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Albanian return migration: migrants tend to return to their country of origin after all

Many migrants dream of returning to their homeland, at least when they set out. The hope of eventual return engenders courage, ‘justifies’ difficulties and hardship, and is a crucial determinant in migrants’ lives in the host country (Wiest 1979). Today, as the migratory phenomenon evolves new characteristics and melds with the broader trends of societal transformation described under the general label of ‘globalisation’, the return of migrants continues to become an integral part of the ongoing migration process (King 2000). However, emigration is still considered a one-way trip, especially when it is happening and particularly from the point of view of the destination countries; return migration remains a plan, realistic or not, of the migrants themselves, and a xenophobic wish in some host societies. We regard return migration as the invisible side of a unified duality, often underestimated or neglected in policy making, academic analysis and public discourse in the host country.

The primary concern of this chapter is to highlight the return of Albanian emigrants as an aspect of this particular case of migration that has been largely overlooked. Some basic quantitative findings are presented, mainly regarding the labour market performance of the Albanian emigrants who returned, but also in respect to questions surrounding their living conditions and socio-economic integration abroad and back home. The study is based on a comparative analytical framework: the different characteristics of Albanian migrants in Italy and Greece and their labour market performance while abroad and after their return are compared. We explore the trajectories of those Albanians who emigrated and later returned: from their situation immediately prior to migration to the conditions they faced in the host country and then to their experiences upon return. Discussion of these trajectories leads to some interesting conclusions and raises important questions regarding the following:

  • the characteristics of the returning Albanian emigrants;
  • the different levels of development and the social structures of the two host countries, which to some extent determine both the migratory population they attract and the characteristics of those returning  (in terms of geographic origin, education and skills, savings and remittances, entrepreneurship, etc.);
  • the effects of emigration and return on the economy and developmental process of Albania;
  • the more general dynamics of Albanian migration and return.

Albanian emigration is a fairly recent phenomenon and since the possibility of a trend towards return has only just emerged there has been little research into this ‘counterstream’. Previous studies take for granted that return is largely a temporary option (Kule et al. 1999; Mancellari et al. 1996); they do not, however, focus on the particularities and implications of return. Earlier survey work by Barjaba and Perrone (1996) and the International Organization for Migration (1995) should also be noted, but these studies are now dated. We were therefore compelled to collect our own data and to base this study exclusively on fieldwork research. Our empirical analysis is based on a recently concluded research project with wider objectives than the issues discussed in this chapter. The project was about identifying gaps in supply and demand of labour in Albania and the formulation of policy guidelines for the reintroduction of return migrants into Albanian society.

The questionnaire survey

Deriving from this broader research, the primary data source for our analysis here consists of 324 questionnaires gathered from Albanian former emigrants.[1] In addition, we interviewed 15 ‘key informants’, mainly policy-makers and businessmen. Since the total number of Albanian returnees remains an ‘unknown’ population and since much of the migratory movement, especially between Albania and Greece, consists of flows back and forth, the only way to take a more-or-less random sample was to employ the snowball sampling method. In order to achieve greater consistency and representativeness amongst those interviewed, we selected our questionnaire sample from people who:

  • were over 18 years old;
  • had stayed for more than one year abroad as emigrants;
  • had returned to Albania and lived there for at least one year at the time of the interview;
  • had been emigrants in either Greece or Italy; and
  • originated geographically from various parts of Albania and from a variety of urban and rural backgrounds.

Nevertheless, we have to acknowledge the existence of possible biases in the selection of the sample, since the characteristics of the total population of returnees in terms of age, sex, family status, geographical distribution and labour market integration are unknown. In that sense, it would be dangerous to attempt generalised responses to questions such as ‘who goes back’. A more integrated analysis might include some comparison between those who return, those who stay on abroad, and those who never emigrated. We are aware that our research offers a partial view of the impact of migration on labour market developments in Albania, addressing only the trajectories of those who went abroad and came back again. However, we do believe that our empirical findings provide a basis for generalisation regarding the economic performance and labour market integration of returnees, their relevance to the development of Albania, and the general dynamics of migration and return.

These dynamics, we argue, are determined to a significant degree by the factor of proximity and the consequent ‘back and forth’ character of movements, particularly between Albania and Greece. To this respect, certain transnational features are apparent in the case of Albanian migration to neighbouring countries (Mai and Schwandner-Sievers 2003). On the one hand, migration and return appear not to be permanent, but rather reversible options for a significant number of Albanian people. On the other hand, many Albanians, especially among those who went to Greece, manage to live effectively between the two countries, either by coming and going for temporary work, or by organising their lives in both places of origin and destination, with the latter providing the material resources for the acquisition of income and the improvement of the ‘home’ conditions. Our findings suggest that emigration is not always a long-term life choice and it may be reversed at any time, especially for those who work in neighbouring countries

Background characteristics of the migrants

We attained a sample of 300 men and 24 women who had been migrants in Greece (239 respondents) and in Italy (85) for at least one year. We should stress that we calculated the period abroad on the basis of the year of first emigration, while many of those who had been in Greece actually followed a circular or shuttle path of repeated migrations. Most of the emigrants to Greece had lived there for 5-8 years, those to Italy for 6-8 years. The return waves peaked during 1999-2000 for emigrants to Greece and during 2000-01 for emigrants to Italy. About 92 per cent of all returnees were married and the great majority (77 percent) was between 26 and 45 years of age at the time of the interview.

Regarding geographic distribution, two-thirds of the respondents were from Central Albania (62 per cent among emigrants to Greece, 81 per cent for those returned from Italy), 31 per cent were from the South (36 per cent for Greece, 15 per cent for Italy), while only 3 per cent were from the Albanian North. In total, 78 per cent originated from urban areas, with the principal urban regions being Tirana (24 per cent in total, 19 per cent among emigrants to Greece and 39 per cent among emigrants to Italy), Durrës (17, 9 and 39 per cent respectively), and Sarandë (15, 18 and 9 per cent respectively). In general, the migrants returning from Greece show a greater diversity regarding their geographical origin, with a stronger presence of people originating from rural areas and from the South, compared to the emigrants returning from Italy (see Table 1). Finally, return migration accompanied by internal migration has been observed in relatively few cases. As expected, it has the form of a rural-to-urban movement: about 5 per cent have moved from villages to the prefecture capital, while another 3 per cent moved from small to bigger towns (half of them to Tirana).

The questionnaire was structured on the basis of three distinct stages: before emigration, during migration and after return. This reflected our attempt to profile the ‘trajectories’ of Albanian emigrants throughout the so-called migration cycle, where each stage is crucially determined by its precedents. Most of the questions elicited quantitative, ‘measurable’ information about the performance and experiences of the people interviewed. Although economic conditions and labour market performance were the focus of our survey, data were also collected regarding the housing experiences and the living conditions of the interviewees before, during and after emigration, as well as several aspects of their social integration in the host countries and into Albania after return. Some final questions involved subjective understanding and evaluation of the respondents’ migration experiences.

In the discussion that follows we ‘treat’ emigrants to Italy and to Greece as two different groups. This is done for the purposes of the analysis only. The phenomenon of re-emigration has been common amongst Albanians who, having spent some time in Greece, then set out for Italy or some other country. Research by Kosic and Triandafyllidou (2003) and King et al. (2003) provides evidence of Albanian migrants to Greece who later moved to Italy and the UK respectively. Unfavourable economic or social conditions in Greece and frequent problems with the police partly explain such movements, together with various factors attracting migrants elsewhere, ranging from positive legal provisions (e.g. the prospect of regularisation) to ambitious life prospects or to the role of the social networks. It is worth mentioning that some migrants have this in mind from the very beginning: in a recent survey of Albanians in Thessaloniki, about one third of the (male) respondents see Greece as a ‘transit’ country, a first step before emigrating somewhere else (Labrianidis and Lyberaki 2001). This further confirms one of our arguments in this paper – that migration to Greece mostly arises as ‘an option out of necessity’, a solution in order to cover immediate needs, where movement is facilitated by proximity, land borders and relative ease of entry.[2]

The chapter continues with an overview of Albanian migration to Italy and Greece, discussing some of our survey and key-interview findings on the basis of theoretical insights on return migration. We then give an account of the experiences of the migrants abroad, comparing the characteristics of migrants to Greece with those to Italy. The next section focuses on the employment and living conditions of returnees; through comparisons with the previous migration stages we attempt to evaluate the migration experience as a whole. We then discuss the implications of our findings for economic development in Albania. Finally, we summarise and argue that Albanian migration has to be understood within a transnational framework of mobility.

Albanian migration at the turn of the millennium: what are the implications for return?

As shown in the opening chapter of this book, the case of the emigration of Albanians during the last decade of the last century is a rather unique example of massive population outflow. The ‘Great Albanian Exodus’ became probably the most ‘celebrated’ case in the new era of East-West mobility that emerged in post-1989 Europe. Recent estimates suggest that the number of Albanian migrants at the turn of the millennium equates to one quarter of the total population of the country, meaning that practically every family in Albania has at least one of its members working abroad (King 2003). Such figures prove not only that migration emerged as a principal survival strategy for many Albanian households, but also that it has become an important feature of the Albanian economy as a whole.

However, in our interviews with key informants, a degree of complacency was observed regarding the effects of emigration on the Albanian economy: the country’s political and economic authorities seem to recognise only the positive effects of emigration. In particular, the dominant idea is that emigration is a way of ‘exporting’ unemployment and of importing undeclared wealth through remittances and accumulated savings. At the same time, migrants are believed to attain certain employment skills abroad, which may be useful to them and the country’s economy upon their return.

Little concern is shown for the outflow of human capital, particularly the brain-drain phenomenon, which may undermine the future development potential of the country.[3] The flow of remittances may also appear problematic in the long run: in general, as King (1986) has observed, the tendency to remit declines as the period of stay abroad increases. Furthermore, the question of whether emigrants do acquire useful employment skills while abroad is highly debatable, especially with respect to economic development (King 1986, 2000; Swanson, 1979). Overall, our impression is that neither research nor policies regarding the return of emigrants to Albania are currently among the priorities of the country’s authorities, and certainly not from the perspective of economic development. This obviously results from the fact that return migration is a very recent phenomenon, still limited in terms of numbers and significance.

Albanian migration is a unique case for another reason too: it has been directed almost exclusively towards two neighbouring countries, Italy and Greece. The total number of Albanians in Greece is estimated at between 450,000 and 550,000, whilst 150,000-200,000 are thought to be in Italy.[4] While the proportion of Albanians in the total migrant population in Italy is about one in ten, in Greece it rises to about 60 per cent (King 2003).

The pattern of Albanian migration to Italy is marked by the developmental gap dividing Northern Italy from the South. More than half of the Albanian migrants in Italy are located in the North, about one third in the Centre and the rest in the South. King and Mai (2004) have studied Albanian migrants in two Italian cities, Lecce and Modena, characteristic of the Italian South and North respectively. They find that Albanians in the North tend to work mainly in construction and manufacturing, while construction, agriculture, handicrafts and labouring are the principal sectors of immigrant employment in the South. There is a percentage that is employed in the service industry, mostly in low-status service jobs, and in the North of Italy some Albanians also work in the lower ranks of the administrative-clerical sector. Services are of greater importance for female immigrant employment, especially cleaning and care activities. Employment of Albanian migrants in the Italian North is also characterised by higher wages and social insurance, as well as by greater upward socio-economic mobility. The general picture is that Albanians are better off financially in the North, but they are to a greater extent excluded from social life, while in the South they have better opportunities for social participation and interaction but much less access to registered and well-paid employment.

In Greece, the geographic patterns of integration differ, due to the dominance of Greater Athens in the country’s economic geography and the more diverse development map in the rest of the country. Albanians in Greece are concentrated mainly in the large urban centres of Athens-Piraeus and Thessaloniki (about 40 per cent and 6 per cent respectively). Very evident are the contradictions between rural and urban areas, or between different sectors of the economy. In regional cities like Thessaloniki Albanian immigrants appear to be in a relatively good socio-economic situation and they enjoy living standards comparable to those of some sections of the local population (Hatziprokopiou 2003; Labrianidis and Lyberaki 2001). In agricultural districts migrants tend to ‘adjust’ to the characteristics of the local context, contributing to the survival or modernisation of agricultural enterprises, to the maintenance of rural population levels and, in some places, to the preservation of the traditional way of life, for instance by reintroducing ‘long forgotten arts’, like stone-building (Kasimis et al. 2003). In general, ‘permanent’ migrants who arrived with the first wave of the early 1990s tend to have more stable employment and better-quality housing and are more likely to have attained legal status, in contrast to the more vulnerable position of ‘sojourners’ who come for temporary and seasonal work and go back again. The principal sectors of migrant employment in urban areas are construction, services and small manufacturing, while in rural settings they tend to work mostly in agriculture and construction. The predominance of the micro-enterprise in Greek productive structures and the high share of self-employment are of particular importance for Albanian migrants’ employment in all sectors and areas in Greece. Here too, Albanian women are employed to a large extent in the lower strata of the service sector, but in cities there are also significant numbers working in small-scale manufacturing (mostly clothing). However, the late implementation of regularisation measures (only started in 1998) and the overall problematic reception of Albanians by the state in Greece, with numerous cases of police brutality, have made life more difficult for migrants in this country (Fakiolas 2003).

What the two countries certainly have in common, regarding the patterns of socio-economic integration of Albanian migrants, is the predominance of the underground economy (somewhat stronger in the case of Greece) and widespread ‘Albanophobia’ as a unique expression of racist hostility towards a specific migrant group (which also appears to be sharper in Greece). On the positive side, the time factor is of great importance: King and Mai (2004) and Labrianidis and Lyberaki (2001), for Italy and Greece respectively, suggest that as the years of residence in the host country pass, the migrants’ socio-economic position improves.

The possibility of return itself is time-dependent: as the period of stay abroad is extended it is reasonable to assume that the likelihood of the migrant returning diminishes. In addition, migrants often make plans at the beginning of their journey; but, over the course of time, intentions are modified by actual experience. Therefore, the potential impact of the period of stay abroad on migration plans seems to be rather ambivalent. On the one hand, integration in the host society is subject to time, and the more a migrant stays abroad, the less likely it is for him/her to return. On the other, the capacity of some individual migrants or households to achieve their initial aims and then go back certainly depends on the time spent in the host country. But in the Albanian case, marked by a large-scale population outflow directed mostly to neighbouring countries, migration has been more or les a necessary strategy for survival, with proximity shaping mobility patterns and facilitating transnational practices and flows back and forth.

Patterns of mobility

Earlier we noted that, in the sample of Albanian returnees, the average period of stay abroad is about seven years. The main reason for return mentioned by respondents was positive economic factors (more than one third), which can be interpreted as achievement of their initial aims and ensuring better conditions upon return. About 37 per cent of the participants in our survey actually planned to return from the beginning, but only 20 per cent had intended to stay abroad for more than six years. The overwhelming majority mentioned purely economic reasons for their decision to emigrate; such reasons included the necessity to maintain/supplement the family income, to improve living conditions, or to find start-up capital to establish a micro-enterprise upon return. About half of the respondents regularly sent money to their families while abroad (in most cases just for support) and one third of them told us that they had attempted to establish a business even before returning home.

All this suggests that, in the Albanian case, migration emerges as a solution to the urgent problem of survival and limited life prospects which can be solved by moving to a neighbouring country to seek work. Particularly in the Greek case, movement is facilitated by mountainous land borders which are difficult to patrol and are therefore easily crossed. In this respect it is worth noting that 55 per cent of the total respondents to our questionnaire had crossed the border illegally. In addition, 28 per cent had migrated to Greece more than once (compared to less than 4 per cent of emigrants to Italy): proximity and ease of entry determine movement back and forth and this is very likely to continue in the future. This means that, although all respondents had been living in Albania for more than a year at the date of the interviews, re-emigration may emerge as an option when things at home do not go well. While about 70 per cent declared that they had returned for good, 56 per cent would consider emigrating again if that was necessary. During their period abroad, 40 per cent of the respondents used to visit Albania once a year, and another 29 per cent were making more frequent return visits per year.

It was pointed out above that many of the respondents had actually planned their return from the beginning and that a significant proportion returned after achieving their initial aims. Additional reasons for return were family obligations (19 per cent), psychological reasons (13 per cent), or simply the desire to be home (8 per cent). About 17 per cent had been encouraged to return by friends and relatives, and 41 per cent had received help from friends and relatives upon return. It is obvious that in the case of return migration the motives are not the clearly socio-economic ones that inspired the decision to emigrate.

In our question regarding the respondents’ own evaluation of their migration experience, 44 per cent said that it has been generally ‘good’, while only 6 per cent said that it had been ‘bad’. In addition, 62 per cent mentioned that they managed to achieve their financial aims, and 62 per cent said their migration experience helped them to find employment back in Albania. Finally, the percentage who felt that they had generally benefited from their migration experience was 87 per cent.

Theorising Albanian return

It appears rather difficult to ‘fit’ the Albanian case within a theoretical model of return migration. Given the relative absence of any theoretical underpinning for the study of return migration (King 2000), most attempts at generalisation propose a series of typologies, drawn from different cases of migration and return (Gmelch 1980; King 1986, 2000). Gmelch (1980) has proposed a typology related to the contradiction between actual and intended migration duration, distinguishing between:

  • migrants who intended to migrate temporarily and return after they had satisfied their initial aims;
  • migrants who intended to return in the beginning, but for various reasons they settled abroad forever;
  • migrants who intended to stay permanently abroad, but then decided to return back to their country; and
  • migrants who left without any intention to return and actually stayed abroad forever.

Our findings show that the majority of Albanian emigrants returning from Italy and Greece fit the first case in Gmelch’s typology. They intended to migrate temporarily and they did return after fulfilling their original plans.[5]

Another typology, combining the actual migration duration with factors such as the reasons of return and economic integration abroad and back home, is that of Cerase (1974), who studied Italian migrants returning from the United States. Cerase distinguished between return because of failure or conservatism, return for innovation or for retirement, and no return. Each of these five types is based on a progressively longer period abroad. The Albanian case is marked by a relatively short period of time spent in the host countries, therefore it would seem to fit in one of the first two cases. However, the factor of proximity, the contacts maintained with the homeland while abroad and the shuttle movements of many migrants make the Albanian case quite unique in exhibiting certain transnational features that cannot be described within past conceptualisations of movement.  In addition, for many of our respondents the option of return became viable when they evaluated that their material conditions had been significantly improved or when they had attained their financial aims. In other words, our findings suggest return because of ‘success’, while the possibility of working abroad in the future remains open.

With respect to the old debate about whether returnees are ‘successes’ or ‘failures’ (see Gmelch 1980), this question may involve more than one answer, not least because definitions of success and failure are very relative (King 1986). We are aware, once again, of possible bias in the selection of our sample and keep in mind, for instance, the sad stories about Albanian human tragedies that occasionally appear in the Greek and Italian press. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to generalise from the findings that the majority of those who did return have benefited from the experience of migration. We come back to discuss this later on.

The experience abroad

In this section the findings regarding the employment and general economic characteristics of the Albanian emigrants abroad are presented. The key aim here is to compare the conditions and performance of emigrants who went to Italy with those who lived in Greece. This will help us to capture the selectivity of migration in terms of ‘who goes where’, and to discuss the differences between the two host countries. Our main finding is dual: not only did those who migrated to Italy have a ‘better’ socio-economic background, but also their labour market integration and other aspects of their social life were generally ‘better’ compared to the conditions faced by those who migrated to Greece. From this, one might argue that the characteristics of migrants attracted to a country, and their socio-economic integration, reflect to an extent the economy and society of the host country. On the other hand, two further factors seem relevant to the comparison: only the relatively wealthy could afford the extra cost of migrating to Italy (including paying smugglers’ fees), and the fact that many migrants to Italy have already been to Greece (so that any attempt to differentiate between the two migrant streams on the basis of migrant characteristics is potentially problematic).

A first observation is that the overall education level of all emigrants was relatively high – something which has to be partly attributed to the educational system in Hoxha’s Albania. About 40 per cent of the male respondents had finished high school, 30 per cent had some technical/professional education and 18 per cent were university graduates (the figures for women were 60, 7 and 15 per cent respectively). However, those who migrated to Italy were in general better educated: the percentage of people who were not high school graduates is significantly lower than those who had been to Greece, while there were more people who had technical or university education. Among women especially, the education level of those who went to Italy compared to Greece is higher by 14 per cent for university graduates and by 7 per cent for women with technical education.

A similar pattern applies to the employment background and the respondents’ pre-migration financial situation. Italy has attracted lower percentages of people who were unemployed in Albania before emigrating, far fewer people who were working in agriculture and relatively more skilled workers, entrepreneurs and self-employed (Table 2). In addition, those who migrated to Italy were in a better financial position in the post-migration period than those who went to Greece: none was receiving an annual income less than 100,000 leks (while about 25 per cent of those who went to Greece were).[6] The urban origin of the majority of the people who went to Italy, about 75 per cent from Tirana and Durres, offers a partial explanation for this. After all, the residents of these two cities have been exposed to TV images from ‘beautiful Italy’ for years before their emigration (Mai 2001). In addition, given the relatively easier and cheaper access to Greece, compared with a more expensive boat trip to Italy, it is reasonable to assume that most of the ‘better-offs’ had the option to emigrate to Italy, while necessity pushed the majority to seek work in Greece.

In regard to the labour market experiences of migrants abroad, the findings are similar: emigrants in Italy were relatively better off than those in Greece. As we can see from Table 2 again, the majority of male respondents (from both destinations) had worked in construction (34 per cent), manufacturing (20 per cent), agriculture (12 per cent) and services (11 per cent), while an important proportion (16 per cent) had been self-employed. Women’s principal sector of employment abroad was low-status services, where they worked as cleaners or in taverns, fast-food outlets, etc. (74 per cent). It is clear that such jobs require a minimum of skills and do not offer any significant professional experience. Two key differences can be noted between the working experiences of those who had migrated to Italy and those who had been to Greece. First, the rates of self-employment and entrepreneurship were higher in Italy. Second, a greater percentage of Albanian migrants of both sexes in Italy had been employed in manufacturing, and a lower share of them had been working in agriculture.

Similar differences also existed between the general living conditions of emigrants in Greece and in Italy. Obviously, a central aspect of living and working abroad was the issue of illegality. In the Greek case the opportunity for legal residence came relatively late, since it was only in 1998 that the government launched the first regularisation programme. Apart from condemning migrants to informal work, ‘illegal’ status also caused problems in their everyday lives: 37 per cent of the respondents had been arrested by the police (66 per cent of them more than once) and 24 per cent had been expelled and then re-crossed the border. The majority of the respondents, though, had legal documents in the immediate post-return period (about 70 per cent).

Albanian emigrants in Greece were, if anything, in a slightly better situation than those in Italy regarding social security and public health insurance: 36 per cent had social security stamps in their last job in Greece (31 per cent of those in Italy) and 31 per cent owned a health book (cf. 29 per cent in Italy). However, if one looks at other indicators of the migrants’ living conditions abroad we see those who had been to Italy found things easier than returnees from Greece. Regarding housing, not only had emigrants to Italy enjoyed a greater living space (fewer persons per room), but also a larger share of them lived on the more prestigious upper floors. Also, in Italy a higher percentage of Albanian emigrants had basic household equipment such as a fridge (97 per cent, compared to 89 per cent of those in Greece) or a washing machine (83 per cent versus 63 per cent). The possession of motorised transport while abroad was also more frequent among those who had migrated to Italy (25 per cent, compared to 15 per cent for Greece). Furthermore, a greater share of emigrants to Italy used to go for holidays in Albania or in the host country. Participation in collective institutions (immigrant/ethnic associations), although at a very low level, was higher among Albanian migrants in Italy (about 6 per cent, compared to 2 per cent in the case of migrants in Greece). In Italy, emigrants found it easier to socialise with locals. This reflects, we believe, the general situation regarding their ‘reception’ by the locals: only 13 per cent in Italy reported problems of discrimination, while more than 40 per cent of the emigrants in Greece had faced such problems.

Contact with Albania was not lost during the period abroad. Two-thirds of the emigrants would visit Albania at least once in a year and more than one third used to vote in Albanian elections while abroad. About 15 per cent had a bank account in Albania and a 8 per cent had some investment. Many used to remit regularly in cash, mostly directed to family support and only minimally for productive investment.

The experience upon return

Next, we compare the pre-migration and post-migration periods and, on the basis of the respondents’ experiences, we evaluate the migration experience as a whole. The overall experience of migration appears to have been positive for both sets of returnees, especially in the sense of ameliorating their socio-economic situation and living conditions. We also observe that contacts with the host countries are not lost after return. Various links sustain transnational relationships, and this seems to be crucial in understanding the patterns of Albanian migration to Italy and Greece.

Employment

Our questionnaire findings regarding the employment status of returning migrants in the three stages of the migration cycle are summarised in Table 2. A first observation is the overall decrease in the proportion of unemployed, which for male respondents has dropped to about half the rate it used to be before emigration. The large number of unemployed women probably hides the fact that many women were simply housewives before emigration and still continue to be so after return, having worked abroad. No problems seem to exist regarding the process of labour market integration after return. Thus, 27 per cent found a job immediately (some had pre-arranged their employment), while only 6 per cent were unemployed for more than five months after return. Those returning from Greece appear to have been more adaptive than those returning from Italy, as 87 per cent of them (compared to a 68 per cent returning from Italy) found a job in less than three months.

Important increases have taken place in entrepreneurship and self-employment, as well as an overall rise in the proportion of professionals after return. Less than 2 per cent of the sample were business-owners before emigrating. Those who owned a private business after emigration reached 36 per cent among men and 16 per cent among women. Self-employment expanded too, from 18 per cent for men and 1 per cent for women to 23 and 5 per cent respectively.

On the other hand, the proportion in all other occupations declined: farmers and farm workers, workers in manufacturing and low-status service employees (workers in restaurants and fast-foods, cleaners, etc.). The most dramatic decrease took place among those who had formerly worked in the construction sector: from 20 per cent in the pre-migration stage to 5 per cent post-migration.

This is hardly surprising, since these were exactly the jobs most returning emigrants were performing in the host countries. Two possible hypotheses can be advanced for returnees to ‘reject’ the jobs they did abroad. First, Gmelch (1980) and King (2000) offer a psychological explanation. After years of savings and hard work in the host countries, former emigrants want to live peacefully in their homeland, avoiding drudgery and preferably working in their own businesses.

The second explanation relates to the many changes in the economy of the source country. For instance, Ilahi (1999), in his study of Pakistani return migration, explains the phenomenon as a rational response to opportunities and constraints while abroad and after return: the economic conditions that returnees find in their country upon return are crucial to their labour market integration. In the case of Albania, the most notable employment change in this period of very rapid transformation has been the significant decrease in the importance of the public sector in economic life, including employment in state-owned companies. One third of the respondents were employed in the public sector before leaving Albania, but only 12 per cent after return. The Albanian Institute of Statistics (INSTAT) recorded the number of people employed in the public sector as dropping from 850,091 to 188,965 during the decade 1991-2001.[7] According to the same source, employment in absolute numbers dropped in almost all sectors between 1994 and 2001, with the most dramatic decrease taking place in total industrial employment, although the proportion of employment increased in some sectors such as the electric power and water industry, as well as trade. However, if we take a look at the sectoral employment of the questionnaire respondents, the most notable rise has been among those working in industry/manufacture (from 16 per cent before up to 23 per cent after emigration).

So, the employment mobility of Albanians who go abroad and return is not only determined by their own wish to work independently, possibly on the basis of savings from their migration, but it is also an indicator of the changes brought about by transformations in the Albanian economy. These involve ongoing privatisation and limited access to formal paid employment, which makes the options of self-employment and entrepreneurship more of a ‘necessary choice’ for individuals and households.

Now, if we compare the labour market performance of former emigrants to Italy and Greece after they have returned to Albania, we find again that those who have been to Italy are in a relatively better situation (Table 2). A lower percentage of them tend to return to the jobs they were doing before emigration, or to perform tasks similar to the ones they were doing abroad. None have returned to agriculture-related work. In addition, a much greater share have become business-owners. Thus, the argument developed in the previous section goes further: the strengths or the malfunctions of the host country’s economy have the potential to influence migrants’ performance in their own country after return. Of course, differences in the economic and social capital of the people who migrated to Italy and those who went to Greece also have a role in labour market integration back home. But migrants’ employment and economic practices back home reflect a strong influence from the years they spent abroad and their different experiences in the two host countries.

It is also essential to see what types of businesses are started up by returning migrants. Most run service businesses, tourist-related enterprises and trading companies (see Table 3). The most common types are small trade companies (garments, construction materials), fast-food outlets (pizza, souvlaki), grocery shops, confectioneries, bars, petrol stations, haulage (especially of agricultural products), small workshops (carpentry, aluminium windows and doors, metal gates, workshops repairing shoes), while manufacturing mainly concerns subcontracting in garments (returnees from Greece) or in shoes (returnees from Italy) and paint factories.

Many of these enterprises seem to be ‘replicas’ of the ones their owners used to work in abroad. This might appear contradictory with our previous statement about the tendency of returnees to avoid jobs they were doing as emigrants. However, one should take into account that this involves a shift from dependent waged worker to self-employment and entrepreneurship. Former emigrants use the skills and ‘know-how’ they acquired abroad; in some cases they also benefit from contacts and collaboration they maintain with friends, relatives or previous employers in the host countries.

What is generally observed in other cases of return migration – that is, the tendency of returnees to invest in small companies and non-productive activities (King 1986; 2000) – also applies in the Albanian case: only 9 per cent of the business owners in our questionnaire run companies employing more than 11 persons, while 58 per cent have a maximum of 5 employees.[8] Bearing in mind that emigration has been above all a household survival strategy for Albanians, we can assume that most of the businesses owned by returnees also provide employment for other household members or relatives (note that more than half of the respondents find work with the help of friends and relatives). In general, most of the returnees’ micro-enterprises have a family character and depend on extremely hard work by the owner and other family members. The rewards are modest, which means in practice that the majority of entrepreneurs will never become rich. They choose to establish a business in order to provide an additional income to the household and avoid paid employment, in the absence of feasible or attractive alternative options.

Living conditions

So far we have seen that, in terms of work and household survival, the experience of migration was generally positive. The majority have found a better job or started a business, and their remuneration is higher than before emigration. All this certainly provides higher living standards for the returnees. First of all, household income in general has been improved. The respondents’ annual income before emigration was, on average, between 100,000 and 300,000 lek per year. Now it exceeds 400,000 lek per year; for 12 per cent it even exceeds 800,000 lek per year.[9] According to INSTAT, the average annual household income in urban areas was about 370,000 lek in 2000. Again we observe a difference between emigrants to Italy and Greece: a greater number of migrants returning from Italy achieve higher levels of household income.

We can also observe some general trends in Albania’s economic transformation reflected in the returnees’ economic behaviour. Such trends include the broader use of money as a means of exchange and the development of financial services. Two-thirds of the respondents now have a bank account, and 43 per cent have various forms of investment.

In regard to the housing conditions of returning Albanian emigrants, the proportion of property-owners has risen from 85 per cent before emigration to 92 per cent after return. Although few respondents said that the money sent from abroad was ‘invested’ in housing, we can assume that in reality significant amounts of remittances and accumulated savings were used to buy new property or repair/extend existing accommodation. As can be seen in Table 4, more people now live on the more prestigious upper floors[10] or even in individual houses, and the housing space is being increasing too (in parallel, perhaps, with diminishing household sizes).

In addition, more people now own certain household goods: before emigration, 86 per cent of the respondents had a fridge and 63 per cent a washing machine, while the possession of such products has risen now up to almost 100 per cent. Also, more than half of the people interviewed now own a motorised means of transport (48 per cent a car), compared to only 5 per cent before emigrating. Comparing the characteristics of the returnees with the general situation in Albania regarding the same indicators according to the 2001 Census (INSTAT 2002), we can observe that former emigrants enjoy a much more comfortable life than their compatriots: 74 per cent of Albanian households possess a refrigerator and 39 per cent a washing machine, while only 8 per cent have a car.

Regarding the social reintegration of the former migrants back in their homeland, in contrast to what is often written about problems in the socialisation of the returnees (e.g. Gmelch 1980), we found that more than 90 per cent of the respondents did socialise with either old friends, or relatives, or both. Clearly, this is explained by the fact that the people who participated in our survey had lived abroad for a relatively short period and most kept contacts and bonds with their country through frequent visits. However, membership of associations, trade unions, etc. remained low (7 per cent); this probably reflects a certain distrust in collective institutions as a result of bad experiences during the communist regime.

If we now look at the contacts that returnees kept with their host countries we can further support the argument that proximity and the relative ease of movement between Albania and Italy or Greece facilitate and enhance the mobility of people, goods and other resources in a newly-formed transnational space. After all, 12 per cent of the respondents still had family members working abroad and 18 per cent travel to the host countries at least once a year (to visit family members, or for tourism or financial/business activities). In addition, 57 per cent of the respondents maintain relationships with friends and relatives still in the host countries, while 13 per cent have professional contacts with local partners in Greece and Italy. Finally, 23 per cent of the respondents buy goods from their host countries, of which 60 per cent relate not to consumer goods but rather to business equipment and trading commodities.

Migration, return and development

We now proceed to interpret our survey findings in relation to the development of Albania. The increased prosperity of former emigrants may reduce social imbalances and boost consumption, but it does not necessarily create sustainable economic development (King 2000). The impact of return migration on the country of origin is subject to many factors. According to Bovenkerk (1974: 45-9), such factors include: (a) the number of people going back and the time when return takes place, (b) the length of stay in the host country, (c) the place where returnees settle, (d) the social class, profession and education of the returnees, and (e) the degree to which the returning wave is organised and the returnees are supported regarding their reintegration.

In theory, return migration can contribute to the development of the source country in two basic ways: the economic impact of financial capital entering the country (remittances and savings), and the transfer of human capital (skills and professional experience acquired abroad).[11] In regard to the first, remittances and savings can be directed towards consumption, the buying of land or property, or productive investment. We have already mentioned that the majority of the money remitted was used for the support of family members (consumption). Clearly, even when they are not invested, migrant remittances constitute a crucial supplement to the domestic income of many households. And although in theory the benefits are disputable, the impact of remittances on the Albanian economy seems to have been generally positive. Korovilas (1999) attributed the high growth rates of the Albanian economy in the mid-1990s to the inflow of migrant remittances. Holzner (2002: 3) reports that the inflow of remittances covered a substantial part of the huge trade deficit. According to Macellari et al. (1996), emigration and migrant remittances have contributed to the reduction of unemployment, the rise of productivity in some sectors (construction, agriculture) and the creation of new jobs in Albania. In 1997, the International Monetary Fund estimated remittance flows at 15-20 per cent of GDP. In a recent survey, about half of 700 Albanian returnees reported sending back money in cash while abroad: 53 per cent was directed to consumption, while the rest was saved in banks (16 percent) or invested in financial institutions or property (7 per cent in each); only 7 per cent was invested in some form of business activity, with the remainder (10 per cent) used for other activities (Kule et al. 1999: 8). According to the same source, 17 per cent of 200 Albanian companies surveyed had used migrant remittances in order to get established. So, part of the returning capital is invested, although not always in productive activities. The negative side of the unproductive investment of remittances manifested itself in the 1997 crisis in the pyramid investment schemes: the proliferation of pyramid schemes was closely linked to the inflow of remittances (Korovilas 1999). However, remittances are believed to have fuelled growth again since 1997, especially in the service and construction sectors.

The second important issue is related to the extent to which returning migrants bring with them new skills and abilities applicable at home. The majority worked in unskilled or semi-skilled jobs abroad. In that sense, the migrants’ employment experience abroad tends if anything to have a deskilling effect. This, however, is not necessarily prejudicial to Albania’s own productive base, since this is changing anyway. And in any case, returnees prefer not to continue in the type of employment they had as emigrants. However, although this may be true for paid employees, it does not apply in the case of business-owners: as has been mentioned already, the types of enterprises that returnees run are sometimes copies of the types of companies they used to work in abroad. Kule et al. (1999: 10) claim that the period spent abroad enhances the prospects of finding a job or starting up a business upon return. In their survey of Albanian companies, they found that about half the business owners considered emigration an advantage for finding employment at home, while 40 per cent believed that former emigrants had better chances of finding a job and two-thirds thought that emigrants were better equipped to establish a firm at home. All these findings imply that, despite the deskilling effects of employment abroad in terms of the educational/professional qualifications of the migrants, Albanian returnees seem to have generally benefited from their migration experience at this level, in some cases by having acquired useful skills to start a business on their own.

Conclusion

In this chapter the issue of return migration from Italy and Greece to Albania has been discussed in the light of empirical material collected through a questionnaire. Our findings confirm that return migration from neighbouring host countries back to Albania is a reality, undeservedly neglected by academic research and policy-makers. We have provided evidence from survey data, which allow a preliminary understanding of the characteristics of the return flow. Furthermore, our data has allowed us to compare the experiences of emigrants abroad and conclude that, for several reasons, the developmental level and employment conditions in the host countries produce a selectivity in the migration process and also influence the performance of former emigrants after return. In this respect, Italy seems to have attracted a higher proportion of educated and skilled Albanian workers, mostly of urban origin, and also offered relatively better working conditions.

We have also elaborated some of the principal issues regarding the relationship between Albanian migration, return and economic development. On this basis, we have highlighted the importance of micro-enterprises, both for the returnees themselves and for the country’s economy. Although characterised as ‘the engine of growth’, the development of such small enterprises faces financial, fiscal (high taxes and contributions) and institutional constraints, tending to drive their activities into the informal sector of the economy (Hashi 2003). Supporting small businesses and providing conditions conducive to their legitimate development should, therefore, be one of the priorities of government policy. It would also be much wiser for Greece, Italy and other developed countries wanting to support development in Albania, to give a helping hand to micro-enterprises in conjunction with setting up other forms of aid schemes.

However, there is another important matter arising from the analysis of the dynamics of Albanian migration and return, and this is the issue of proximity. Closeness may reduce the inclination to permanent return, at least in the short term; the accessibility of the country of origin makes contacts easier and allows frequent visits, thus eliminating the immediate psychological/family motives for return as long as economic and life prospects are better in the host countries.[12] On the other hand, proximity may facilitate the possibility of short-term return, since the option of seasonal or occasional movements for temporary employment remains open and there is always the possibility of emigrating for a second time.

In the past fifteen years, following the demise of the Iron Curtain, population mobility in Europe has had much to do with cross-border and shuttle movements between neighbouring countries, especially in respect to East-West mobility patterns. As King and Mai (2004) put it, ‘although international migration is seen as an increasingly globalising phenomenon, much transnational mobility remains local or regional in scale’”. Recent Albanian migration underlines the statement, ‘geography matters’. Proximity has shaped the patterns of emigration from Albania and there is reason to assume that it will equally determine the waves of return migration in the coming period.

In general, labour movements from Albania to Italy and Greece seem to be embedded within a wider framework of mobility which also involves flows of goods, services, capital, as well as information, signs and images. Italy and Greece are Albania’s main trading partners (Mancellari et al. 1996: 477). In 1998, one fifth of the 1270 Greek investment projects in Eastern Europe were concentrated in Albania, reflecting a high demand among Greek enterprises for cheap and flexible labour which is available either in Greece (via immigration from Albania), or abroad through direct investment in Albania (Labrianidis et al. 2004). Furthermore, ‘Western’ images and values have also ‘travelled’ to Albania with Italian television (Mai 2001) and through the experiences of emigrants returning or visiting relatives back home.

Rogers’ (2000: 8, 10) analysis of European expressions of transnationalism suggests that in Eastern Europe there has been a history of ‘borders moving across people and their communities’. What actually takes place now is not a ‘flood’ from East to West, but ‘a much wider field of mobility’, the majority of movements being short-distance, cross-border flows between neighbouring countries. In the Albanian case one can observe several kinds of flows moving ‘back and forth’ and communities of people expanding beyond national borders. Geographic proximity and ease of entry, especially regarding Albanian migration to Greece, have shaped migration patterns. Obviously, there are those returning for good, as well as those who will permanently settle (or have already done so) in Greece, Italy, or somewhere else. But for an Albanian who has been an emigrant, let us say, in Greece, who knows the language and has friends and relatives who are still there, perhaps also business or personal relationships with Greeks, it is not at all difficult to get a coach from Tirana or Sarandë and go down to Athens, Larisa, or wherever.

In the newly-emerged transnational space linking Italy, Albania and Greece, population movement seems to be becoming easier and easier despite national barriers, while other forms of mobility (of capital, information, traded or smuggled goods, etc.) have also become more frequent. In that sense, as Glick-Schiller et al. (1992: 5) have written, ‘constant back and forth flows of people could not be captured by categories of “permanent migrants”, “return migrants” or “sojourners”’. These informal migrant social networks link people who live in different places and, as we have seen, such links continue to exist after migrants return: either with relatives and friends still abroad, or with Greek or Italian friends and colleagues. In some cases, migrant networks constitute a form of social capital, since certain resources (like other forms of capital) can be mobilised through certain types of social groups and relationships (Ammassari and Black 2001: 21-2).  This trend, easily observed in the Albanian case, might be more widespread in coming years, as transnational structures become more consolidated.

Table 1 – Place of origin of returning migrants to Albania (per cent)

 

All returnees (n=324)

From Greece (n=239)

From Italy

(n=85)

Region

 

 

 

Northern Albania

2.8

2.5

3.5

Central Albania

66.4

61.1

81.2

Southern Albania

30.9

36.4

15.3

Top seven prefectures

 

 

 

Tirana

24.1

18.8

38.8

Durrës

17.0

9.2

38.8

Sarandë

15.4

17.6

9.4

Bulqizë

9.0

10.9

3.5

Tepelenë

7.7

10.5

-

Librazhd

6.2

8.4

-

Gjirokastër

5.6

7.1

1.2

Source: Author’s survey

Table 2– Employment of returning migrants by sex, country of origin and stage of emigration (per cent)

pre-emigration

abroad

post-return

 

men

women

men

women

men

women

Business Owner

1.9

1.7

1.2

0.6

36.0

16.0

Self-employed

18.0

0.9

16.0

-

23.0

4,7

Professional

6.5

6.0

1.6

-

8.1

5.1

Farming

2.8

2.6

3.4

1.2

2.5

1.6

Manufacturing

9.9

5.1

20.0

5.5

7.5

3.5

Building/construction

20.0

-

34.0

0.6

5.3

-

Services (tavern, fast-food etc.)

6.8

3.4

11.0

21.0

2.8

9.0

Cleaner/dishwasher/kitchen maid

-

13.0

0.3

53.0

0.3

6.6

Farm worker

4.4

6.8

8.7

1.8

2.2

3.1

Unemployed

11.0

44.0

0.3

14.0

5.0

39.0

Other

20.0

17.0

4.3

1.9

7.5

11.0

Returnees from Greece (n=239)

Business Owner

1.3

1.2

0.4

-

29.0

17.0

Self-employed

5.1

4.1

1.7

-

9.2

2.9

Professional

17.0

0.6

14

-

24.0

3.9

Farming

3.8

3.6

3.4

1.7

3.4

1.9

Manufacturing

8.5

5.9

16.0

4.2

7.6

3.9

Building/construction

20.0

-

36.0

-

5.9

-

Services (tavern, fast-food etc.)

7.2

3.6

14.0

24.0

3.4

10.0

Cleaner/dishwasher/kitchen maid

-

12.0

-

55.0

0.4

7.2

Farm worker

5.1

8.9

11.0

1.7

3.0

3.9

Unemployed

13.0

46.0

0.4

12.0

5.9

38.0

Other

19.0

15.0

2.9

1.7

8.0

12.0

Returnees from Italy (n=85)

Business Owner

3.5

3.1

3.6

2.3

55.0

14.0

Self-employed

10.0

11.0

1.2

-

4.9

14.0

Professional

20.0

1.5

20.0

-

20.0

8.2

Farming

-

-

3.6

-

-

-

Manufacturing

14.0

3.1

30.0

9.3

7.3

2.0

Building/construction

17.0

-

27.0

2.3

3.7

0

Services (tavern, fast-food etc.)

5.8

3.1

2.4

12.0

1.2

4.1

Cleaner/dishwasher/kitchen maid

-

17.0

1.2

49.0

0

4.1

Farm worker

2.3

1.5

2.4

2.3

0

0

Unemployed

4.7

38.0

0

21.0

2.4

47.0

Other

22.0

22.0

8.4

2.3

6.1

6.1

Source: Author’s survey

Table 3 – Businesses established by return migrants in Albania, by sector and country of emigration

Economic

sector

All returnees

Returnees

from Greece

Returnees

from Italy

Agriculture

1

1

0

Manufacturing/cottage industry

5

3

2

Trade

24

16

8

Tourism

24

14

10

Services

55

32

23

Other

3

2

1

Total

111

67

44

Source: Author’s survey

Table 4 – Housing conditions of returnees by country of migration and stage of migration (per cent)

 

In Albania

Abroad

 

pre-emigration

post-return

in Greece

in Italy

Property type

 

 

 

 

Own

85.2

92.3

-

-

Rented

9.0

4.6

79.5

61.2

Dependent member, guest

5.9

3.1

9.2

35.3

Employer's place

-

-

11.3

3.5

Floor

 

 

 

 

Ground

39.2

27.8

62.3

55.3

1st

25.0

24.1

22.6

24.7

2nd

15.1

17.0

6.3

4.7

3rd

10.8

15.7

5.0

4.7

4th and above

8

13.3

3.4

9.4

Individual house

1.9

2.2

0.4

1.2

Persons per room

 

 

 

 

<1

17.0

29.0

18.0

21.2

1-2

67.3

68.5

59.8

57.6

2-3

13.6

2.5

18.0

20.0

>3

2.2

-

4.18

1.18

Source: Author’s survey

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[1] Fieldwork took place during March and April 2002. Questionnaires were administered by a group of students from the University of Tirana working under the supervision of Kosta Barjaba, Alfred Kocollari and Brikena Brahimi.

[2] Cases whereby the sequence of countries is reversed are rare but by no means unknown. In our sample of 324, three involved migrants going first to Italy and subsequently to Greece.

[3] Even in instances where the brain-drain phenomenon is studied, the question of return of the highly skilled Albanians who work abroad is given less attention than other issues, such as the amount of money they remit or the general description of the characteristics of this particular section of the emigrant population (Gedeshi 2002).

[4] These figures combine officially-recorded migrants with estimates of the undocumented. For Albanians in Greece, two particular facts need noting: firstly, a significant part of the Albanian migrant population in Greece belongs to the ethnic Greek minority of Southern Albania or has mixed ethnic origin; secondly, much of the Albanian migratory wave to Greece has to do with seasonal and temporary cross-border movements.

[5] But, of course, our methodology of interviewing only returnees automatically misses out the second and fourth types of possible return or non-return.

[6] 100,000 leks equals approximately 780 euros or £520.

[7] INSTAT web page www.instat.gov.al; various tables.

[8] These figures are consistent with the overall size distribution of private enterprises in Albania after shutting down or selling off large public companies. According to INSTAT, among a total of 35,477 registered active enterprises in 2000, 96.6 per cent employed 1-10 employees, while less than 1 per cent were companies with more than 50 employees.

[9] However, it has to be acknowledged here that the amounts of money stated have not been adjusted for inflation; therefore the actual difference between pre- and post-migration periods is probably far more modest in some cases.

[10] Until the early 1990s, the ‘nicest’ floor to live on was the second (Albanians say ‘third’). Later, when multi-storey blocks came to be built in ever-larger numbers, the best floors for living became those from the third upwards.

[11] There is a substantial literature on this: see Swanson (1979), Wiest (1979) for earlier surveys; Amassari and Black (2001) for a more recent overview.

[12] Statements about proximity and mobility are more applicable to Greece than to Italy, especially with regard to ‘illegal’ immigrants in Italy.