What happened to the Albanians? In 1991, when the ship Vlora landed in Bari, it seemed that they should “invade” us. In 1997, following the naval blockade decided to “protect” our coasts, the Italian Navy sank a ship loaded with migrants. Over the years many Albanians – even dancers and students – have been expelled and deported without compliments.
Today Albania – as the case of the ship Diciotti shows – wants to appear as a host country, where economic growth has erased the mass flight. But is this really the case? The new president – the visionary artist Edi Rama – has redesigned the capital. There would be 20,000 Italians working and studying in the “country of the Eagles”. Many of them open companies: “Here there are no taxes and trade unions”, said the local politicians to attract investment.
Yet over one hundred thousand Albanians have applied for asylum in the last three years. They dream of the USA and go to Germany. Just 1% chose Italy. The wounds remain open: “Espulse Schengen” law firms are born everywhere for those who want to travel cancelling the traces of previous expulsions.
Under thirty, nobody speaks Italian, all English (before it was the opposite). The Italian myth no longer exists: “Better a degree from the last private university in London than a degree from Bocconi”, they say.
Yesterday you saved us!
TIRANA – “Italy! Yesterday you saved us and today we are ready to give a hand”. With a tweet on 25 August, Ditmir Bushati, Albania’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, proposed welcoming 20 of the more than 100 refugees stranded in the port of Catania on the ship Diciotti.
According to Fatos Lubonja, a historical opponent confined by the Hoxha regime, the government wanted to show that Albania is no longer a country of emigrants, but a land of welcome.
The numbers, however, say the opposite. The Albanians are still leaving. They have only changed destination. From 2015 to 2017, there were 117,408 asylum applications in the territory of the Union. The distribution is interesting: most of it in France and Germany (here Albanian asylum seekers are the second community after Syrians), just 1% in Italy: just over a thousand.
These are the figures that certify the end of a myth. The country dreamed of watching Mediaset TVs, the language learned on the notes of Toto Cutugno, the Otranto channel as a door (often deadly) for a better life are part of the past.
“In the last ten years the Albanians’ dream has become America, the whole nation applies to the lottery for the Green Card,” says Elsa Lila, a singer born in Tirana who has lived in Rome since 1997.
“Only 500 people win. In the Bronx there is a TV and an Albanian radio. It’s just an apartment where they speak our language day and night. In Albania older people speak Italian, young people prefer English. Italy is totally under the spell of the night, those who have studied at La Sapienza are “losers”, what counts is England or New York. It’s worth more a degree from the last private university in London than from Bocconi”.
Yet Elsa Lila, as the Foreign Minister says, is really one who has been saved by Italy. In a bar in San Lorenzo, Rome, she remembers the stages of her life and – as a result – the relationship between the two countries she loves the most.
Submerged and saved
An Italian Navy helicopter descends on the stadium of Tirana. Eleven people climb quickly. Among them, a 16 year old girl that everyone knows because she just won the Albanian Song Festival. Below, the echo of the shots fired.
The vehicle gets up in flight and lands on San Marco vessel towards Bari. A bullet crawled through the tank, a few inches away, and it would have exploded. After landing, everyone realizes that they are alive by a miracle.
It was 1997. Albania was going through the most dramatic period of its recent history. The failure of the “pyramid enterprises” had delivered the country to the criminal gangs. A civil war. Italy at the time really looked like the promised land.
The Lila family managed to leave a country in flames thanks to Italian intervention. Just six years later, Elsa will be at the Sanremo Festival, she will go down the stairs of the Ariston with the help of Pippo Baudo and then sing a song called “Valeria”.
Elsa – like many Albanians – has known the noble face of Italy but also its dark side. She is the historical memory of the relations between the two countries. She remembers that for years Albanians have been “dirty and delinquent”. The ransom started dancing for Maria De Filippi. “I wanted to show that Albanians are not only thieves but also good dancers”, she said in 2005, when the Albanian president Alfred Moisiu gave her a medal “for the contribution given to a positive image of Albania”.
Kledi Kadiu was dancing to “Friends”, a famous italian Tv show. Nothing exotic, really. Socialist Albania was a country without potatoes on the shelfs, but from a cultural point of view it was not a third world country. Music and dance were taught to children, theatres were inspired by the Russian dance school.
The children watch Italian television, learn the language, dream of participating in their favorite programs. But, for the Italian public opinion, they are a danger.
Today there is a relative liberalization, Italy grants the visa more easily but asks for guarantees. Those who leave must prove that they have 5,000 euros in the bank, “a heavy insurance for a country where the average salary is 200 euros,” says Elsa. “There are those who want to take a three-day trip, have lunch with their families and return,” she explains. “But under these conditions it’s impossible for many.
Nothing like the past, though. From his observatory between San Lorenzo and Sapienza, she saw people literally deported. “The worst case is that of Julian, a student, his residence permit had expired due to bureaucratic delays, it was not his fault. He was stopped near the University by the police and sent back in a short time to Albania. We didn’t believe it, he was a clean boy, he hasn’t been able to come back, he doesn’t even want to come back. But after you get to know the world outside, it’s hard to stay in Albania.
Then she tells another, more personal case: “My grandmother never got her visa, she didn’t look for shortcuts, she just wanted to come and visit me when she was 70, she didn’t succeed. She died first.
The Albanians aren’t done with emigration. The proof is the signs with the EU flag and the inscription “Schengen expelled”. A square of white and blue plastic that now appears in every corner of the country. They are law firms that offer only one service: the deletion from the database of the Schengen Information System (SIS), the unique archive of fingerprints recorded at the borders of the Union.
“Many of our customers have been expelled from the Schengen territory for reasons of refusal of asylum or exceeded the 90 days of stay allowed by their visa. The most frequent cases are in Germany and France. Few from Italy”, says the lawyer Idlir Tivari, owner of a law firm in Tirana.
After four years, the expulsion expires, but the cancellation is not automatic. A more or less complicated legal action is needed. There are also those who request cancellation “before the end of the term for reasons of work, family reunification or humanitarian reasons,” explains Tivari.
Italians in Albania
“Tirana’s electricity used to go away every day,” remembers Lila. The new president – the visionary artist Edi Rama – has redesigned the capital. “Tirana is cleaner, there is water, there is no lack of electricity every three hours like before. It is a change that affects one million people out of three million Albanians. Another ten million are abroad.
Those who were in Tirana a decade ago remember crazy traffic and urban disorder. Today it seems a dynamic city, where cycle paths, vitality of the inhabitants, colorful houses, art experiments and even groups of tourists in procession tell a tension towards the future that is hard to see in Italy. And finally, a simple and striking thing: the coloured facades of the buildings that have replaced the dominant grey.
The contradictions, however, are not lacking. Rama himself presented his country as a place with few taxes and no trade unions. The model is the same as in Berisha’s time: attracting companies with low labour costs. With economic development, however, the cost of living increased. So many still prefer to leave.
“With a European passport and a salary in euros Albania can be a paradise, many foreign entrepreneurs fall sincerely in love with the country and would not come back,” says Nicola Predazzi – an expert in the Balkans. For all the others, the road is always the same. Sacrifices, remittances from abroad, visas and residence permits.