Albania owes an apology to the UK over the destructive role it is playing in the Channel migrant crisis, a British MP has said.
Tim Loughton, Conservative MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, told The National that the influx of people from the Balkan nation has clearly “overwhelmed the system” and he called for a tougher approach from Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's administration.
The number of Albanians crossing the Channel in small boats has increased by more than 1400 per cent year-on-year, despite the European nation being considered a safe country.
‘Weak’ defence from Albania
Mr Sunak and the Home Secretary have repeatedly singled out Albanians while making pledges to crack down on illegal immigration, with Suella Braverman pointing the finger at the nation for its citizens making spurious claims that they are victims of modern slavery.
Qirjako Qirko, the Balkan country’s ambassador to the UK, hit back, telling The National that he would like to see politicians apologise for the “negative propaganda against Albanians”.
But Mr Loughton said that rather than criticise the UK for its handling of the spiralling migrant crisis, Mr Qirko would do better to offer an apology for his country’s role in it.
“I thought he gave very weak evidence,” Mr Loughton said of Mr Qirko’s recent appearance before the Home Affairs Select Committee in the British Parliament. “He made some rather injudicious complaints about the British government and Britain discriminating against Albanians.
“If I were the Albanian ambassador, I would not be criticising the UK for saying we need to do something particular about this surge in Albanians coming here, I would be apologising that this country has become the destination of choice for rather a lot of Albanians.
“It’s absolutely right they should be singled out because they [accounted for] over 50 per cent in the height of the summer of the nationalities of those coming across the Channel — disproportionate. So clearly, we need to do something about it.”
The Prime Minister last week used his first speech of 2023 to say stake his premiership on addressing five challenges, one of them illegal migration.
But Mr Loughton said his ability to stamp out the illegal practice rests largely on France, which he believes is punishing the UK for Brexit.
A fresh agreement between London and Paris is long overdue, he argued, in which French authorities would arrest anyone caught trying to cross the Channel illegally.
Currently, only suspected people smugglers are being detained when groups make a bid to depart beaches in northern France. The system means Mr Sunak simply “cannot guarantee” the boats will stop, Mr Loughton said.
‘Albania should get its own house in order’
In 2021, about 800 Albanians made the crossing, a figure which shot up to 12,000 last year.
Up to 2 per cent of the adult male population of Albania crossed the Channel in small boats in 2022, according to the Home Office.
Mr Loughton said the staggering data should cause alarm bells to go off in Tirana.
“That should be a serious cause for worry for the Albanian government,” he said. “Why are so many people trying to leave Albania?
“Albania has got some clear problems that it needs to sort out itself. It needs to look to put its own house in order before it starts criticising us. And to claim that it’s not really their problem — well, it is their problem.”
He was referring to Mr Qirko’s comments during an appearance before MPs in December. Asked if he would support any move by the UK government to introduce a blanket ban on asylum claims from Albanians, the ambassador acknowledged it is a “safe country” but said “it’s not my problem” to determine British migration rules.
Asylum claims lodged by Albanians are not recognised as legitimate by several EU countries such as France, Germany and Sweden.
The Eastern European nation of 2.8 million is a popular travel destination for Britons and travellers from other nations. Tour operators promote the country, which borders Greece, Montenegro, Kosovo and North Macedonia, as an “ideal destination” for those seeking hiking and sun holidays.
The country also has its eyes on future EU membership, having been granted candidate status from the bloc in 2014.
Mr Loughton called on No 10 to adopt a no-nonsense approach to illegal migrants from Albania and follow the lead of other European powers.
“We should not be accepting any asylum applications from Albania, other than in extreme circumstances,” he said. “We are way too soft on Albania.”
Mr Sunak in December announced a new agreement with Albania aimed at speeding up the return of migrants to their home country. The pact will lead to British Border Force agents being stationed at Tirana airport for the first time ever.
New laws needed to prevent migrants ‘gaming the system’
The thousands of Albanians and others claiming to be victims of modern-day slavery is only one element of Britain’s migrant crisis.
The debate over whether the rules should be changed to give asylum applicants the right to work drags on.
The Lift the Ban coalition, made up of more than 200 non-profit organisations, think tanks, businesses, trade unions and faith groups, is exerting pressure on the Conservative government to change the rules. They argue their research suggested the economy could grow by £97.8 million per year if the policy was altered.
Under the current law, people awaiting the outcome of an asylum claim can apply to work only after a year. Some MPs want the threshold lowered to six months, a move they say would plug gaps in the labour market.
Mr Loughton was last year among a handful of Tories who in April 2022 voted in favour of a parliamentary bid to change the rules, which failed to pass.
He argued the current system creates a loophole in which applicants, including Albanians, are “disappearing into the black labour market” and working under the radar for years on end.
“If we have very clear and legitimate activities that are allowed after a certain time, then it should make it easier for us to clamp down on those who are working in the black market and who are here completely illegitimately and don’t have a case to stay,” he said.
“I don’t think it will be a magnet, I think if anything it will make it much easier to differentiate between those who are here legitimately … and those who frankly never had a credible claim for asylum in the UK anyway and who are trying to game the system effectively.”