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Why are so many Albanian asylum claims succeeding if the country is so “safe and prosperous”?
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In its ongoing drive to reduce Channel crossings, the government has set its sights on arrivals from a “safe and prosperous” Albania. A marked increase in Albanian arrivals via the Channel have been reported over the past year, prompting the former Home Secretary to seek further agreement with the Albanian authorities for the rapid return of its nationals. The Home Office assumption is that many individuals are economic migrants making supposedly spurious asylum claims upon arrival in the United Kingdom.
However, the Home Office’s own statistics tell a different story: 53% of claimants are currently granted asylum outright following interview, with more cases succeeding on appeal. The newly published updated country policy and information notes also paint a much more mixed picture. What does this tell us? Having worked on a large number of Albanian asylum claims over the past few years, these are the trends I have observed.
Female victims of trafficking
Up until May 2019, every one of my Albanian female victim of trafficking cases were refused. Albanian nationals ranked as one of the largest single groups whose asylum claims (even for victims of trafficking) were likely to be refused. Their cases are certified as “clearly unfounded” under Section 94 of the Nationality Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, with no right of appeal to the First-tier Tribunal.
In May 2019, I very unexpectedly received my first outright grant of asylum for such a case. The vast majority of recognised female victims of trafficking I have dealt with since also receive outright grants of asylum. I have only had three refused. And only two of my appeals since 2018 have been unsuccessful because the account of trafficking was not accepted in the reasonable grounds decision. Read more about reasonable and conclusive grounds here. My experience seems to correlate with Home Office statistics. Grants of asylum to female claimants have increased from 135 in the first half of 2019 to 257 by June 2022.
On top of that, a lot of the appeals I have been involved with have been allowed since 2019. There seems to be more acceptance at both the Home Office and the immigration tribunal of the fact that protection is simply not available for recognised female victims of trafficking in Albania (more on this below).
Male victims of trafficking
Generally, it is more difficult for Albanian males to be successful in asylum claims. But it is not impossible, with the right evidence. A client of mine was recently granted asylum outright, having submitting a claim with extensive expert and medical evidence. Home Office statistics also confirm an increase in the numbers of grants to men, from 66 in the first half of 2019 to 126 by June 2022.
In my experience, before 2021 the main reason for refusing asylum claims made by male victims of trafficking was because the Home Office did not believe such cases engage the Refugee Convention. Only female Albanian victims of trafficking were considered to meet the definition of a “particular social group”. The April 2021 update of the country policy and information notes on human trafficking finally added a concession that some male victims — those subjected to sexual exploitation — were also eligible for protection. Subsequent updates also drew a distinction between sexual exploitation and exploitation for the purpose of forced labour.
But the position has been reversed in the September 2022 update, which once again states that only female victims of trafficking from Albania form a particular social group. The change may well impact those claimants entering the United Kingdom this summer. The majority of the 3,289 Albanian nationals that have claimed asylum from April to June 2022 are men. Only 361 are female.
Why many trafficking cases ultimately succeed
It is not difficult to see why many asylum claims by trafficking victims have ultimately been successful. Trafficking is a major problem in Albania, as are the sophisticated criminal networks which facilitate it. And the Home Office have updated their country policy and information note with statistics that confirm this. When someone raises indicators of trafficking, their case is referred to the national referral mechanism (NRM) for investigation. Albanians currently form the largest proportion of referrals in the UK and are currently “the highest quarterly figure since the NRM began”.
Between 2015 and 2019 over 50% of Albanians referred to the national referral mechanism were recognised as victims of trafficking. Statistics from 2022 shows the growing trend and a high percentage of positive decisions:
“3,675 reasonable grounds and 1,214 conclusive grounds decisions were issued this quarter; of these, 89% of reasonable grounds and 92% of conclusive grounds decisions were positive.”
A reasonable grounds decision is an initial, preliminary decision that a person is believed to be a victim of trafficking. A conclusive grounds decision is a final decision, although it can be challenged if negative.
Reasonable grounds decisions are normally made within 5 days of a referral and therefore apply to very recent arrivals. Given the high proportion of referrals for Albanian nationals, it seems safe to say that a large number of asylum claimants are likely to be recognised as victims of exploitation.
Colleagues who work with clients in immigration detention indicate that the majority of male Albanian asylum seekers they see raise indicators of trafficking. If individuals are detained on arrival, they are released shortly after receiving a positive reasonable grounds decision. Due to a very long backlog of cases at the national referral mechanism and the Home Office, their removal is far from imminent, and detention is inappropriate. The current waiting time for a decision is well over a year on average. Albanian nationals arriving in the United Kingdom across the summer may therefore not experience the same high rates of approval that we have seen so far this year.
A lot has been written about significant gaps in the immigration legal aid market. The ultimate success of future cases may depend on the quality of legal representation, given that Home Office statistics confirm the majority of claims so far are genuine.
Reasons for refusal
There are a number of common reasons for refusal found in Home Office decision letters. Some acknowledge the issue of human trafficking but state that the Albanian authorities are working hard to combat the problem. Letters include reference to supposedly sufficient state protection in the form of a functioning police force and adequate recourse to the law. There is also reference to available healthcare and mental health services, as well as social assistance (housing and financial). Other letters state that traffickers are not affiliated with the state, so claimants can relocate internally and remain safe. Finally, issues with gender-based violence are acknowledged, but followed with references to gradually changing mindsets.
I am yet to hear from an independent country expert on Albania who agrees that sufficient protection and internal relocation are available for anyone fearing violence and/or exploitation. The points below are more reflective of the reality on the ground. In fact, this information is often included in Home Office country policy and information notes, but a different conclusion is ultimately reached.
Country policy and the success of asylum cases
In general, the Albanian authorities do little to combat the problem. When the ~Home Office updated the country policy and information note they specifically referred to the US State Department Trafficking in Persons Report 2022 which suggests that Albania doesn’t fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. It ranks Albania as a “Tier 2” country, meaning that it is a country:
“…whose governments do not fully comply with the [Trafficking Victims Protection Act 2000] minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those minimum standards AND:
The absolute number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is very significant or is increasing;
There is a failure to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat server forms of trafficking in persons from the previous year; or
The determination that a country is making significant efforts to bring itself into compliance with minimum standards was based on commitments by the country to take additional future steps over the next year.”
Case law remains significant in the country policy. In particular TD and AD (Trafficked women) CG  UKUT 00092 (IAC) confirms that trafficking is a problem to which anyone can fall victim. Prevalence of gender-based violence is often influenced by traditional view of gender roles. Significant importance is placed on honour in Albanian society, and it is often used to justify violent criminal behaviour. Traditional gender expectations also mean that men are less likely to seek out support when they need it.
The country policy updates confirm that plans have been made to increase awareness and education of trafficking, but that progress has been hindered by the COVID 19 pandemic. For now, government assistance for victims of trafficking is not guaranteed. In order to qualify for support and protection an individual must be referred to the Albanian national referral mechanism, irrespective of whether they were recognised as a victim of trafficking in the United Kingdom or elsewhere. Delays are likely and assistance cannot be assured.
Individual circumstances can make someone particularly susceptible, though. A new report added to the country policy states that “[t]raffickers use false promises such as marriage or employment offers to exploit victims in sex trafficking… Traffickers adapt operations to the impacts of the [COVID 19] pandemic and shift recruitment and advertisement tactics to online means, particularly social media…”. A history of past trafficking may be particularly relevant to a risk of repetition in future.
Context matters in trafficking cases
There are a number of other important factors affecting claims for asylum from Albania. The country has a history of poverty, authoritarian rule and isolation during the Communist period, and the economic and social consequences are still felt today.
Albania has been described as “Europe’s first narco state”. Sophisticated organised crime networks thrive off corruption that permeates all levels of society. Unemployment rates are high, and many are unable to find work without connections. Civil registration requirements are transferred when individuals move from one area to another, making people easy to track. And this is not helped by poor data protection and a lack of confidentiality. Remaining anonymous is all but impossible.
There is also an insufficient welfare state safety net. Some government assistance is available, but it is tied up in red tape and takes months, sometimes even years to obtain. The quality of healthcare is poor, and corruption an issue in services that are available. A distinct lack of understanding of mental health also means that these services are grossly underfunded.
In general, there is a discrepancy between government rhetoric and the reality on the ground. Home Office country policy and information notes tend to rely on official statements released by the Albanian authorities who (understandably) promote their own interests. Evidence obtained from independent experts frequently contradict the government message.
Other types of cases
A blood feud is a cycle of family-based revenge killings that can last for generations, often relating to the restoration of honour. The Home Office has long asserted that the problem is going away. And the updated country policy note continues to reference a number of sources that have excluded blood feuds from their reports, including Amnesty International’s 2021 annual report and the European Commission’s 2021 report. As a result, asylum claims based on blood feuds may be refused as clearly unfounded.
However, expert evidence I have come across states that the problem may have become worse. There are a number of reasons for this. The Home Office continue to acknowledge that there is no general agreement on how to define blood feuds in Albania today, though they have provided a few updated comments on the issue. They reference in particular, a Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime report:
“In Albania, a blood feud is called gjakmarrja, which means “blood-taking” or “blood feud”. Revenge or vendetta, on the other hand, is called hakmarrja. The latter is the obligation to “take life to right an earlier wrong, to salvage honour”. The terms are used interchangeably and sometimes can be confusing, as in both cases the killing is made to restore justice and honour. The key difference, however, is that blood feud is a protracted series of family-based revenge killings that can last for generations, whereas a vendetta is retaliation for a killing – a tit-for-tat killing. The lines are blurred when a vendetta conducted for the sake of a family member triggers a blood feud.”
Traditional patterns of honour-based violence are also now mixed up with the behaviour of criminal gangs in Albania. The idea of blood feud may be more of a representation of how criminal groups represent themselves, referencing blood feud’s to conjure up the image of violence and revenge. The UN Committee Against Torture recognised in a report dated 5 April 2022 that law number 144 of the Albanian Criminal Code makes a distinction between murder for revenge and murder due to blood feud in terms of the penalties applied. But the highest number of cases registered in one year was 11 in 2018. Only one of these was sent to the court, where it resulted in a guilty verdict.
Asylum claims based on blood feuds may remain particularly difficult to decide. The Albanian Government reported in February that “women do not have to be housebound but they have to cope with the repercussions of their male family members having to be housebound due to blood feuds”. The country policy note now also consistently reference freedom of movement within Albania for those affected. However, this requires civil registration in a new city and many individuals cannot provide relevant documentation to re-register. The consequence is no access to public services. Consideration is also given to whether a person could live alone in any of the major cities. The answer is, in short, yes.
Helpfully, the Home Office acknowledge that criminal groups are less likely to expose themselves abroad and may only consider continuing a blood feud in Albania. Those entering the United Kingdom this summer may benefit from the updated country policy note. Though without expert evidence, refusal under Section 94 may still be likely.
Fear of loan sharks
This fear is fairly common with male asylum seekers from Albania. It is not difficult to see how such a situation can lead to debt bondage and exploitation. There are numerous accounts of trafficking resulting from unpaid debts, with family members being threatened and kidnapped. Poverty, rampant corruption and sophisticated criminal networks (often encouraged by corrupt government officials) further compound the problem.
So, is Albania the safe and prosperous country the Home Office tells us it is? The assertion appears questionable at best. The Home Office may be blinded by positive statements released by the Albanian government. Or perhaps the latest rhetoric is an attempt to deflect from other failings. Regardless, the government’s own statistics contradict the official messages we are hearing. It is unclear whether the 53% approval rate will remain so high for those entering the United Kingdom this summer, where the significant delays mean that decisions are yet to be made. Additional guidance released this week is welcomed. But the situation is complex and must be treated as such.
Albania may or may not be “safe and prosperous” for many of its citizens. That is not the point; on current statistics, the majority of the Albanians fleeing their country to claim asylum in the United Kingdom are victims of trafficking and are recognised by the Home Office as such. It takes time to assess whether a person is a trafficking survivor. A rapid returns deal places vulnerable and exploited people at risk of further harm.
Interested in refugee law? You might like Colin's book, imaginatively called "Refugee Law" and published by Bristol University Press.
Communicating important legal concepts in an approachable way, this is an essential guide for students, lawyers and non-specialists alike.