During the communist era in Albania, some of the families and individuals who didn’t conform to the party’s rules were often sent to collective camps, where they were compelled to engage in various forms of labor, including mining and agriculture. Seman, an agricultural village, was one of these collective farms established during the communist regime. In addition to families with “questionable political reputation” the regime also settled vulnerable groups like Roma and Egyptians in this village. The land cultivated by these farmers officially belonged to the state, much of which had been confiscated from the original owners when the regime took power after World War II.
However, the situation became more complex after the fall of communism in 1990, when the country transitioned to democracy. The democratic Albanian government initiated a land reform programme and distributed the land among the villagers and farmers who had worked on it during the communist era. This undertaking proved to be more challenging than expected, as some land had previous owners who held claims to it. On the other hand, the families who had been working the land lacked land titles or any documentation proving ownership. Nonetheless, the villagers had to navigate legal processes, and some of them successfully obtained land titles.
Upon their return, numerous returnees encountered challenges in resuming their previous lives. While the hurdles faced by returnees are varied, there are also common experiences shared among many, including difficulties in securing a stable income and finding formal employment. The Roma and Egyptian returnees from Seman Village had a long history of cultivating the land, passing down tacit agricultural knowledge through generations. However, as villagers began to leave in search of better opportunities abroad, the village’s land lay fallow and unattended. Plots were leased for modest sums while the villagers sought their fortunes elsewhere, and the agrarian way of life suffered a setback, leading to significant setbacks in local development for communities across Albania.
“We left for Germany in search of asylum and a better life because we were facing considerable challenges here,” explains Laureta Xhelali, a wheat farmer from the village, as she discusses her reasons for migrating. Although Laureta’s family had lived in the village for generations and owned their land, cultivating it year after year, they did not possess a legal title for their property. The administrative expenses associated with obtaining land titles were simply beyond their means. However, upon their return, the returnees received support from the EU-funded, UNDP-implemented Regional Returnee Reintegration Project, which assisted them in addressing various challenges they encountered upon their return.
For instance, despite their practical farming skills and familiarity with the land, returnees couldn’t fully benefit from their arable land for variety of reasons, including due to the absence of land titles. “Thirty years have passed, and we still haven’t received our land certificates,” Laureta Xhelali notes. In collaboration with local NGOs, UNDP facilitated the process for 16 returnee families to obtain their land titles. Laureta Xhelali expresses her gratitude: “Thanks to the project’s support and our family’s determination, we are now reaping the rewards of our efforts with our first wheat harvest.” While the primary focus of the project’s assistance was on obtaining land titles and encouraging returnees to resume agricultural production, it also enabled returnees to cultivate wheat on larger plots of arable land. Consequently, 27 families received support to start wheat production. The collaborative efforts of the returning villagers, local NGOs, and UNDP empowered returnees to use their land more productively. “Previously, I could only afford to plant two acres of land. Thanks to the support, I now have a hectare of wheat,” says Anila Kazanxhiu, a returnee and wheat farmer.
Thanks to the project’s assistance, those who previously couldn’t cultivate their land are now able to do so, and returning farmers have the opportunity to expand their arable land for more sustainable incomes. As part of the project’s support, these returnee-farmers also received a series of training sessions on good agricultural practices. This training equips them with the knowledge and skills needed to address agricultural challenges, from planting seeds to selling their produce in markets. For Mirjeta Ramizi from UNDP Albania, this project stands out as one of the most successful in her career. She remarks, “This is a very commendable project in terms of sustainability and impact because it delivers both capabilities and tangible results in a very short period. It’s visible, tangible, and leaves a lasting impact.”
About the project
The Reintegration of Returnees in the Western Balkans project is focused on addressing key barriers for socio-economic reintegration of vulnerable returnees in the Western Balkans. The project is part of the EU Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA) II Multi-Country Action, EU support to Fundamental Rights of Roma Community, and Reintegration of Returnees, entrusted to UNDP, World Bank, and the Council of Europe. In all Western Balkan economies, the project assesses policy and institutional gaps and facilitates a dialogue on mechanisms for implementation and monitoring of reintegration policies and programmes. In Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia, the project implements local level programmes and tests innovative solutions for sustainable socio-economic reintegration of returnees.
Photo credits: Reintegration of returnees in the Western Balkans project
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