Young and restless: Albanian youth see a future elsewhere
After emerging from his hiding place inside a truck packed with children's toys at a British port, Alban Tufa saw the police and realised his attempt to slip into the country had failed.
Several weeks later, the 21-year-old was put on a plane back to Albania.
That was six years ago but Tufa still longs to leave his home country -- a desire he shares with most other young people in the Balkan state.
Their country is not at war nor ruled by an authoritarian regime, and not battered by natural disasters.
And yet Albanians' desire to emigrate is among the strongest on the planet.
"In Albanian villages, all families have a member who emigrates. So I went for it too," Tufa said of his failed attempt to sneak into the UK, which involved travelling across Europe by plane, train and truck with the help of smugglers.
"My idea was to work, I was not interested in what, as long as my job was honest," he added.
According to a 2018 Gallup poll, 60 percent of Albanians would like to leave their homeland, a figure that ranks it fourth globally. The hunger is even stronger among the youth.
Back in 1990, Albania had a youthful population of some 3.3 million people.
But with falling birth rates and huge numbers of people leaving, it now has an ageing population of some 2.9 million, World Bank statistics show.
And although the government does not track data on emigration rates, there are believed to be nearly 1.2 million Albanians living abroad -- a figure equivalent to some 40 percent of the population.
- Student revolt -
The longing to leave is driven in large part by economics, with Albania having one of the lowest average monthly wages in Europe at around 400 euros ($453).
Unemployment is also high, with one in three young people jobless.
Another major factor is the widespread culture of corruption and clientelism, or jobs and favours in exchange for political support.
"If you don't have a powerful friend you can't find a job," explains Daniela Duli, an 18-year-old law student in Tirana who is hoping to work in Italy after she graduates.
The only other option to secure work is "to give a lot of money", she says with a sigh.
The angst bubbled over in December when thousands of university students took to the streets to demand a reform of the education system.
"Most of (my friends) have emigrated... because they don't see a future here, they see no employment here, no quality of studies," said 23-year-old student Armando Xhaxho, one of the last holdouts of the strike that ended this month.
After several weeks of protests which drew thousands onto the streets, Prime Minister Edi Rama reshuffled his cabinet and promised investments in education infrastructure.
He also said his government would hire 1,000 graduates to work in public administration, giving preference to those who have studied in the West in a bid to encourage returnees.
Yet Rama has shrugged off talk of any emigration "crisis".
"There are people all over the world who move from one country to another and nobody talks about it," he said in December.
What worries Adrian Civici, an economics professor in Tirana, is that most youth who emigrate express little desire to return, creating a "brain drain" effect that further degrades the economy.
Among youth living abroad, "almost 80 to 85 percent of them say that they do not consider the idea of coming back in Albania," said Civici.
- Open doors -
The restlessness has roots in the country's unique history.
Until 1991, Albania spent nearly four decades as one of the most isolated nations on the planet under the grip of communist dictator Enver Hoxha.
Those who tried to leave risked being shot at the border.
"Once the doors were opened, Albanians saw the West as an opportunity to provide a better future for their children, a future that they did not have," said Drita Teta, a sociologist in Tirana.
"For many Albanians, the West is still a great illusion, a great paradise that will solve all of the family's economic and social problems," she added.
In recent years, despite being labelled a "safe country", Albania's citizens have been counted among the leading claimants of asylum within the EU.
In the year to mid-2018, they filed more than 17,000 applications in what was the top number of claims among European states.
Ninety percent of such applications are rejected, although the waiting process allows some to find other ways to remain in Europe illegally.
- If at first you don't succeed... -
After several weeks in a British centre for asylum seekers, Tufa realised his case would go nowhere and asked to be sent home.
But two years later, he made a similar attempt, this time in Germany.
He then spent several months in overcrowded refugee camps where food was scarce before his application was again rejected and he was sent back to Albania.
Now 27, Tufa is pursuing a masters in journalism in Tirana.
But he still dreams of going abroad after finishing his studies.
"This time in a legal way," he says.
© 2019 AFP