of how to make it all work. A fall was inevitable, and it came in 1997 with the pyramid schemes — Firmat Piramidale.
Capitalism in Albanian was born in trauma. In the immediate post-communist years, three private state banks had held 90% of national deposits, but bad loans meant the Bank of Albania placed stringent credit ceilings on them — leading to unsatisfied demand for credit and the growth of an informal market and deposit-taking companies which were investing on their own accounts instead of making loans. These companies gradually turned into pyramid schemes, whose nominal liabilities eventually amounted to almost half of the country’s GDP. According to the IMF, two-thirds of the population invested in them. So when the schemes collapsed, the country descended into anarchy.
“In 1997, the money went away like… poof.” My fixer Endri Guri snaps his fingers. “The gangs started killing each other.” We are sitting in a restaurant in Kukes. Endri is explaining his people’s relationship to money — and to the UK. “Here, for some, there is a belief that if you work a normal job you are a sucker,” he says. “And this leads people to the UK.”
He continues. “The majority of houses were rebuilt using money sent home by migrant workers who have gone to the UK to work, either with the false belief that the state will help — or the idea that there is a quick way to make cash. Many work in the drug trade. But this is all fantasy. If it’s not easy for British people, then it won’t be easy for Albanians.” Endi is in contact with an NGO called Terre des Hommes that seeks to help integrate returning migrants back into Albanian society. Many have been deported or simply come back after too much exploitation, from people smugglers and drug or trafficking gangs.
There are, he tells me, two types of people who make the journey to the UK. The first are the majority: honest, hard-working people, driven to it out of economic necessity. “The type of Albanians who stay here are the type you British don’t see. In this town, you can leave your door unlocked.” But times are tough. The average family income is $1,500 (this assumes two working adults), while 69% of Albanians cannot meet their monthly bills. The second type, he says, are those who see a stigma in honest work. He mentions my hotel, which is filled with African migrants employed to help construct a local bridge. “Ask yourself why in a town of such high unemployment there are no locals. They don’t want to work there.”
Instead, they see the returning drug dealers as the epitome of success. “This place during Christmas is amazing,” Endi tells me. “All the migrants come back to the city, and it transforms — filled with new cars, most of them just rented for show, some of them worth two apartments, and this inspires all the kids: losers stay, winners leave.”
“Please understand one thing. It’s the youth who always leave, and the youth are easy to fool,” he continues. “Look at this fuckhead,” he indicates a teenage boy sitting on another table, with what I am quickly learning is the informal uniform for young men here: a puffer jacket (ideally Adidas), tight dark jeans and white trainers. “This is the Albanian youth style: the ‘gangsta’ look that does not privilege honest work — that is just for suckers. These Ali Gs love the idea of ‘easy money’ — the drug money Albanian rappers constantly talk about in their songs, and kids lap it up.”
I ask why this is. “It’s hard to go from extreme communism to extreme capitalism. Under communism, the issue was never ideology but survival: we’d line up for bread and there would be none.” Communism failed, and then, after the pyramid schemes wiped out the savings of those who had worked honestly for years, so did capitalism. Now democracy is seen to have failed, too. What is left in terms of authority is simple: who is the strongest or wealthiest. If you don’t join a gang, you will end up as a “loser”, a teacher or janitor who earns $300.
“So they go where their money is — and they become smugglers and they come back and are proud of it. People here don’t give a crap about how you earn your money — only that you have it. “Money is like a drug: the more you get, the more you need.”
Rifat Demilaj is the Executive Director of the Centre for Youth Progress, a local NGO that works on civic engagement and human rights, with a focus on youth. “We have been working with returnees from the UK,” he explains. “Most are looking for money to go back again. They didn’t find paradise in the UK, they found… different things. The most unfortunate get involved with trafficking groups. First they charge them £20,000 to get into the country which they have to work off. The gangs then find ways to keep them trapped. It’s modern slavery.”
I ask him why the UK is such a favoured destination over, say, France or Germany. “Well, first it’s that you need fewer documents to work there,” he replies. “And it’s not just the money; people here are sick of the endless bureaucracy.”
And there are other things, too. My mind flicks back to a conversation I had with a local barber who has recently returned from four years in London because he missed his children. “British people are more cultured,” he told me. When I asked if he would return to the UK, he replied: “Every kid in Albania wants to go to the UK because there are no jobs here and even when there are, they pay terribly. Even my kids want to go to the UK. If I had a chance to go with my children, I would.”
Demilaj continues: “After 30 years, politics has done nothing for the people while politicians have gotten rich. Even the opposition and government work together. They both tell people to stay in Albania while their children are educated outside. A lack of belief in anything is the problem.” The desire to leave is so entrenched that it has now entered the culture. “Go into school and ask the children what they want to be when they grow up and they say: ‘an immigrant’…”
“Yep,” says Endri, with a drawl. “It’s the British Dream.”
Later in the day, I meet Met Tobli, Director of the Municipal Office of Pre-Tertiary Education, a white-haired man who sits in a bare office underneath a portrait of the founder of modern Albania, Ismail Qemali. On his desk, Tobli has a holder containing three small flags: Albanian, American and EU. “My input would be to tell them not to leave. There are people here; if we can live here, you can live here too.”
I ask how they are trying to stop kids from leaving. He tells me that they avoid mentioning the subject directly so as not to give the students ideas. “[I’d say that] if you go to the UK, you will need to work to live. If you stay, you will work to live. You must work in both places. It’s not free or easy money.” I then ask him about the flags on his desk. “These?” he replies. “They symbolise where here we are going.” If Albania joins the EU will things change? I ask. “Of course.” We leave and walk through central Has. All around are refurbished buildings painted in bright colours. Just off a main thoroughfare is a house run to seed with a modern, glass-heavy extension bolted onto it like a small space station affixed to a hut. This, Endi explains, was built with migrant money.
Outside the Britain Resto Bar, I meet 17-year-old student Sara. She tells me that many of her classmates think about going to Britain. Her own brother is there — working in construction. “He says it’s a lot harder and it’s a lot different. And the thing is that many go without papers, which means people can blackmail them.” People see the UK as a very rich country where things come easy. Through her brother, she knows that is not the case — but still she wants to go one day, even just to visit.
Inside, the bar is enveloped in a haze of cigarette smoke. “It was built in February,” Endi tells me. The owner worked in the UK before coming back and bought it. Sitting in a corner sofa area with four of his friends — all in regulation jackets, jeans and trainers — the owner’s nephew tells me that his dad put in 20% of the money for the bar. They named it Britain because they have so many family members there. His family, he told me, has been working there for years, and now own a scaffolding business. I ask him if he intends to go; he grins and flicks open his passport, proudly showing me a UK visa. “You can’t stay here,” he says, “because of both the government and the state.” As we leave, I remark to Endi that the nephew seemed nice. “Yeah,” he replies. “He was a good fuckhead.”
It’s a strange compliment, but strange things happen when societies no longer believe in anything. In Russia, the people eventually just went through the motions of communism knowing it was all nonsense; now they do the same with democracy. In Has, where they grow up with no local institutions to believe in, the people festoon their town with the long-discarded accoutrements of another city. It’s a place where residents bolt UK licence plates to their cars, where they hang out in British-themed bars, and where a middle-aged man has spent decades walking the same grid of streets, clutching an empty rucksack that has become a mausoleum to all that has been lost.
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