Suella Braverman, in one of her first acts as home secretary instructed Home Office staff to stop all small boat Channel crossings. Ending the crossings was also her predecessor’s number one priority but, since coming into power, this government has seen the number of crossings treble. This article, the second in a series of three, explores how government policies are contributing to the increase and policy failure. The first article addressed the absence of safe routes for those fleeing Afghanistan and for whom the UK had promised sanctuary.
In August, Priti Patel negotiated a new agreement with her Albanian counterpart, Bledi Çuçi, to render ‘inadmissible’ claims for asylum from Albanians crossing the Channel, to speed up returns to Albania with the help of Albanian border and intelligence staff in the UK, and to publicise in Albania the risks and likely failure of attempts to reach the UK via the Channel. The Home Office has since said it will not fast-track those seeking asylum.
In her announcement of the agreement Patel said “Large numbers of Albanians are being sold lies by ruthless people smugglers and vicious organised crime gangs, leading them to take treacherous journeys in flimsy boats to the UK.” The expectation on the Albanian side is that there will be “mid-term solutions to provide better opportunities for young people, and means of legal migration that enables skilled professionals and labour access to the UK”.
Patel called Albania “safe and prosperous”. It is neither. But nor is it an entirely lawless country.
Albania and migration
Albania is a nation characterised by emigration, the flows pausing only during the communist years when it was illegal to leave the country. Since the fall of communism about 800,000 Albanians have left, mostly going to Greece, Italy and the US but also increasingly to Germany, Scandinavia and the UK. According to the 2011 census there were just under 29,000 Albanians in the UK compared to Italy with 402,546. Despite the war in Kosova (1996-1999) which impacted significantly on national and ethnic Albanians, the UK was not a destination country for those seeking asylum.
There are three main reasons why Albanians leave their homeland. Albania is the poorest country in Europe with little by way of a welfare state. According to one EU report in 2020, 63% of citizens wanted to leave because of poverty. Some want to leave to avoid being killed in a blood feud or gang violence or forced into marriage, prostitution or debt bondage. Some are forcibly trafficked, for labour, criminal or sexual exploitation. Albania is a source, transit and destination country for trafficking, a major hub with many citizens at risk of being trafficked out of the country and foreign victims passing through or even remaining in the country to be exploited. Trafficking and drugs form a significant economic sector in Albania.
Albanians can enter the EU visa free for three months. This does not allow them to work but many overstay and are absorbed into the grey economy. Coming to the UK for asylum or to work willingly as an illegal immigrant made little sense when Albanians could easily and legally enter the EU and disappear.
Rise in numbers of Albanians crossing the Channel
More recently, as Brexit labour shortages in the UK have increased, particularly in agriculture and hospitality, and the EU and its individual countries have introduced stricter immigration policies, more Albanians are coming to the UK. Albanians are heavily involved in cannabis cultivation and trade in the UK, and may have replaced the Vietnamese who, up until about 2017 controlled much of the trade. Although the current rapid rise is very recent, similar surges have been experienced before as this Guardian report from 2016 shows. Then the rise was drug-related and those being trafficked for cannabis cultivation were children.
In August, when Patel made her announcement, there were press reports saying that Albanians constituted 60% of those crossing the Channel. This figure was based on (unsubstantiated) Home Office information and applied across a small period of time thereby creating some distortion. However, it is also clear that the numbers have increased sharply and that Patel’s three-month media campaign to discourage Albanians and others from making the crossing has had no impact, or worse, has contributed to the increase.
Applications for asylum
Most of those fleeing violence in their home country make an application for asylum at the border on arrival. Those who are trafficked may seek help on arrival or following a period in the UK, either having escaped their trafficker or following a border force raid. Traffickers generally hope to get their victims into the country undetected and exploit them on entry but other business models also operate. Many of those being trafficked are arriving in the country through routes usually used by refugees crossing the Channel and are instructed to claim asylum if stopped by Border Force. They will then be processed as asylum seekers and may find their way into Home Office funded hotels while their case is being processed and from which they can be picked up and re-controlled by the traffickers. This route is at the heart of the government’s attempt to fast track those arriving from Albania, to turn around those who look to be entering for work purposes, as exploited labour or as illegal immigrants.
In 2010 there were 174 Albanians who applied for asylum. This figure rose steadily to 4,522 in 2021. The number of Albanians seeking asylum in the UK jumped by 129% (to 3289) from the first quarter of the year (January to March) to the second quarter (April to June) and became the second highest nationality (after Iran) to seek asylum. There has also been a significant shift in the demography of those coming to the UK.
In 2019 the ARC Foundation produced a report on the trafficking of Albanian men and boys, based on data from 2016-2019. Most of those claiming asylum were boys or young men under 18 and, across Europe, the number of unaccompanied Albanian child refugees seeking asylum amounting to 10% of the country’s children.
In contrast, of the 3,289 Albanians who sought asylum in the UK in the second quarter of 2022, 81% (2691) were men aged between 18 and 49. This rose from 53% (499 out of 931) from the same quarter pre-covid 2019. Meanwhile the number of women in the same age group has risen only marginally from 170 to 193. In 2019 they constituted 18% of the total, dropping to just 6% by 2022.
In spite of efforts by the Albanian government to eradicate blood feuds through criminalisation, it is still continues as a major reason for Albanians to flee their country. A recent Daily Mail ‘investigation gave some hint as to how this might impact on current arrangements. The trafficker in the video is totally unworried about the likelihood of being caught by the authorities as a criminal, but says that he ensures the safety of those crossing, because the relatives of those who might die would come after him.
The Home Office, in its own guidance notes, recognises the extent to which trafficking is a serious and well evidenced problem in Albania and the US State Department has raised serious concerns about the country’s willingness and capability to resolve the problem. In particular, the report notes that those countries categorised as Tier 2 countries, as Albania is, are countries where the problem is increasing. Albanians now represent the largest group (27%) referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) which checks trafficking and exploitation claims. It concludes that over 90% of cases are correctly referred.
Prior to 2019 there was a lack of recognition of the realities of sex trafficking both in terms of how it was arranged and organised within Albania, often on racial lines in the trafficking of Romany or Egyptian women and the consequences of a return to Albania following a refusal. Women sent back to Albania, having been forced into prostitution in the UK, are rejected by their families and often turned over to traffickers a second time.
Since 2019 the UK have granted most asylum requests for victims of sex trafficking. Women began to be understood as a ‘special group’ (a ‘class’ of victims which once labelled as such tends to guarantee a similar decision for all of those assumed to belong to that ‘class’). An interesting article from Free Movement covers this change. Colin Yeo notes that his own perception is reinforced by government statistics “[g]rants of asylum to female claimants have increased from 135 in the first half of 2019 to 257 by June 2022”. In the piece he says that for a short while government guidance extended this understanding to male victims of sexual exploitation but has since rescinded it.
Overall, about 80% of those seeking asylum in the UK will get some form of humanitarian protection, up until now, the figure for Albanians has been 53% (compared to 98% for Syrians and 97% for Afghans). But these figures are based on past entrants. The backlog of asylum decisions is now so large and the wait so long that the picture may be very different for those entering the system now and for whom the outcomes may not be known for several years.
Exploitation or economic migrants?
While some people ‘flee’ Albania, others come to the UK illegally as economic migrants. Others may leave home on the promise of work in the UK but are exploited en-route or trafficked for further exploitation or until their or their family’s debt is paid. Handroj’s story provides an indication of how blurred the boundaries can be and how risks can change over time leading to differential status as either a refugee or a criminal. He left home at 15 as an ’economic migrant’ eventually getting to the UK on the back of a lorry. This was followed by years of exploitation before finally getting refugee status as it was unsafe for him to return home.
Another recent case reported in the Northern Echo gives further indication of the journeys and risks people undertake. The four convicted of cannabis farming came to the UK willingly on the back of a lorry, seemingly knowing that it was illegal (or at least clandestine) for them to do so. On being unable to find work to support themselves in the UK, they became involved in growing cannabis, their vulnerability, due to their precarious immigration status, having been identified. They are likely to be at considerable risk on their deportation to Albania at the end of their sentence and may be trafficked back into the UK on their return.
The UK relies on illegal immigration
The UK is a destination country for illegal immigrants. It has, along with Germany, the highest (estimated) rate of undocumented immigrants in Europe and has more than double the next highest, Italy. Priti Patel was outraged when Emmanuel Macron said that people were crossing the Channel as the UK relied on low paid illegal labour. I have also written previously about how the immigrant and undocumented labour is exploited and necessary for profit in the care sector and other low paid occupations such as clothing and meat processing.
In 2019 the government rejected every recommendation of the House of Commons Select Committee Report on modern slavery in the clothing industry. In December 2021 the interim Director of Labour Market Enforcement, Mathew Taylor, warned that, following Brexit: “squeezed margins resulting from a harder economic climate and additional costs may incentivise them to drive down pay, weaken worker rights and avoid complying with regulations, thereby increasing the risk of exploitation to workers. At the extreme employers may turn to more vulnerable workforce groups who will accept lower pay and conditions (including migrants without the right to work in the UK)”. He has been proved right.
The UK asylum system, of itself, encourages illegal working and exploitation. Asylum seekers are unable to work and must rely on £6 per day to meet all their needs after accommodation. Those who do not work illegally have to rely on charity to survive. Opportunities to work are everywhere. Many employers do not know the ‘right to work’ checks required of them or will willingly employ someone day by day when they cannot get staff any other way. Home Office accommodation is a magnet for traffickers or employment ‘agents’ and most work is obtained through kin or national networks. The wait for an asylum decision is now so long, years in most cases, that many give up waiting and merge into the informal economy.
Government policy will increase labour exploitation and Albanian Channel crossings
Cuts (or failure to raise) welfare benefits or support for refugees will increase illegal working in the UK. The cost of energy and borrowing for businesses coupled with a tighter labour market and smaller profit margins will drive many employers to cut corners on staffing costs leading to more exploitation. Kwasi Kwarteng’s proposal to deregulate certain sectors, especially childcare, will increase the likelihood of below minimum wage renumeration, and reducing the oversight by HMRC (which polices minimum wage violations) will encourage further wage cutting and the employment of unskilled exploitable staff.
Much of the increase in Channel crossing is market driven and the UK is an attractive market for exploited labour. The problems of irregular migration and Channel crossings will not be solved by stronger policing of the country’s borders, punishing those who make the crossing with forcible removal to Rwanda or longer and harsher sentences. While the government continues to support the incentives for employers to exploit migrants and refugees, the flow of people who can be exploited will continue.