Albanian citizen Gresa Hasa explains why she wants an apology from the UK Government

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It was spring 1999. The war in Kosova was not yet over. The refugees we were expecting – mainly women and children – had made it safe into our neighbourhood in Tirana that day. As hosts, we were excited to make new friends among the newcomers; share our food, clothes and even our homes with them. The guests, however, were far from excited. They were traumatised. They had survived the ethnic cleansing campaign of the Serbian fascist regime of Slobodan Milošević against Albanians in Yugoslavia, and then walked for kilometres without food or water until they had reached the border of the Republic of Albania. They had nothing with them besides the clothes they were wearing and the hope that war would soon be over and they would reunite with their loved ones who had gone missing or were fighting for liberation.

I did not know at the time what ethnic cleansing was. Genocide, nationalism, xenophobia – these were all foreign concepts to me. But I had learned that being Albanian meant something bad could happen to you.

“They burned our home”, the Albanian refugee girl from Kosova told me one day when we were playing together. “Who did?” I asked. “The Serbs”, she replied. “But why?”, I tried to understand. “Because we are Albanians”, she said.

“What a strange and terrifying thing to hear”, my seven-year-old self thought. I was also an Albanian. ‘Who were these Serbs?’ I wondered. Did that mean they were going to burn our home in Tirana as well? I ran to my mother to ask her where we would go if they would burn our home too? I figured my grandmother’s apartment was too small and, in addition, she was Albanian too.

In June 1999, the war in Kosova ended and many refugees returned to what was left of their towns. Nevertheless, Albanians everywhere in the region continued to migrate because war is not the only motive that forces people to pack their bags and leave. People throughout history have migrated for several other reasons.

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Imagine being LGBTQ+ and living today in a conservative and patriarchal town somewhere in Albania or elsewhere in the Balkans; persecuted from an entire community because you happen to be a man who loves another man or you are a transgender woman living under precarious conditions with no safety or support. Imagine being an African citizen, affected directly by the climate crisis, thus being forced to leave your town or village because the drought or water scarcity have made it unsuitable for living.

In post-socialist Albania, and right after the civil unrest was brought to an end, life in the country remained gloomy. The dire economic conditions and the high levels of unemployment pushed people into desperation. This is often still the case in the periphery of the country. On the other hand, 45 years of Stalinist terror cast an ominous shadow. Political forces have been unable to break free from authoritarian tendencies even today.

Leaving is not easy. It is never easy leaving the cobblestones where you hurt your knees several times while playing as a child; the exquisite taste of the dishes your mother used to prepare for you after school; family members, friends, neighbours, acquaintances. Separating even from yourself and the language in which you best express yourself. One leaves with their head turned back because ‘forever’ is an intimidating word and, though mountains can be moved – as the expression in Albanian goes – it is difficult to invent ‘home’ in exile. 

At the beginning of the 1990s, right after I was born, my father was forced to leave. In Suella Braverman’s rhetoric, he would be deemed one of the ‘illegal’ migrants ‘invading’ Greece at the time. He did not want to leave but he was forced to – like thousands today who are risking their lives trying to cross the English Channel.

Taking a boat in the ocean or crossing the mountain in the middle of winter (as my father did) is not a choice. It is desperation and the hope that the end of such a journey will result in safety instead of death. Freedom is too sacred for such a risk to not be taken into consideration. A life without freedom, in misery or persecution, is no life at all. 

Three decades ago, while my father was being exploited from one construction site to another, being moved from one Greek city to another, paid off-the-books but still managing to save enough money to feed himself and send some back home, the Greek media would report on the “Αλβανός” (“the Albanian”) as a criminal. Politicians would target migrants as scapegoats for their own wrongdoings or on political matters that did affect their populations and over which they had no interest in taking responsibility. Such seems to be the case in Great Britain after Brexit. 

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Throughout the ’90s and 2000s, Albanians in the country remained glued to the TV, listening to how the Greek or Italian media and politicians would speak of  ‘Albanian criminals’ arriving on their shores. The line between ‘criminal’ and ‘Albanian’ became so thin it made it difficult for the average Italian or Greek citizen who had never met an Albanian before to understand where the criminal ended and where the Albanian began. 

The image of the Western world held by the Albanian’s imagination during communism was now slowly being shattered with warnings that screamed of death and discrimination. Every week or so, the country’s national news channels would report on fellow citizens and infants being drowned in the Adriatic. These horrifying events marked a turning point in the Albanian perception of migration and the world outside the (post-)socialist curtain, especially after the Otranto tragedy brought an entire people to its knees. 

Migrants continue to be pushed back and drowned in the Mediterranean. Yesterday’s Albanians are today the citizens of African countries or the Middle East who, unlike Albanians, happen to not be white. They face a discrimination that is much more layered and often rooted in structured racism. The UK Government is not only pushing migrants back but it is also trying to justify its forced displacement of them to Rwanda. This attitude is a reminder that the threat of racism, xenophobia and ethnic oppression are not buried in Europe’s past. 

In her book Critical Lives: Hannah Arendt, Samantha Rose Hill explains how Martha Cohn, Hanna Arendt’s mother, “instructed her that if she was attacked as a Jew, she had to defend herself as a Jew. Her Jewish identity was not a question or a choice; she was Jewish”.

I am reminded of this excerpt every time I witness specific ethnicities or nationalities being targeted and discriminated against, including that of my own. I did not choose to be Albanian. Albanianness – if I can speak of such – is not a flag that I wave on every occasion but, when Albanians are targeted simply for being Albanians, I become aware of my identity. This awareness comes with a high protective wall – and aren’t walls heavy to bear?

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Yet governments push towards the building of walls: walls of exclusion, walls of isolation, walls of fear. European history, including the ’90s in the Balkans, teaches us that the building of walls of xenophobia, ultra-nationalism and the instrumentalisation of people’s fears solely for political gains are nothing but a warning for disaster.

The UK Government and British media’s comments on the ‘migrant question’ – including, prominently, the notion that Albanian migrants are ‘storming’ British shores – is nothing new. This rhetoric has lived long in our continent, but so has the resistance for a world that is just and free of hate. These remarks, this treatment, will not be accepted or suffered in silence. 

The far-right, anti-migrant rhetoric that we are currently witnessing in Europe presents a threat for democracy and fundamental human rights. Requesting asylum is not a crime, it is a basic human right, legally approved by international law. Migrants deserve to be treated with respect and dignity no matter their nationality, ethnicity, religion, skin colour, gender identity or sexual orientation. 

Are there criminals among Albanians? Of course there are – just like there are criminals among the British. Nationality is not a condition for the existence of crime. It does not determine that one is a priori a criminal. Criminals in Great Britain have become criminals not because they are British but because particular socio-economic conditions and other complicated psycho-social factors have pushed them towards that path.

While there are legitimate concerns around having limited resources to address humanitarian crises, and cultural blending is a challenge, does keeping a society together really cost more than dividing it? Can diversity not represent cultural enrichment rather than a threat?

As an Albanian citizen and political activist, I demand an apology from the UK Government for its harmful and dangerous rhetoric.

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