For many Albanians, Greece was the promised land. Today, the economic crisis is not only affecting migrant workers but also hitting Albania's domestic economy. And coming home can be difficult, reports Angelina Verbica.
Albana Sako doesn't know where it's worse: Greece, or Albania. The single mother has lived and worked in Greece for the last 12 years. But for the last month, she's been looking for work in her old hometown of Fier, in southwest Albania.
So far, her job search has turned up nothing. There aren't many job openings in Fier, and rents are high. The 32-year-old Albanian and her son are currently living with her parents.
Many Albanian migrants in Greece are in the same situation. The sectors in which they earned their money have been especially hard hit by the Greek financial crisis. The construction industry, for instance, is at an absolute standstill, and the demand for household help has gone down dramatically.
"Women worked mostly in private households and were uninsured," said Etmond Guri, head of the Federation of Albanian Associations in Greece. "People are desperate. They took out loans to pay for houses and cars, and now they have lost their jobs. But the loan payments keep coming."
'The job market is too small'
According to media reports, some 600,000 Albanians work in Greece. Most of them have been there since the 1990s. In Greece, they can achieve a humble existence, supporting their families back home by sending money.
Guri: "People are desperate. They took out loans to pay for houses and cars, and now they have lost their jobs"
Records from the Center for Economic and Social Studies in Tirana show that some 180,000 migrants have now returned to Albania. Many were hoping to find work in their former home, or to build a new life with the money that they had saved working abroad.
But Albania can offer them no such perspective, and seems to be totally overwhelmed with the task of reabsorbing those who are returning. "Integration is difficult, because unemployment is so high," said Odise Kote, deputy mayor of the southern Albanian city of Gjirokaster, near the Greek border. "The job market is small and overcrowded. There is simply no room to set up new businesses."
Connections are crucial
Officially, unemployment in Albania is at 14 percent. In reality, it's probably twice as high due to the prevalence of the country's shadow economy. Albania's job market only works for those who have personal connections, said Guri.
"Returnees no longer have a private network, and that is the main criteria for getting a job," he told DW. Rumors that one has to pay authorities between 3,000 and 5,000 euros ($3,300-$5,5000) to get a job are not exactly encouraging either.
After more than a decade as a migrant worker in Greece, Albana Sako's personal contacts have also disappeared. Her son only speaks broken Albanian, with a Greek accent. Kids his age make fun of him, which is why he doesn't want to go to school.
But what discourages Sako most are the low wages and precarious labor conditions that people like her brother are forced to accept. "They work on construction sites for 250 euros ($270) a month. The boss gives them 50 euros when they start, and the rest when he finds the money," she said.
Back to Greece with a heavy heart
In light of this situation, Sako has decided to go back to Greece. "At least there I can work half days as a housemaid three times a week. I can feed myself from that," she said. In Albania, even that is impossible.
Many migrants are following her example. Despite the Greek financial crisis, they still see more chances there than back home in Albania. Etmond Guri criticizes Albania's political inactivity: in spite of efforts by the new Albanian government, nothing has changed for those returning home.
Kote, Gjirokaster's deputy mayor, openly admits there are problems. "Albania was unprepared when the Greek crisis struck," he said. "We don't have a detailed plan for this situation."