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Albanians trying to flee by any and all means during the transition crisis in 1990-1992. Photo: AP

"Albania's migration flow has, since the early 1990s, been five times higher than the average migration flow in developing countries."   Migration Policy Institute

Albanians had no right to a passport until May 1990. Until the penal code was revised in July 1990, leaving the country was officially an act of treason. Nothing could have prepared Albania and its neighbours for the mass exodus that followed when these barriers were relaxed.

It began when 400 people scaled the gates of the Italian and German Embassies in Tirana in July 1990. Thousands of others followed. In the same month, the first of many ships filled with people destined for Italy was seized in the port of Durres. Battles between security forces and those desperate to leave were fought on the beaches of Durres. Others set out to cross on foot the mountainous border to Greece. Everywhere Albania's border controls – whose main purpose had been to keep people from leaving – broke down.

Migration under these conditions was risky. Some perished in the sea, froze in the mountains or were shot at by Greek border guards. Thousands were captured and returned from Greece, only to try their luck again. The authorities lost control of the situation. Under these circumstances, no one kept count, but a rough estimate puts the number of Albanians who left the country from 1990 to 1992 at between 200,000 and 300,000 - almost 10 percent of the total population.

That was just the beginning of the exodus. According to the Migration Policy Institute, a similar number of people left between 1993 and 1996. After the collapse of the pyramid schemes in 1998, there was another exodus of 70,000 within the space of a few months. The number of recent Albanian emigrants living abroad is today estimated at 900,000 - equivalent to 25 percent of the total 1991 population. This group includes more than one third of the total labour force. Most of those who emigrated live in neighbouring Greece (600,000) and Italy (200,000).

"In the period 1990-2003, approximately 45 percent of the professors and researchers at universities and institutions emigrated, as did more than 65 percent of the scholars who received PhDs in the West in the period 1980-1990. Thousands of university graduates left as well. The majority took along their family members." (Migration Policy Institute)

At the same time, the large Albanian diaspora has made an important contribution to Albania's recent economic performance by sending remittances. The Migration Policy Institute reports an increase in remittances from US$377.9 million in 1994 to $780 million in 2003. The World Bank estimates that remittances make up as much as 13 percent of Albania's GDP (some $1.3 billion in 2006).

May 2008

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