The UK is trying to disrupt foreign organised crime groups by persuading children in remote areas of northern Albania to avoid gang life.
In a sign of the lengths the government is going to tackle the rising power and pull of international crime groups operating in the UK, the Home Office has started a two year operation to prevent “at-risk” 14-16 year olds living in Albania from joining gangs which traffic people and cocaine to the UK.
The £2.7 million project, centred around towns and cities in the north of Albania where many Albanian crime networks operating in the UK originate, represents the first time the government has gone abroad to deter future organised crime recruits before they end up arriving into Britain and locked up for serious drug crimes.
If successful the project could trigger similar attempts at dissuading children at risk of joining serious organised crime networks in other countries.
Crime groups from Albania, located in southeast Europe’s Balkan peninsula, have become major players in the UK’s £3 billion cocaine market, and have also muscled in on the underground cannabis farm trade. Albanian gangs are also involved in people trafficking and state corruption within Albania.
Many Albanians caught working in Britain’s drug trade are young men. According to the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, drug gangs in Albania – a country with high levels of poverty, unemployment and poor housing – are increasingly recruiting children.
The rising involvement of Albanian gangs on the UK’s crime scene is reflected by the fact nearly one in six foreign nationals in UK prisons is now Albanian. In 2015 there were 475 Albanians locked up in the UK. By June this year there were 1,528. In response to the rise the UK government this year reached an agreement with Albania to start transferring inmates to their home country to finish serving their sentences.
But the Home Office is keen to upset the conveyor belt of young Albanian gang members ending up in the UK under the cover of thousands of legitimate migrants. The programme, which has been contracted out to international development firm Palladium, aims to “identify and support those at risk of engaging in criminality” and to intervene with young people at risk of joining serious organised crime “to draw them away from a pathway into offending”.
Children identified as being at risk for the project include those who have already started offending, who have easy access to criminal networks such as through family members, who have mental health or drug problems, who are not in education, have skillsets seen as desirable by criminal gangs and who show signs of identifying with a criminal lifestyle.
The new tactic is the upshot of a decision by the Home Office to shake up the way it tackles organised crime. In 2018 it concluded that it could not solve organised crime solely by chasing it down, and has decided to put more focus on stifling it at source.
The project will engage with young Albanians and persuade them away from a life of crime by using music, sport, training, apprenticeships, mentoring and counselling, tactics used in similar programmes within the UK.
Officials are hoping that music – including rap and hip hop – can be used in the Albania project “as a tool to build trust with young people and understand their needs”. Child welfare experts will identify which tracks and lyrics draw an emotional response from young people and use this to explore ways of engaging with them.
The Home Office is working with criminal justice and social work experts, and an Albanian child welfare charity to deliver the project, which started in April and runs until March 2023.
A Home Office spokesperson told VICE World News: “Serious and organised criminal gangs threaten our way of life. Their operations often transcend borders and the government is working with our international partners to disrupt and prosecute gangs where they originate to prevent recruits being fed into UK networks. Part of this work involves tackling what drives young people to join serious organised crime in the first place, which is why we are piloting our Prevent Programme in Albania.”
According to an unpublished report by an Albanian think tank for the Home Office seen by VICE World News, young Albanians are tempted into joining organised crime gangs not just because of poverty and a lack of jobs, but because many see crime as being a culturally accepted norm and a viable way of earning money, moving abroad and becoming rich. The report, by the Institute for Democracy and Mediation, said that most of the people who end up joining crime groups and travel to the UK come from the north of Albania, which has a strong migration base to the UK and close family and social ties.
Security expert Dr Sasha Jesperson, who has advised the UK and other governments on how to tackle organised crime, said: “This project is very significant. From the UK, this is really the first proper prevent programme of this type it has done. Albania is the first community-based programming on serious organised crime, which makes it very innovative.”
Jesperson said the UK’s attempt to tackle organised crime upstream in Albania will be crucial in deciding future strategy in countries such as Jamaica and Nigeria, where the UK government is keen to trial ways of preventing serious organised crime upstream. In a report Jesperson wrote last year, she said the effectiveness of the ‘prevent’ tactic is yet to be proved. “The evidence base on what works is weak, in part because there hasn't been enough focus on monitoring, evaluation and learning, but also because the toolbox is still emerging.
“So the Albania project is a way of testing some assumptions on what might work. There are definitely other regions watching in interest to see if something similar can be replicated there.”