Greek crisis hits Albanians living from remittances

Briseida Mema
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Lorenc Toska, 25, holds his baby son Ardit in the village of Suk, near the Albanian city of Fier, on June 29, 2015

Lorenc Toska, 25, holds his baby son Ardit in the village of Suk, near the Albanian city of Fier, on June 29, 2015 (AFP Photo/Gent Shkullaku)

Suk (Albania) (AFP) - Lorenc Toska returned from Greece to his village in central Albania with empty hands and pockets. He had been working there hoping to secure a better life for his family back home, but the crisis in the neighbouring country ruined his dreams.

"I returned penniless, with my only luggage being a small bag with my work clothes," the 25-year-old Toska told AFP while hugging his baby boy.

During his last visit in January, Toska bought him a little toy, but this time he could not afford any present.

More than 600,000 Albanians fleeing the poverty in their homeland have gone to seek their fortune in Greece, many of them illegally, according to official estimates.

But since Greece's debt crisis deepened, about 180,000 Albanians have returned home, officials say.

Toska, whose money was the only source of income for his wife, their two children, his parents and a grandmother, was only able to send them 200 euros ($224) since March.

Instead of paying Toska what he was owed, his Greek boss ordered him to leave Greece, threatening to inform the police of his illegal status.

"I was working in the cotton fields for the past three years, often 14 hours per day. My boss promised to pay us everything, due to the crisis, in mid-June, but instead we had to leave," Toska said.

In his village of Suk, which has 1,800 inhabitants, many families live on remittances from their children and relatives working in Greece.

- 'Shattered dreams' -

Zymbyle Kodheli was receiving around 1,000 euros a year from her son. The money had supported the woman in her 50s, her ill husband Qayim and their two daughters.

But their situation has changed drastically.

"He is now unemployed and sends us almost nothing. He picked a better life in Greece but his dream and ours are now shattered," lamented the mother.

However, Kodheli does not believe that her son and his family would return to the Albanian village where, she said, "everything seems to be frozen in time".

In a local shop, a list of clients' debts is getting longer every day.

"At least 30 families have relatives working in Greece, but the money does not come any longer and they cannot pay me," said Altin, the shopowner.

"They are waiting for the money... but it seems that the crisis in Greece will persist," the 37-year-old man said, looking carefully at his notebook filled with names and amounts due.

Athens' announcement of capital controls following a collapse in negotiations with its creditors, which saw banks closed temporarily and international transfers vetted, "provided an excuse for Greek bosses not to pay Albanian immigrants," he added.

Around 160,000 Albanian families, who survive on foreign remittances, were hard hit not only by the crisis in Greece but the economic stagnation in Italy. The two European Union countries have many Albanian immigrants.

At least 26 percent of those families are at risk of falling below the poverty line, according to estimates.

World Bank figures show that about 12 percent of the Balkan nation's population of 2.8 million live below the poverty line, meaning on less than two dollars per day.

Unemployment in one of Europe's poorest countries stands at 14 percent while remittances from abroad have significantly decreased.

In 2007, the remittances amounted to 951.7 million euros, or 14 percent of Albania's gross domestic product (GDP), before falling to $543.7 million last year, or 5.4 percent of GDP.

The Greek crisis also had some unexpected effects.

In Qesarat, a small village in southern Albania, instead of receiving money from his two sons who went to work in Athens, Nesto Papa, 86, has to become the breadwinner as the pair are now unemployed.

"We follow the news on the radio. I'd like them to come back, but here life is even worse," their mother Krisanthi said in tears.