The Italian retired community is growing across the Adriatic. To understand the phenomenon we interviewed Roberto Laera, an entrepreneur with decades of experience in the country
Like other migration stories, even the small phenomenon of Italians in Albania is subject to strong political and media manipulation. For reasons that we have already discussed, in recent years Albanian politics and the Italian press have spread unrealistic data. This does not mean that the Italian presence is not growing significantly in the country. Inflated figures damage the understanding of reality: the 2,000 Italians who, to date, have chosen to live in Albania, are not "few" – they may seem so only to those who believed that they were 20,000.
Clarified this point, who are these fellow citizens who make a new life beyond the Adriatic? Alongside medicine students who have not passed the entry test in Italy, entrepreneurs attracted by cheap labour, former television stars who in recent years have told Italians about the "Albanian miracle" – remember Alessio Vinci on Agon Channel, and Luciano Moggi on Partizani? – today another category of Italians finds a second Albanian life: that of pensioners. We talked about this with Roberto Laera, an entrepreneur with decades of experience in the country, who recently created an association dedicated to support recent arrivals, in particular Italian pensioners.
How many Italian pensioners have chosen to live in Albania? And what difficulties do they encounter?
To date, Italian pensioners do not exceed 300 units. Most don't live in Tirana but in Durres, a city where the cost of living is lower, but above all a coastal city, with the sea and a mild climate. Many retirees from northern Italy have always lived in the cold, this novelty attracts them. These are self-sufficient people who don't have any health problems; however in Albania there are private clinics that provide complete coverage with a ridiculous cost for those who have a Euro income. The American hospital also has first aid, and by stipulating an insurance policy for the cost of 180 Euros per year you are entitled to all diagnostic visits, without any limitation, and a ceiling of 5,000 Euros in case of hospitalisation and surgery. Only in Tirana there are three American hospitals, there is one in Durres, they are opening one in Vlora, slowly covering the whole country. The only difficulties in my opinion are bureaucratic in kind: the residence permit, for example, which is compulsory for all foreigners who stay 90 days within a 180-day period. For entrepreneurs it is easy, because having a business entitles them to it, but for pensioners it is more complicated, because a pension income and the opening of a bank account are not sufficient.
How have the currently resident Italian retirees obtained the permit?
They either bought a house – which grants them the permit – or they have a demonstrated that they work or volunteer for some international organisation. Many then circumvent the obstacle by opening a VAT number; you can even have no income as long as you pay the minimum contributions, we are talking about around thirty Euros a month.
How much does the residence permit cost?
One hundred Euros, if I'm not mistaken. It lasts 1 year the first time, 2 years the second, and 5 years after the third renewal. After 5 years you can have 10, and after 10 years you can apply for citizenship, provided that the permit has never expired. These costs are absolutely affordable, especially when compared to the risk of not applying. For some years the border police have calculated the days of stay with a computerised system. Fines for breaking the rules are from 80 to 750 Euros. And those who do not show the receipt of payment can not re-enter the country.
Thus we discover that Albania is a state like all the others. More than a problem, it seems good news to me...
From the point of view of state solidity, certainly yes. What I mean to say is that the Albanian state itself would have an interest in encouraging the migration of Italian and foreign pensioners in general with new rules. For the sake of completeness, I have to say that there are other obstacles, related to pension taxation. According to the Italian law, the pensioner who resides abroad should receive the pension before taxes. Although there are bilateral agreements with Albania in this sense, in most cases this does not happen. On the one hand, the Albanian Ministry of Welfare poses obstacles – that is, it requires a declaration by the INPS to certify that the pensioner resides abroad – but the INPS does not easily produce the necessary documents. According to the testimonies of the pensioners I am in contact with, much is entrusted to the willingness of individual INPS officials, but in fact in Italy most of the provincial offices do not issue the necessary documents. The result is that pensions paid to Italians living in Albania continue to be taxed by the Italian state...
To avoid confusion, let's explain: this problem has nothing to do with the famous negotiation, that never really started, on the mutual recognition of pensions between Italy and Albania.
Exactly, the agreement you refer to has to do with the future of Albanian citizens who have worked and contributed in Italy and with Italian citizens who are working and contributing to Albania. Let's take a classic example: in the current state of things, the Albanian citizen who has worked for a lifetime in Italy and, before reaching retirement age, is forced to return to Albania, loses all contributions paid. If things do not change, the same will happen to young Italians who are starting to work and contribute to Albania today.
At the moment, however, the number of Albanians who have worked in Italy is infinitely higher... This means that, if an agreement is reached on mutual recognition, this will be more burdensome for the coffers of the Italian state than for the Albanian state. I wonder if that's why, when he was Welfare Minister, Erion Veliaj chose to inflate the numbers of Italians in Albania...
Yes, it may be, but the infamous 20,000 figure has more than one explanation. To show that more and more Italians choose Albania is also a media matter, it is used to break down prejudices against the country... In short, everyone pulls water to their mill, that is normal – in this case, the blame falls on the Italian media, that are known to pick stories over numbers. We Italians of Albania basically all know each other: between members and non members of AIRE, there must be less than a thousand of us in Tirana. Having said this, the urgency of mutual social security recognition has certainly influenced the circulation of certain figures. In 2014, PM Matteo Renzi came to Tirana and pledged to carry on this negotiation, but in the end nothing was done. I specify that these are bilateral agreements between states, Europe has nothing to do with them. Countries like Germany and Belgium have always recognised the contributions of Italian immigrants.
So let's go back to the non-deduction of pensions of Italians by Albania.
This would not be a great effort for Italy, and would be very convenient for Albania: pensions of 800-1000 Euros are income in circulation; we talk about people doing the shopping, renting houses, signing a health insurance, using restaurants. In short, it is a small economy that is activated. If, at the moment, the phenomenon is still small, it is also due to these bureaucratic obstacles. In my humble opinion, the influx of Italian pensioners could be much more significant if the Albanian government promoted Albania also as “buen retiro”, by modifying the residence permit law and by facilitating the practices for the tax relief of pensions.
Can you trace the identikit of the average pensioner who chooses Albania?
The majority are people from the north: Tuscany, Lombardy, Piedmont, Emilia too... Probably because in the south the cost of living is lower, and there is a greater attachment to family. In the north, many pensioners are alone... Most of the pensioners we meet in Albania are former artisans: people with a low pension, about 800 Euros, who have savings to buy a house in Albania and live quietly, affording small luxuries like going to the restaurant. It may seem silly, but if you've worked all your life, eating fish for seven to eight Euros is a strong motivation – especially if you could not afford that in your country.
Fish is fine, but what are the feelings of a seventy-year-old who has lived all their life in Florence, and moves to Durres? It is true that there is the sea, but the coast has been destroyed by misguided construction speculation; we must be honest, we are talking about one of the least attractive cities in Albania.
Look, Durres is certainly not the most beautiful place in Albania, and yet people like it. I know retired people from Campania who have grown up with the Amalfi coast in their eyes, but who live well there. The state of mind is different from what is presumed. A seventy-year-old is now younger than in the past. They are active people, many get busy, organise themselves in structured groups, and with the patronage of the municipality organise meetings and cultural events. We are not talking about non self-sufficient retirees who live in melancholy. We are talking about people starting a new life.
However, in some recent interviews , there has been some resentment towards Italy.
A little bit of it yes, I have to admit it. We are all attached to our country. I work for Italian companies in Albania, I do think that if things were different entrepreneurs would remain in Italy. I'm a bit sorry, but then I see it from an entrepreneurial point of view: the low taxation and low cost of labor do make Albania convenient. I understand the melancholy of those who left their country, their grandchildren, their children; but I also understand the reasons of those who, perhaps without much else, start a new life. A life – because in Italy it would not be life, but survival.
How does a seventy-year-old adapt to a different culture and language?
The advice we always give to everyone is: before moving, come here, look around, understand, travel for several days. You need to breathe the culture, the way of living. Certainly young people and entrepreneurs from southern Italy find a culture closer to theirs. Northern entrepreneurs have more trouble integrating, and yet there are many. In retirees we have never encountered suffering so far, in fact they are all very grateful and happy with the reception. I have lived here for many years and I can testify: in Albania there are values, there is a respect for older people that we no longer have. So there are no negative feedbacks. When Italians have a problem in Albania, they find many hands outstretched.
On average, how much does a house in Durres cost? And how is the rent?
Our pensioners pay 150 Euros for renting apartments of about 70 square meters. Similar accommodations in Durres generally cost 30,000 to 50,000 Euros. Although the real estate market is in crisis and prices are very low, there are not many who invest in buying a property. Only 10% of Italian pensioners in Albania bought a house, the others rent and for the residence permit use the tricks that we mentioned. New opportunities will open with the construction of the airport in Vlora, a much more attractive city from a climatic and environmental point of view. The project was approved by Parliament and entrusted directly to a Turkish company. They say that in a couple of years it will be carried out.
As an entrepreneur, how do you look at this phenomenon?
For me as an entrepreneur, Italian pensioners in Albania are a nascent and unorganised reality, therefore with very strong potential. A project that we could work on is the construction of a real village: imagine a single building or building complex, with centralised services twenty-four hours a day, asking for a reasonable fee in exchange for its services. Similar centres in Tunisia are already functioning. Recently the phenomenon has decreased due to geopolitical problems, but for years Tunisia has attracted retirees from all over Europe: Britons, Germans, Italians... Of course we must overcome these obstacles related to the taxation of pensions – otherwise, it will be difficult to promote Albania as a country where to grow old.
Your company has always offered tax and legal advice to foreign companies wishing to invest in Albania. Do the pensioners you help support some costs?
So, we must distinguish between the company and the association. Italia-network is a consulting firm for companies and workers: its services are clearly for a fee. Recently, to meet the retired phenomenon and more generally the growing Italian migration, we have created an association called "Italians in Albania", through which we support newcomers for the completion of the first practices. Free of charge, we issue a card that has a whole series of agreements, we provide an Albanian telephone SIM with 5 Euros of preloaded traffic. So our consultancy is for a fee, but you do not pay for the services of the association.
One last question, which perhaps does not concern you, but I'll ask anyway. In recent years, Italian migration to Albania has been used either to underline the decay of our country or – in the best of cases – to highlight Albanian progress. In emphasising elements of truth, this narrative omits the fact that, from this promising "new Albania", young people continue to emigrate at any cost: in 2017, in France, the first community of asylum seekers was the Albanian one, while our social services have been reporting for years the phenomenon of unaccompanied minors, left in Italy in the hope of a better life. These are also Italian-Albanian stories, and I do not think any migration of foreign pensioners will ever compensate for this migration balance. Albania continues to lose its young forces.
Yes, even in this sense I must say that Italy and Albania are alike... Do you know how many times our job ads for Tirana or Bucharest get replies by young Italians, perhaps with family, willing to move? We always call them back, to see if they understood that the job is in Albania, and they answer "yes, sure". Then, it is true that Albanian migration is not over. I myself know young Albanians who, in the summer of 2015, just to leave, joined the the Syrians on the Balkan route. But it must also be said that the rafts are gone, today Albanian migration to France and northern Europe is mainly by plane... I promote Albania because I promote foreign entrepreneurship in Albania, but this does not mean I do not analyse the phenomena – in fact, this is why I analyse them. For us, a more positive narrative is useful and right, because this country has made great strides in recent years. It is not a matter of painting a country that is not there, but of telling its best side, to continue improving it. I think the road taken in recent times is really the right one.
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