The Mediterranean seen from Albania

Natàlia Ribas

Associate Research Fellow, Sussex Centre for Migration Research

Ever since producing an ethnographic study of an Albanian border city I have wanted to examine the Mediterranean. I chose as my looking glass the city of Durres because it suffers by being on the front line of the closure of so-called Fortress Europe.As a consequence of this closure, various forms of mobility are being reinvented; cities are appearing that constitute zones of passage on NorthSouth migrations—zones that are transient points on migratory itineraries, nexuses for the transit of merchandise, key spaces in the North’s industrial offshoring (particularly in the textile and service sectors) and in the feminisation of labour. In describing economic globalisation, most authors refer to the global organisation of production and finance, to an unregulated market in transactions with a discernible impact on the internationalisation of the state and increases in interdependence, to remote control scenarios, and to changes in our understanding of time and space.

They discuss things, ideas and people that are in movement as a consequence of new technologies and the mobility of capital flows across national borders (Ribas, 2002). Frontier sociology emphasises as paradigmatic the cross-border urbanisation located at the focal point of economic disparity between the United States and Mexico, where the growth of the maquiladora industry—North American-owned factories that use cheap Mexican labour and are exempt from standard commercial regulations and tariffs—along the US-Mexican border has increased the border population to over 12 million.

Durres is not of these dimensions but is, peculiarly, following the same trends. On an international level Europe is intensifying its visa regime, while nationally new district-cities are being created which are a product of the complex dynamics of internal migrations and the rural exodus. From the perspective of the global economy, we can see how neoliberal capital, with its producer hat on, promotes the growth of duty-free zones and the offshoring of telephony and textiles, while, now wearing its consumer hat, encouraging the spread of smuggling routes in border regions. In sociological terms it is fair to view Albania as an appropriate social laboratory, with its mixture of postcommunist context and neoliberal capitalism.

The clean sweep of the last ten years has led to a scenario in which we can start afresh—Tirana, year zero, as it were—passing from hermetically sealed communism to wild capitalism, from communitarian morality to individualism. During the transition period international migration constituted a search for freedom, a fine emblem of the changes, as if now one could opt for an exile which previously had been denied. In addition, during this era the audiovisual media and, in particular, television functioned as a kind of huge mirror of “capitalist desire”. Albania has become a symbol for experimentation, and the whole world comes here to try out its ideas. For foreigners it is a kind of social laboratory in which they can research strategies for the kick-starting of civil society, the fight against corruption and the trafficking of people and merchandise, or, equally, for the social reintegration of unaccompanied minors and female victims of trafficking who have been discovered abroad. Albania is at the centre of Europe (and at what point exactly does the East begin?).

Albania, unknown except to the Albanians, a far-away country of which we know nothing, an isolated space of no interest in the eyes of Western Europe, a place excluded from the map because it represents the primitive, mythical Europe of the Balkans. Until the fall of the communist regime, Albania had come to represent border closure and a prohibition on the free movement of people, not just in Europe and the Mediterranean, but in a global context. Nowadays Europeans think of Albania as a border territory, an immature country that requires careful control by international institutions or by the European Union (EU) or even the imposition of some kind of European protectorate. Apart from its singular colonial history,Albania’s individual socio-historical context is distinguished by 50 years of communism.

Cultural processes and consumer practices are complex in a post-socialist context and it is necessary to mesh representations into an analysis of cultural processes in terms of both local and global relationships. To some extent, passing for “Italian or Greek” constitutes in Albania a way of expressing a representation of consumption and of the West in cultural terms.This provides a good example of globalisation’s localisms, and can also be translated to the field of nutritional practices—in Albania, bottling is Italian. It is highly peculiar to note how some young people appear to have a vision of Europe that is based on the type of car used in each country and on football teams. Viewing the Mediterranean from Albania is to locate oneself on the periphery.

Referring to peripheries, Fuga (2000) notes that the Balkan states are situated on the borders of the EU. These borders are part of an integrationist, modernising project, but they also induce a chaotic social periphery—destructured, poor, sometimes clan destine—that is an important factor in helping maintain the centre’s fragile equilibrium.The products of this periphery are irregular labour, prostitution and drug trafficking, maids, and children for adoption. Fuga also indicates within this periphery the existence of an infra-periphery, a periphery on the edge of society that is used by the urban world to locate the rural exodus, the retired, gypsies, the sick (Fuga, 2000: 275 and 277). It is in this condition that Albania comes into contact with global labour networks and with pan-European modes of homogenisation. This globalisation of a country historically excluded from Europe poses serious questions for discussion so that, in short, we may come to understand this difficult country, as Ismail Kadaré calls it.

Ethnographic Characteristics

This brief article is based on an ethnography produced in Tirana-Dürres (Albania) between December 2002 and May 2003. A family in the city was selected as the basis for the study in order to be able to analyse strategies in the domestic space; its selection was based as much on its fulfilment of border space-related change criteria relevant to my study as for the access offered to me. One characteristic of the locus of the ethnography lies in its peripheral position—the nature of its exclusion—with respect to the EU. Although other Mediterranean countries are also excluded from the Schengen area and share this exclusion in all senses,Albania’s geography is distinct because it forms part of the European continent; Albania has also already passed the first hurdle to enter the waiting room of candidates for European integration. A second characteristic of the ethnography’s locus is the role played by internal migrations.

The stereotype of the internal migrant, associated with all the evils of the border city, has caught on strongly in the context of the changes described here.Apart from conforming to the clichéd image—ignorant, uncivilised—this immigrant exemplifies the stereotype of the Albanian mountain dweller, the malok. Durres sees itself as crushed by the rural exodus, wants to forget the scent of barren communism and devise a better future, replete with running water and power at the flip of a switch.A former city-bunker of communist power, Durres is also the country’s major port, Albania’s Adriatic door to Italy-as-seen-on-TV.

Border cities capture perfectly the marginalisation of space in this world of internal migrations, with their variety of precarious habitats and the appearance of informal occupations, found even in extremely toxic locations. (An example is the collection of lindane, hexachlorocyclohexane and chromium VI in Durres’ Porto Romano zone, which has led to it being dubbed the Chernobyl of the Balkans.) Frequent use is made of the motif of foreign populations “flooding” the urban space, and people in Durres allude to the revival by kin-based patriarchal societies from the north of the Kanun’s harshest rules. However, in this city not all districts are the same with respect to international migration; a micro-perspective helps us generate a map of family dependency on remittances (from Europe) in specific districts using information from Albania’s numerous Western Union offices (present with multiple offices in around 35 localities).

Curiously, the dismemberment of the Albanian state and its financial discrediting in the eyes of the populace have made the country a paradise for Western Union. These internal migrations offer a vision of a revolving door, which some enter at the same time as others exit in order to emigrate. In Durres—as in the whole of Albania— it is said that the economy is in transition.The young want to leave to go abroad, just as any young person of their age wants to go to the capital in other parts of the world where staying at home means for many resignation to socioeconomic decline.

They also bear witness on a daily basis to the migratory experiences of families, friends, people in whose lives mobility is the norm. A third characteristic of this border city’s ethnography is the feminisation of labour. This I have been able to verify in Durres in implicit form by examining the industrialisation of the textile industry (which in Albania has constituted a second industrialisation, on top of the one that occurred in the communist era). Although this phenomenon is hidden, it is important in numerical terms and, proportionally, in relation to urban employment as a whole.

The Role of Migrations

The Straits of Gibraltar and the Adriatic’s Otranto Channel are currently the scene of important population movements in the Mediterranean. During the nineties they were both the scene of tragic migrations, and in recent decades a large part of the Albanian population that lives and works in the countries of Southern Europe has passed through them.They constitute spaces of control in the context of Fortress Europe and currently form part of a diverse package of programmes which includes frontier management, the battle against clandestine immigration, and socio-economic development.

It is thus that, in spite of their remoteness and their belonging geographically speaking to Europe or Africa, these places have elements in common, and specifically in their function as main entrances in the configuration of Fortress Europe. Durres is experiencing the impact of the reduction in the freedom of movement for people. However, it is impossible to specify at the present time how long this closure will last in the case of Albania, since it will depend on the context of the country’s relationship with the EU and on international regulations.Various institutions dealing with this issue have pointed out that if the Albanians comply with border norms, free circulation can be theirs.The Albanian case emphasises a historical context shared with Western Europe as well as continually underlining the geographic legitimacy of its argument—the fact that it is part of the European continent and that the present situation leaves Greece separated from Europe.

Durres is going through one of the most difficult phases of globalisation, reflected in renewed frontier restrictions on the movement of people, symbols of an overwhelming blockade that is in marked contrast to the mobility popularly desired and to the cross-border movement of goods, also driven by European macro-economic policy. Thus this corner of Europe serves as a strategic vantage point from which to approach the study of mobility in a specific border location in globalisation’s domain. It represents a space through which we can analyse what happens in concrete terms in those places which in themselves represent physical barriers, spaces of control.

These places give us an opportunity to draw close to a space of rupture in the Mediterranean, through which we can see concrete changes in a contemporary urban environment dominated by consumption—consider the increasing hegemony of the image and of mass culture—and by mobility, principally amongst the youngest in society. In general, while capital, products and ideas have become more mobile, certain labour categories, constrained by immigration laws, continue to suffer from the control and criminalisation of mobility. Given the phenomena that accompany border closures—militarisation, an increase of police resources, and so on—these types of frontier can also be understood as places of resistance to the globalisation of Mediterranean mobility.

Durres is characterised by a typical revolving-door dynamic. For example, during the nineties emigrants went from Albania to Greece and, after a couple of months, came back through Albania, aided by smugglers.This parallel circulation is rooted in an absurd system which has led to a disregard of human rights in the Otranto Channel. Durres is also a place of waiting: for internal immigrants such as the people of Kukes on the Durres periphery, and also for other nationalities, Albania having been a transit point on migration routes from the East. In this way, and in spite of the intensification of controls and closures, these borders are subject to continual examination by people and by those who practise mobility and believe their lives to be structured in a continuum that is meaningful in the context of transnational processes.

In the search for border factors the case of Albania represents, as I have noted, an appropriate social laboratory because family-oriented ideology explains, and provides an interpretative tool with which to explain, a migratory project which is common to many other places but which is displayed with special clarity in the countries of the Mediterranean.This is not, however, about the immutable code of honour that once united the Mediterranean—pretending to capture a reality so intangible and outdated as that of the Mediterranean in contrast with an emergent European identity—but about an appreciation of the weight of family-oriented ideology which drives migratory projects and forms of welcome for immigrants in Southern Europe.

Defining Circuits from the Albanian Perspective

I am particularly interested in deepening my acquaintance with the circuits identified in the Mediterranean context and with the funds destined for the purposes of border controls and the fight against immigration in Albania. The same conceptualisation of the border as a factor of closure and control formed a part of what, for the purposes of my ethnographic study, I viewed as control circuits. In this manner, I soon became aware of the relative permeability of the Durres harbour border.

This permeability and the trivial control exercised in terms of manpower means that it cannot be said to be of the same order as European-African closures. With respect to the international circuits it is peculiar to observe how the process of internationalisation of NGOs results in an acquaintance with the role of foreigners in industrial offshoring.Very gradually I have come to appreciate that the issue of factories is much greater than it appears. Everybody knows that it exists, but no one discusses it.The whole question of industrial offshoring is of greater magnitude than we generally believe, and there exists an informal, invisible process of industrial offshoring. However, for USAID and the American government the fight against human trafficking in Albania is the highpriority objective.

Other types of circuits include those related to contraband, the analysis of which leads us to evidence of the unusual conception of legality and illegality in the case of Albania, a destructured society. For example, television channels buy DVDs in Italy and broadcast them in what resembles a smuggling operation, for the purposes of which those responsible act as if there were no borders. All these circuits are, in addition, presented in highly dramatic fashion on the numerous channels’ news shows, and the ongoing war on smuggling, anti-corruption spots and anti-trafficking policies are given a high profile.

Another type of circuit alludes to those I have designated as “vulnerable actors”. In the peripheral locations I have selected for my work, processes occur that bring the most vulnerable into the whirlpool of transnational flows, integrating circuits belonging to both the formal and the informal economies.We have talked specifically about the processes associated with the feminisation of survival. In this case, the notion of the feminisation of survival refers to the way in which homes and communities depend increasingly on social resources contributed by women.

Three examples serve to illustrate the existence of these circuits: an increase in traffic on prostitution networks, an increase on the European labour market in the demand for domestic labour and for service provision related to the care of the elderly, as well as a general increase in the processing of remittances from female emigrants. In the case of the feminisation of survival strategies there exists in addition a connection between an increase in survival circuits and the pressures imposed by the economic globalisation of the South and of countries in transition.

To be more specific, the impact of economic globalisation on these economies can be related to clearly-defined factors: an increase in external debt (particularly in relation to the World Bank and to IMF programmes), cuts in social benefits, and the closure of traditional businesses oriented towards local markets in order to make way for export industries. In this fashion, migratory strategies together with the offshoring of European industrial production create a framework for labour exploitation in which the working woman emerges as key in the search for the cheap labour that the rural exodus makes available.

The women who work in the (principally Italian) clothing workshops in Durres are an example of vulnerable actors. Migrations towards Southern Europe are accompanied by the turning of everything involved into a commodity, from documentation to humans and, in particular, women and children.Albanians constitute the majority of unaccompanied minors in Italy and Greece, something we can illustrate using Italian data on this group, broken down by nationality, ethnicity, age, and sex (Comune di Modena, 2003).This analysis shows an absence of Moroccan girls, differentiation between adolescents and children, the influence of gypsies among Albanian emigrants, as well as the distinction that exists between phenomena related to traffickers, to mafiosi and to isolated peer group networks.

This introduction to the two most important groups of unaccompanied minors in Italy—the Albanians and the Moroccans—allowed me to confirm the relevance of these two countries and of the border and peripheral spaces of Southern Europe. Each in its turn produces particular processes of feminisation, whether they occur as a result of industrial offshoring or— in the Albanian case— through the commodification of women and children. Minors become the protagonists of border circuits, and it is these border circuits that embroil the most vulnerable. On the other hand, the best example of the commodification of people is to be found in the globalisation of the sex industry and in the heterogeneity of business models that characterises the trade in human beings. Italy has become the favourite destination of the women-trafficking networks that operated throughout the nineties via Albania, buying and selling Albanian women as well as those from countries such as Moldavia, the poorest country in Eastern Europe and in Europe as a whole.