- By Lucy Williamson
- BBC News, Albania
Albanian authorities have confirmed that most of their nationals deported from the UK this year have been convicted of crimes there. The BBC has spoken to the men being brought home and it has been learned that some prisoners have been offered £1,500 to leave – and some have plans to return.
Every week, a small crowd gathers at the barbed wire fence at the back of Albania’s Tirana airport.
The narrow runway beyond it, squeezed between jagged black mountains and the tall gray walls of the border police unit, is where UK deportation flights land – closely watched Closed by families waiting at the fence.
It took hours for the deportees to show up, slowly walking through the gate to be greeted with hugs, shy smiles, and tears.
Deportation flights to Albania have increased since the country signed a joint cooperation agreement with the UK last December, aimed at “preventing and stopping illegal migration”.
The BBC spoke to dozens of people on a number of deported flights last month and found that most were from UK prisons.
Some have been offered money in exchange for agreeing to deportation and release from prison before serving a minimum sentence, under an existing scheme used for foreign offenders.
Albanian police have confirmed that the majority of those forcibly returned this year have been convicted of crimes in the UK.
A cheerful 30-year-old man said he served six years for drug offenses, and was released for deportation after serving only two counts – a year before he was eligible for parole. excuse.
He asked us to remain anonymous so we called him Mark.
“The immigration officer came to see us,” he said. “They ask if you want to come back [to Albania] or stay in the UK. They explained that if you go back, they’ll give you a one-year sentence reduction.”
Mark was also given financial support of £1,500 to return home, under a separate scheme called the Facilitating Return Scheme (FRS).
A UK government document states that the scheme is a “financial incentive” offered to foreign prisoners “provided they cooperate with deportation and waive the right to appeal”. .
Other inmates we spoke to on flights deported last month received similar amounts.
Mark was deported under the UK’s Early Release (ERS) Scheme, which applies to foreign prisoners of all nationalities.
The ERS does not require consent from inmates, but several deported Albanians we spoke to, including Mark, said their deportations and reductions were voluntary.
“It was my choice to come back,” Mark told me. “Nobody forced me. They offered to me. They said: ‘You decide if you want to go or stay’.”
We asked the Interior Ministry to confirm how many Albanians have been deported under the ERS since the beginning of last year and how many have received financial incentives to cooperate, but they said they did not disclose the details. this statistic.
A spokesman said in a statement: “The governments of the United Kingdom and Albania work together to take advantage of every opportunity to stop the activity of traffickers and hasten the deportation of Albanians who do not have access to them. legal right to remain in the UK.”
Last year, the government’s Nationality and Borders Act extended the early release period allowed under the ERS from nine months to one year. One of the goals of that change is to increase the number of deportations, according to a brief from the Department of the Interior.
The same act also abolishes the time limit for unexecuted sentences, meaning that prisoners who return to the UK illegally will have to serve the remainder of their sentences, no matter how much time has passed. long – increasing deterrence for people like Mark.
“I won’t go back there again,” he said. “I’m not going to jail. Now I’m going to find a job, I’ll be a good person.”
But some people on flights deported last month said they planned to return to the UK within weeks or even days, despite what many describe as the new hardline approach. of the police there.
“Now they’re rounding up the Albanians,” said one man. “It’s very difficult for Albanians to stay in the UK because the police stop you on the street. They don’t want us now.”
He said he was sent back to Albania after police stopped the car he was in and discovered he was undocumented.
He is still planning to return.
Another man said he went back and forth to the UK three times. “That’s not a problem for me,” he said. “I’ll come back whenever I want.”
For many of the people we spoke to, it was the economic opportunities that drew them to the UK.
Not with Azem, however – a slender man in his late twenties, seemingly out of place in his clothes.
Azem – not his real name – told us his story on condition of anonymity. He also insisted that we meet in a remote place where he wouldn’t be overheard.
On an abandoned railway track across a beautiful river engulfed in the rolling landscape beyond Tirana, Azem spoke, hands shaking.
He showed me documents detailing his deportation from the UK and the denial of his asylum application. He told immigration officials that he fled Albania after gang members held guns to his head and threatened to kill him for his political activities.
He was returned to Albania against his will last month.
“I’m scared because the same situation could happen again,” he said. “I’m quiet, I don’t smile, I’m stressed and my body is shaking all the time, I don’t sleep much.”
A UK psychologist’s report, filed shortly before Azem’s deportation, raised concerns that he may have been subjected to psychological torture in Albania.
A Home Office response said his experience had been considered in his asylum application and that decision had not changed.
Azem told me he would not hesitate to return to the UK illegally if threatened again, despite being blacklisted from the UK and EU countries. Albanians have the right of free movement to countries such as France and Belgium, which provide an easy springboard across the Channel.
Albanian police have recently stepped up checks at the country’s border crossings, to catch blacklisted deportees trying to cross the border.
The growing cooperation between the United Kingdom and Albania coincided with a sharp drop in the number of Albanians arriving by small boat; only 29 were discovered in the first few months of this year.
Much of that drop is likely to be seasonal, and with winter weather easing, both governments are facing the first real test of their approach to tackling illegal migration. often.
I asked Albanian Interior Minister Bledar Çuçi what his country is doing to prevent recent deportees from returning to the UK.
“It’s not possible to put a chip in people to track where they go,” he said. “If there are people with criminal records, especially for human trafficking, then the police will be on the lookout. But in general, the returnees are free citizens in Albania.”
But besides work against illegal migration, he said, the two governments need to work on legal routes for Albanian citizens to reach the UK.
“I suggested to my colleague, [UK Home Secretary] Suella Braverman, that we should also create immediate legalization for all Albanians working in [the UK] at an honest job with no criminal record,” added Mr. Çuçi.
Both the Albanian and British governments recognize the UK’s economic attractiveness.
In the small northern Albanian town of Krumë, 60% of the population has left. The first man I met on the street spoke easy English with a London accent.
Local politicians say many of the town’s voters now live in east London rather than at home.
Even those who stay here go to a cafe called “Britain” for their morning coffee; Its entrance is decorated with a large London telephone box.
The UK is investing more than £8 million in business and training projects in Kukës – the area where Krumë is located – through an organization that aims to change the so-called “cultural norms” of the UK. illegal migration to the UK.
The Albanian government is also investing in infrastructure here, including a new airport. But locals have so far seen little tangible benefit.
We met local mayoral candidate Miftar Dauti at a youth campaign rally – his arrival was greeted by a crowd of enthusiastic young supporters and a sound system. the shrill bar is playing a song called Democracy.
“What regime in which people dare not speak their mind?” the lyrics scream. “Where do journalists dare not talk about what’s going on? Where the law only applies to you? Democracy, democracy, democracy!”
Perhaps an odd choice for an election campaign.
Mr Dauti promised to prevent the town’s young people from coming to the UK. But even here among his young supporters in the village hall, that promise is trying to fulfill.
“I want to go back to the UK,” a lively, baby-faced supporter named Valda told me as he watched the candidate leave. “This place is not for me. I have been in the UK for two years and I want to go back there.”
At a local park in the center of Kukës, grandparents watched children play soccer beneath the snow-capped mountains, while groups of single teenagers roamed the streets.
Locals say some children here say they want to be migrants when they leave school.
In a future version of Albania, British tourists might flock here, overwhelmed by the stunning landscape of the area.
But as so many young people here will tell you, the future is not happening, Kukes. They happen in England.