A quarter of Albania’s population and a third of its work force – the most active, skilled and young in age – are migrants abroad. And half of them are in Greece, a recent conference in Rhodes on migrants and growth heard. Remittances by Albanian migrants to their families soared from $152 million in 1992 to $1 billion in 2006. Their savings in their host countries came to $5 billion in 2004. Costas Barjabas, a professor at the University of Tirana and counselor to the Albanian labor ministry, told the conference, held by the Development Center of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the Hellenic Migration Policy Institute, that the savings of Albanian migrants covered 70 percent of Albania’s gross domestic product in 2004, while remittances to their families equaled 80 percent of the country’s trade deficit in 2006. «Migrants are at the heart of Albania’s economic and trade policy. For us it is an economic and social issue and not one of public order.» The biggest challenge for the Albanian government is the use of remittances through «the promotion of cooperation with the countries where migrants live so that the use of official channels of remittance is increased, as is migrants’ access to financial mechanisms and the use of remittances for housing and small businesses.» The use of remittances in the first 15 years of the migration wave for consumption alone resulted in the increase of the country’s trade deficit in 2004 to 25 percent of its GDP, Barjabas said. It is therefore imperative that the huge volume of money saved be better utilized. This is why «we must support small-scale financial companies so that every Albanian can have access to them,» said Barjabas. One of the thorniest issues that remains unresolved is the transfer of the social insurance rights of Albanian migrants back to their country. Retiring Albania’s labor and social affairs minister, Costas Barkas, told Kathimerini that the first generation of Albanian migrants has already reached retirement age. «These people have worked half of their time in Albania and the other half abroad. They have reached an age in which they need their pension to survive. We are primarily interested in the recognition of social security benefits in Greece and Italy, where 75 percent of Albanians in the EU work,» he said. Referring to a relevant agreement between Albania and Greece, which has remained pending for years, the minister noted: «At present there is only the will for solving the problem. There is no timetable. The two ministries are at the stage of preparing a cooperation protocol, which includes the issue of social security.» Representing the country with the biggest migration flow, Barkas said, «I am not here to apologize for the big wave of migration from my country, but to refer to the contribution by migrants to their destination countries.» The growth in Greece for which migrants have admittedly contributed, especially Albanians, is sometimes tarnished by nationalistic cries from both sides. «The mutual interest of the two societies must be paramount,» Barkas replied to a Kathimerini question.