Why should Albania accept Syrian refugees? Elis Gjevori explains.
On my most recent visit to Istanbul, wandering the streets of Fatih district, I came across a Syrian doctor with the surname Arnavut (the Ottoman term for Albanian). He had fled Damascus, having escaped the horrors of the Assad regime.
The Syrian doctor was aware of his heritage and the meaning of his surname. However, I should not have been surprised at the ease with which he embodied multiple identities, as a Muslim of both Arab and Albanian heritage.
Albanian migration to the Levant is an old phenomenon spanning the last 200 years. There are to this day many families spread out across Lebanon, Syria and Jordan that are of Albanian descent. Many of these Albanians migrated while working as bureaucrats for the Ottoman state. Others fled the Balkans to escape the bloody break-up of the Ottoman Empire, often fleeing Greek or Serb forces.
Many Syrians are now themselves escaping war and there are two very strong arguments why the Albanian state and the Albanian people should consider accepting a very limited number of Syrian refugees.
First, demography. Albania is suffering from a well-documented catastrophic demographic crisis, and its impact is not fully appreciated by the Albanian elite. High levels of immigration, low levels of fertility and low economic development have created a toxic mix and there is no sign of any of these trends slowing or reversing. Therefore, it is imperative to think of creative and immediate solutions to avert this still-unfolding, long-term crisis.
It is estimated that there are now more than 1.25m Albanians living abroad who left Albania after the fall of communism. Albania’s current population stands at 2.89m and continues to decline.
The Albanian state should seriously consider partaking in the UNCHR Syrian program for allocating Syrian refugees. With the assistance of various foreign aid partners, Albania could take in several thousand Syrians without having an adverse impact on the sharing of local resources. Crucially, with financial assistance from aid partners and political will from the Albanian state, the settling of Syrian refugees in carefully selected areas could provide a much-needed economic stimulus to many Albanian cities facing demographic collapse.
This proposal does not mean that the Albanian government should exclusively spend its own resources, in no small part because it has so little of them. If it chooses to spend the little it has on Syrian refugees, it may give rise to public opposition. However, it should unashamedly take advantage of the international imperative to settle refugees. In Britain, it costs $108,239 to settle one refugee, and in Germany it takes more than $22,000. In Albania, a fraction of this would be necessary.
Further, many Syrians are well educated and highly entrepreneurial, meaning the need for ongoing assistance would be limited. The ultimate aim of many Syrians is to be self reliant, and many have already set up small shops, factories and restaurants. One need only go to Istanbul to see how quickly many thousands of Syrians have set up shops catering to the needs of the local population and boosting the Turkish economy.
In Albania, the economic benefits would be magnified even further, given the relatively small economy and the many negative indicators outlined above. Crucially, this proposal requires the state to spend as little as possible while gaining on multiple levels by receiving international aid to host the refugees and increased economic activity resulting from the Syrians themselves.
Secondly, Albanians have a long history of providing shelter to people escaping war and persecution. This noble custom stretches back hundreds of years, and was displayed during the Second World War when Albanians provided protection to Jews escaping Nazi oppression. More recently, the country sheltered Albanians fleeing Serbian ethnic cleansing from Kosovo.
Albania also offers a unique cultural setting that would suitably integrate Syrian refugees: a cultural meeting point “between East and West”. With its Mediterranean climate, food and customs, in addition to its many mosques already in existence, Albania provides a suitable temperament and environment to accommodate a limited number of Syrian refugees. Conversely Syrian refugees could be given the choice if they would wish to settle in Albania and with the right information and incentives no doubt many would choose to do so.
Many Syrian refugees could easily be integrated into local society with little or no opposition from Albanians, who are by in large tolerant.
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Cover photo: Operation Allied Force – Kosovo – Official Department of Defense Image Archive/flickr/some rights reserved