Back to nothing

“I grew up in your country. I know more English than I know
Albanian.” This was one of the comments made by a young person to
social worker Rose Palmer during her visit to Albania last

“I didn’t learn to read and write in my own language. I learnt in
English,” was what another had to say.

Palmer is acting team manager for unaccompanied minors at the
London Borough of Kensington & Chelsea. She chose to visit
Albania with her Isabel Schwarz travel fellowship as this is where
some of the young people she works with come from – and where those
whose asylum claims have failed are sent back to.

“I wanted to see what our young people who are returned go back to
and what services there are – what social work and emotional
support. Many of them have lost contact with their family and
extended family,” she says.

Palmer spent eight days in Tirana, the capital of Albania, in
November, during a spell of “freak, boiling hot weather” that
reminded her of being on holiday in Greece. While she was there she
spoke to young people who had returned to the country after periods
in the UK. The stories that she heard from the young people –
including those whom she encountered randomly in an international
bookshop – were startlingly similar.

“They were kicking their heels in Albania and nobody was caring
very much about them,” she says.

One young person, Beshir, 20, told her about his deportation
experience. He had been taken to a police station in London and
kept in a cell before being transferred to a deportation centre for
a week. At no point had he been able to pick up his belongings.
Beshir was among a group of 40 people who were being deported to
Kosovo, despite the fact that this was where only two of the group
wanted to go.

“Thirty-eight of those people wanted to be in Albania and had to
make their way through the border. Beshir was completely
traumatised by what happened. He was so distressed that he was
unable to speak to anyone for several weeks after his return to
Albania,” says Palmer.

Some of the young people she works with in London came to England
when they were young teenagers and have enthusiastically joined in
community life over here – going to a local school, playing for the
football team, perhaps even having a girlfriend or boyfriend. But
once they return to Albania there is little for the young people to
invest their energy in.

“It seems that there is little for them to do when they return as
there’s really nothing by way of schemes or services to support
them. They are very much on their own and are not entitled to any
kind of benefits,” she says. “I was unable to find evidence of any
training schemes or apprenticeships or anything of that

Neither did she come across any work on setting up suitable
projects for young returnees.

While the International Organisation for Migration runs projects
for returning families, there is nothing for single young people,
she says.

Consequently, the young people spend their days wandering around
aimlessly – not causing any problems but having nothing to do. Some
of them chance their luck at selling cigarettes and chewing gum in
bars and cafes.

Palmer’s perception of Albania is as a country of “tremendous
contrast”. Increasing investment in businesses means that new and
expensive properties are springing up all the time, yet shanty
towns are still in existence, she says. Horse-drawn carts continue
to be used as a mode of transport, amid the lorries, old Mercedes
cars and overloaded buses. Power cuts are almost a daily occurrence
and the water supply can be intermittent.

“Things are changing quickly but there are still huge problems. Who
is going to be interested in kids who have spent a few years in
England and been shipped back?” asks Palmer.

“I feel pessimistic for the young people who we have nurtured and
invested in. They are returning to little prospect of employment,
and an uncertain future. I feel that the situation is grim.”

The future is even more dismal for those young people who return to
live in the poorer, more rural areas of the country away from
Tirana. Beshir described his home village as “the most beautiful
place in the world” but warned that “you’d better not get sick in
winter”. In bad weather the roads can become impassable, so that
some people in need of medical attention die before they can get to
a doctor.

As part of her work in London, Palmer helps young asylum seekers to
consider their options through a process of dual planning, taking
into account that while they could be granted leave to remain in
the UK, they could also be forced to return to their original

“We talk to them about ‘plan A’ and ‘plan B’. Because these things
are beyond our control, we also need to look at what may happen if
they have to return to their country when they reach 18.”

Despite the harsh reality that Palmer was confronted with in
Albania, she does not feel disillusioned about the work she is
doing here. Moreover, she thinks that having first-hand knowledge
of the country will enhance her practice as she now has a better
understanding of her clients’ needs, as well as an awareness of
what could lie ahead for them.

“The visit was absolutely invaluable to me. I have a good grasp of
the issues and why some of them are so strongly affected – why
their emotional and mental health is affected by anxieties over
their future.”

In light of her experience, Palmer is scathing of suggestions that
younger people – 16- and 17-year-olds – could be forced to return

She says: “If I was able to say anything to policymakers it would
be that their policies have worked and that people are not coming
from these areas. In Kensington and Chelsea we’ve not had new
arrivals from Kosovo or Albania since 2003. But I would also say:
let us work with the young people who are here; don’t suddenly
start returning 16- and 17-year-olds. Let us work with them at
least until they are 18, and have had a chance to gain some proper
skills and work on their English.”


  • The population of Albania is estimated at 3,563,000 with one in
    four people aged 14 or under.
  • Life expectancy is 74.6 years for men and 80.2 for women while
    infant mortality is 21.5 deaths a 1,000 births.
  • Nearly five in every 1,000 of the population migrates
  • Ethnic Albanians make up 95 per cent of the population, with
    Greeks 3 per cent and others 2 per cent (mainly Roma). 
  • Seven out of 10 people are Muslims, while the rest are Albanian
    Orthodox and Roman Catholic.
  • Total area of the country is 28,748 square kilometres.
    Source: CIA Factbook 2005

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