Albanian ‘ghost town’ mayor plans to lure migrants back from Britain

The mayor of a region of Northern Albanian which has seen a huge proportion of its population leave to work in Britain has told the Daily Express the UK is helping fund efforts encouraging them to return.

Mayor Albert Halilaj of the Kukes Municipality said collaboration was part of a wider ambition “to help everyone who is living in England come home”.  

Located near the Kosovan border, Mayor Halilaj’s region has lost more than half its population to migration since 1990 with a significant number settling in the UK. A recent poll found two-thirds of those interested in leaving Kukes in 2023 wanted to move to Britain.

When the Daily Express visited the area we found boys as young as 13 making plans to cross the Channel on small boats and scores of heartbroken older residents left alone in abandoned villages.

Another constant presence was the wealth flaunted by young men who had earned vast sums working in London-based cannabis farms before returning home. 

Asked how he felt about so many local young men being willing to risk their lives to swap Kukes for a new life in Britain, Mayor Halilaj replied that he didn’t agree with such choices and expressed a commitment to changing minds. 

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“We are against people going illegally to England,” he added. “But things will change, people will try to find different ways to make money.” 

Mayor Halilaj plans to try and tempt people back by encouraging them to start a business in Kukes and by opening the region up to tourism. 

He said part of these efforts involves working with the British Embassy on projects to train locals and set up funds for new business ventures in the region. 

“Everyone who comes back from England and starts a new business will not pay taxes for two years as a way to help them start a new life in Kukes,” he added. “The British Embassy is also trying to help with big donations.”

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No targets have been set for the exact number of Albanians Mayor Halilaj hopes to return, with the local official acknowledging there are other hurdles to overcome in making life in Kukes attractive to migrants.

He is also trying to repair the damage his predecessor caused by being ousted from office in a sex scandal.

“The city always had a lot of problems because the economy is not that good. I’ve inherited a lot of problems in infrastructure. I am trying to change the image of the state and its officials,” he added.

Aware of the scale of his challenge the mayor himself revealed he sometimes picks up the phone to people he knows from Kukes who’ve moved to the UK to talk about a return.

“I’m always communicating with them trying to talk and convince them,” he added. 

When the Daily Express approached the Foreign Office about the UK’s work in Kukes they directed us to its response to the Home Affairs Select Committee report from this year which said: “We are working with the Government of Albania to deliver the ‘New Perspectives’ project in Kukës which aims to provide social and economic opportunities to vulnerable communities in the north of Albania, through activities such as training to increase the employability of people who lack skills, or connecting local businesses to finance institutions. 

“The project adopts an inclusive approach to understanding and addressing key issues that influence the decisions of people and families to migrate illegally, and enhance their resilience to external pressures and empowers them to seize local economic and entrepreneurial opportunities.

“The project also addresses the corresponding social norms, communicates positively about opportunities, facilitates (young) people making informed life choices and promotes gender equality.”

Additional reporting by Eraldo Harlicaj

Translation by Markoled Pashuku 

Albanian ‘ghost town’ mayor reveals plan to lure migrants back from Britain with UK’s help

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