IT IS lunchtime and children pour out of Sunday-school classes in Thessaloniki. Waiting parents seem agitated as they talk to Valbona Hystuna, a teacher. The adults speak Albanian; the children talk to each other in Greek. Many of the youngsters have no knowledge of Albania. But the crisis in Greece is forcing their families to return home.
The latest census by Albania’s statistical office found only 2.8m inhabitants in the country, several hundred thousand fewer than expected and 7.7% less than a decade ago. As many as 1.4m are believed to have emigrated in the past 20 years, over half of them to Greece. But jobless Albanians have begun to return. Many men worked in construction, which has ground to a halt in Greece.
There is much anecdotal evidence of Albanians going home, but few statistics. Edmond Haxhinasto, Albania’s foreign minister, says only a few have returned. Still, Ms Hystuna says that “a lot of people have left, a lot plan to leave and everyone is talking about it.” In the past many Albanians lived and worked in Greece illegally, but most of them now have residence permits. Yet those who lose their jobs may also lose their permits, forcing them either to return home or to stay illegally.
Albanians have mostly integrated well. Their children often speak better Greek than Albanian; many need language classes before going back to Albania. But, says Ms Hystuna, the Greeks can make life difficult. The anxious parents she spoke to told her that the authorities have, out of the blue, insisted that the Albanian papers their Greek-born children have are unacceptable, since they use the Albanian rather than the Greek name for Thessaloniki.
As with migrant numbers, remittances are hard to measure. But what figures there are point to a sharp decline. In 2007 migrants sent home an estimated €950m ($1.3 billion). In 2010 that figure shrank to €690m; for the first three quarters of 2011 it was €475m. In 2009 remittances were reckoned to make up 9% of Albania’s GDP. Yet the economy, unlike Greece’s, has not gone into recession: it is expected to have grown by 2.5% in 2011.
Many Albanians in Greece are transferring savings to banks at home, fearful of what might happen if Greece leaves the euro. Some Greek companies have also begun to set up firms in Albania run by trusted Albanians who worked for them in Greece. So far, the effects of being a tiny economy largely dependent on recession-hit Greece and Italy have been negative but not disastrous. Yet as more Albanians move back, they will find jobs (and decent wages) scarce at home.