'I just want to live': Why Albanians are fleeing to the UK

ITV News UK Editor Paul Brand presents a special report on what's behind the increasing number of Albanians seeking asylum in the UK, as he travels to Albania to hear their side of the story.

Words by ITV News UK Producer Nathan Lee

A three hour drive north of Albania’s capital, sits the northern highlands.

Famed for offering solace to the Kosovan refugees during the Kosovan war in 1998-99, it’s a source of pride for the people left there.

Of the estimated 12,000 Albanians that have arrived in the UK via small boats this year, almost all of them come from this region. 

Everywhere, there are remnants of the past, left by those seeking a better future.

We meet Lumturie Halaci, who points out the homes of neighbours who have left over the past couple of years to find a new life in Britain.

She and her mother, Have, are among the last residents of Perbreg. She says 50 families have left recently. 

'We feel lonely. Our country is slowly being depopulated. They all leave. They say that there is no war in Albania. But there is a big war - the weak economy and high prices.'

Lumturie explained to us that it is her dream to move to the UK, but there is no safe passage.

Her brother managed to make his way abroad, he’s sending money back each week to look after his family and give them a better life back home - to the side of her house, her father is putting the finishing touches to an extra room built - paid for by his son, with European money. It’s basic, but it’s an improvement.

The highlands of Albania are in the depths of deprivation.

The crossings via small boats over the English Channel are illegal and dangerous, and the UK government seems determined to stop it.

Everyone we speak to though stress that Albanians are forced to make this dangerous journey out of desperation, not for the desire to commit crime or claim benefits.

Lumturie explained that Albanians are leaving due to poverty. Moving to the UK for a better life.

"Albanians are leaving due to poverty. It's not true that Albanians are criminals. Our perspective is not to go to other countries and commit crimes. We move for a better life, and for a better future."

As we walk away from Lumturie, we see a young man around 20 years of age.

We stop to talk and before we can explain why we are there, he says “tell the people in the UK that not all Albanians are criminals!” 

Further down the road in Perbreg is the local school.

Over the past two years its pupil numbers have fallen from 200, to just 60.

Rakip Matmuja is the elder of a community, which contains little youth.

His nephews have already abandoned their homes for Britain.

He looks after his six grandchildren. He’s on the board at the local school and over the past few years has managed to change the curriculum - so that children learn English instead of French.

Paul Brand asked a man if he could see his "grandsons staying here, living here when they are older?"

"No, you see all these boys? The six of them? When they graduate from school they will all emigrate to England."

A drive away from Perbreg is Kukes, affectionately known by locals as “Little Britain”

A Costa coffee shop sits next to the Britannia Bar and the Royal Cafe, English-registered cars are commonplace.

The one thing missing? Men from the age of 16 to around 40.

It is no exaggeration to say almost every man we met dreams of leaving for Britain.

Defrim waits tables in Kukes six days a week, ten hours a day, and is the sole provider for his mother, father, sister and fiancé.

He's already planning to come to Britain - though he's vague about how.

He said: “On Facebook I see my friends one day in Albania the next day in London.

"You have a job here and a family here."

"Just to live."

We arranged to interview the local mayor of Kukes, but that’s not the only reception he’s holding on the mild November day.

The president of Albania is in town and the red carpet is rolled out, but the mayor is keen to talk to us to tell of his disgust at the Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who recently described the arrival of Albanians in the UK as an "invasion".

The Mayor of Kukes voiced his "disappointment" at the home secretary's choice of language.

"I am disappointed as well as shocked to hear that [the daughter of] an immigrant who has become Britain's home secretary speaks in such language - it's not normal. They do not deserve to be called offensive terms just to cover for the crisis that England is currently facing with its change of government, which they seem to change all the time."

In his office sits a statue of Big Ben.

He speaks little English and that’s the first thing he proudly pulls off his shelf and places it front and centre on his desk.

He’s keen too to stress that not all Albanians are criminals - around 1% end up in UK prisons.

Back in the capital city, Tirana, Britain is investing to encourage people to stay there.

Nightlife is buzzing, luxury cars are everywhere and you do see development.

But it hasn't reached Matilda in the suburbs.

Nor Suella next door.

"I have no hope at all."

But just a few streets away - up an orange-tree lined drive, hope is sent here - from abroad.

This is the difference British money makes.

The father of this family was smuggled to Dover in a lorry - now he wants to return home to meet his youngest son.

Speaking to a woman who wished to remain anonymous due to her husband being smuggled into the UK, Paul Brand asked: "Was it dangerous for him to get to the UK?"

"Very, very. But what could he do? He had to endure that, so that he wouldn't blame himself for not trying. He'd heard people say it's good in the UK, but after being there he said it is better to be home."

Another woman, Anxhela Bruci, works for the Arise Foundation which focuses on human trafficking and modern day slavery.

She believes that a joined up approach from both the UK and Albania is the only way to stop the illegal crossings.

“If there was a legal visa process to allow Albanians to come to the UK to work that would stop the problem.”

Albanians who cross the channel often use people smugglers to get there, paying thousands of pounds or even going into debt with the smugglers, often leading to a life of slavery in the UK attempting to pay back a debt they never can.

A joined up approach between the UK and Albania, rather than the confrontational rhetoric we have heard recently is an approach the foundation would like to see adopted.

The striking thing from our time in Albania was that the people who are willing to make the dangerous journey to the UK are doing it to provide for their families back home.

Staying is not an option for those with very little.

“It’s barely existing, not living,” says Defrim as he takes off his microphone to continue his work.

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