For thousands of Albanians heading West in search of a new life, the journey begins at dawn on a patch of concrete sandwiched between a pizza restaurant and a large Zanussi showroom on the main dual carriageway out of central Tirana.
This is the headquarters of Pati Travel, the capital city’s biggest and most successful bus company specialising in what it calls the ‘emigrantet’ (or ‘immigrant’) market.
For around 200 euros, they’ll sell you a one-way ticket to a selection of major European cities advertised in a vast blue map covering the main window of its ticket office.
Destinations include Vienna, Prague, Frankfurt, Brussels and Berlin, plus another 27 places scattered across Germany, Austria and Belgium.
Also pictured, in the top corner of the chart, are four more towns and cities where the firm’s customers often choose to end up. This section of the map covers ‘Angli’ or England. And the supposedly popular destinations named there are: London, Birmingham, Liverpool and… Maidstone in Kent.
This is the headquarters of Pati Travel, the capital city’s biggest and most successful bus company specialising in what it calls the ‘emigrantet’ (or ‘immigrant’) market
Therein lies a pressing fact: while Pati Travel’s fleet of 20 executive coaches doesn’t — and legally cannot — take locals all the way to the UK, a hefty proportion of the bus firm’s punters are, as the mural suggests, heading to our country anyway.
After reaching Belgium, they will typically hop on a local coach to Normandy. Then they’ll look for a fixer who, in exchange for several thousand euros, will put them aboard a rubber dinghy heading across the channel.
‘Everything is completely legal until you get to France and arrive in Calais or Dunkirk,’ explains Petrit, one of a group of 70 locals loading small bags onto a coach just before 5am yesterday.
‘Then you must go to the camp where the Albanians stay and find someone who can put you onto a speedy boat. At the point where you pay the trafficker money, you enter what we call the Red Zone, where everything becomes illegal until you arrive in England.’
Waiting with Petrit is Andi, a 35-year-old electrical engineer from Elbasan, a city half an hour’s drive south of the capital. He explains what motivates locals to make this sometimes perilous journey.
‘There is no country like Albania, but even if you have a good profession you don’t get paid well here. The economic situation is very poor and that is why people are choosing to leave. You simply cannot survive on a few hundred dollars a month, so of course lots of people go abroad instead.’
Also watching over the passengers, who hang around in the semi-darkness drinking coffee and smoking marijuana, is Arbeni, a local taxi driver who has just dropped off a carload of men.
‘They are young people, not even 30 years old, with just small shoulder bags and no other luggage, and they are determined to reach England at any cost. There must be 15 taxis that came here today full of the same sort of people. The next generation is leaving.’
Pati Travel advertises its daily trips via a slick social media operation that includes Facebook pages showing buses filled with smiling passengers waving passports in the air and Tiktok videos of his coaches shot via drones and captioned with such hashtags as #makeyourmove #unitedkingdom and #london.
One part of the sales pitch is cost: coaches provide a far cheaper way of reaching Western Europe than airlines.
Another part of the allure is practical: Albanians who have previously been deported from other countries, or have picked up criminal convictions, are frequently flagged on ‘no fly’ databases and prevented from boarding aeroplanes. No such screening happens on buses. Whatever the appeal, business for Pati Travel is booming: since founding the firm in 2015, its owner Patriot Rexhmati, a swarthy man in a white designer tracksuit and heavy gold jewellery, has managed to build up a fleet of 20 smart new buses, each making two return journeys across Europe per week.
Mr Rexhmati declined to be interviewed when I visited, instead referring me to a leaflet carrying details of Pati’s routes.
Intriguingly, this reveals that the firm currently boasts a UK telephone number, which appears to be operated via a sister company registered at Companies House to an office block in Romford — which in turn lists Patriot’s 35-year-old brother Vullnet as its only director.
Therein lies a pressing fact: while Pati Travel’s fleet of 20 executive coaches doesn’t — and legally cannot — take locals all the way to the UK, a hefty proportion of the bus firm’s punters are, as the mural suggests, heading to our country anyway
When I called that number this week, an operator claimed that Pati’s British arm does not organise travel across the Channel but instead helps Albanians living in the UK to ship parcels home. ‘We do parcels rather than transport,’ he said, before hanging up.
It’s all rather curious. And while we must of course stress that there is no evidence the firm is breaking any laws, its client base is certainly fuelling a major political crisis at home and abroad.
So far this year, around 12,000 people have left this tiny Balkan country and travelled illegally to the UK. Around 10,000 of them are working age men.
The vast majority have arrived via rubber dinghies, before lodging asylum applications.
At times during the summer months, when Channel crossings were at their seasonal peak, Albanians made up around 60 per cent of people making the journey.
To put the extraordinary scale of this phenomenon into context, the entire population of Albania is a mere 2.8 million. That means, as a Home Office official told stunned MPs last week, that ‘between one and two per cent of the entire adult male population of Albania’ aged between 20 and 40 has so far travelled to the UK this year alone, in small boats. The 15,403 Albanians who are meanwhile currently in the UK awaiting an asylum decision equate to one in every 180 men, women and children in the entire country.
Naturally, this exodus is having a profound effect on Albania, as well as the UK. In one northern town, Has, which a decade ago boasted 15,000 residents, officials say around 8,000 former citizens are now living in London. A recent BBC report described towns surrounding Tirana as ‘almost empty’ of working-age men.
So what is causing this exodus? Spend just a few hours in Tirana’s cafes and bus stations, where groups of young men hunch over iPhones planning their trips, and you’ll chance upon a simple answer: money.
Albania is a poor country which has, in recent years, suffered a series of severe economic setbacks, ranging from a 2019 earthquake which caused a billion euros worth of damage, to the Covid pandemic that profoundly impacted its once vibrant tourist trade.
Throw in this year’s energy crisis, which sent electricity prices soaring just as the country’s hydroelectric plants, which typically supply more than 70 per cent of its power, were suffering a summer drought, and you have the makings of a budgetary crisis. The average Albanian worker today commands a salary of just £442 a month.
Meanwhile the cost of living is sky-rocketing. Prices of staple foods have increased by around 20 per cent this year, while the vehicles that clog Tirana’s streets are fuelled by diesel that now retails for the equivalent of around £1.80 a litre.
Facing these hard truths, along with endemic corruption that blights almost every layer of society (Transparency International places Albania 110th in its league table of corrupt nations, on a par with Algeria and Malawi) it’s hardly surprising that many of the country’s ambitious young adults should seek out a better life abroad.
‘People doing this are smart guys,’ says Selami Jenishehri, a former opposition MP who I find sipping coffee in a cafe a short drive from Tirana’s Parliament building. ‘I used to be an academic, I taught maths and physics, and my former students have just left. Albania is totally corrupt. It is a sort of junta. So people look to the UK and see a place where officials aren’t stealing and respect the law and of course they want to go there. Our middle-class is disappearing. In future, we will be left with just the elites and the poor.’
Another demographic cashing in on the migrant wave, aside from bright university graduates, are organised criminals. Albanian gangs now control Britain’s £5 billion a year cocaine trade and are fast displacing the Vietnamese who have historically run the UK’s cannabis farms. ‘Kids who come over on boats can pay for their journey in a month if they agree to work in a cannabis farm,’ is how one political analyst puts it.
‘For the gang masters, it’s low risk and incredibly profitable, since they can set up CCTV and monitor the facility via their mobile phone from Dubai or wherever they want to live. For the kids, it’s fine as long as they don’t get caught.’
On that note, Albanians are now the most common nationality of foreign criminals in British jails, with around 1,500 currently being detained at His Majesty’s pleasure (more than one per cent of the 140,000 countrymen believed to be in the UK).
Then they’ll look for a fixer who, in exchange for several thousand euros, will put them aboard a rubber dinghy heading across the channel
Evidence of their reach can be seen across Tirana, where an astonishing number of souped-up BMW, Mercedes and Range Rover cars cruise the crowded roads carrying British number plates.
In one 15-minute journey this week, I passed three, all with blacked-out windows, including a £150,000 Audi supercar carrying a personalised number plate.
It only adds to the image of Britain as a land where the streets are paved with gold, reckons Arben Kola, a tourist guide who tells me three of his nephews have gone to the UK so far this year.
‘One is a plumber, another an IT graduate. They all went to work on the black market in construction. Obviously I was concerned because they don’t appreciate how dangerous the trip is. It also breaks my heart that after 30 years [of independence] Albania’s children still dream of leaving, but in the UK they can earn four, five times what they would here.’
Kola was, ironically, among the first wave of modern Albanian migrants to travel to the UK during the economically turbulent years followed the fall of Communism. He headed to Britain in the late 1990s, posing as a refugee from war-torn Yugoslavia and eventually stayed for eight years. He blames the country’s political elite for the fact that a new generation is now making the same journey and he is particularly critical of its Prime Minister Edi Rama, who has been in power since 2013.
‘Petty corruption touches every field of life. Even cleaners in hospitals ask for cash when you try to visit a sick relative.’
Rama, of course, made news in the UK this week after launching an outspoken attack on Suella Braverman’s use of the word ‘invasion’ to describe Albanian migration to the UK.
At home, it was a canny fight to pick, deflecting some of the criticism he was facing over his ongoing failure to get a grip of the migrant crisis which has seen around one in five doctors move overseas, leaving the country with Europe’s lowest number of doctors and nurses per capita.
Intriguingly, Rama turns out to be friendly with many in the New Labour hierarchy. Tony Blair once advised him and Cherie Blair has done well-paid legal work for his government. Alastair Campbell has worked as his PR adviser and even devoted a chapter to Rama in his book ‘winners and how they succeed’.
Some suspect Campbell’s hand in Rama’s recent attacks on the Tory Home Secretary.
While that may be a stretch, the roots of the current migrant crisis do very much go back to the help that Blair and Campbell provided Albania when it campaigned to become an ‘official candidate’ for EU membership.
The status was achieved in 2014. By then, every Albanian had the right to travel visa-free across the EU’s so-called ‘Schengen’ area for up to three months.
Over the ensuing years, many used the scheme to work illegally in Germany, Italy and other member states, either returning home for a couple of days every three months, or simply staying behind after their right to remain had expired. Going on to the UK was for some time prohibitively costly: security crackdowns at Dover meant that smugglers began charging as much as 25,000 euros to access hidden compartments on lorries. However the advent of dinghy travel across the channel has changed all that.
Alastair Campbell has worked as his PR adviser and even devoted a chapter to Rama in his book ‘winners and how they succeed’
Today, a passage costs as little as 3,000 euros, though typical prices are around 5,000. People smugglers market their wares via slick TikTok videos, advertising Black Friday sales and Three for two offers on some sailings.
Numbers of Albanians making the crossing have therefore risen exponentially: from 50 in 2020 to 800 last year and 15 times that number so far in 2022.
‘In the past, people might choose to go to Italy or Germany, but today there is far more money in the UK,’ is how Kola puts it. ‘Go into construction and you’ll get a minimum £80 a day, cash.
‘You will spend £20 and get a friend to help out with somewhere to live, and within a few months you’ve paid for your crossing. Then you can start saving.’
Further adding to the sudden allure of Britain is the fact that, once they have actually arrived, Albanian migrants can often secure indefinite leave to remain. One particularly helpful law, on this front, is the Modern Slavery Act, introduced by Theresa May in 2015 to protect victims of trafficking gangs.
Of the 4,171 potential victims of slavery referred to the Home Office in the second quarter of this year, 27 per cent were Albanians, the most of any nationality.
Officials believe that around two-thirds of their claims are bogus and in France and Germany, where they have much tighter legal definitions of slavery, the authorities accept only 10 per cent as many claimants as Britain.
Stung by the comparison, the UK government is planning to open a fast- track route to deport Albanian migrants within days of their arrival. Whether this will actually work is anyone’s guess.
Around the corner from Pati Travel’s bustling headquarters is a smaller travel firm called Zagoria Travel. In response to customer demand, it has just started selling tickets for an exciting new bus route: the first ever direct service from Tirana to Dunkirk begins next week.
Each journey lasts around 36 hours and tickets are currently 220 euros. One-way.
Read more at DailyMail.co.uk