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BILISHT, Albania (Reuters) - After the fall of Communism two decades ago, Greece became a promised land for hundreds of thousands of Albanians, a place to make a new start after generations of grinding poverty.
But the gold rush has waned and many migrants are now finding themselves to be the first victims of the Greek financial crisis. Some see better economic prospects in Albania and are tempted to return home for good.
"I have never seen the economy so bad," said Agim Aliaj, a 48-year-old house painter who returned to Albania in March, after failing to find regular work in Greece for months.
"It has been impossible for me to send money home for a year and a half. Their problems will affect us, too, very hard."
Albanians are by far the largest groups of foreign workers in Greece, estimated at 650,000 to 800,000, and have been among the first to feel the current turmoil.
Since the onset of the global financial crisis, the woes of Albanian migrant workers in Greece and Italy, Western Europe and the United States have been reflected in the decline of their remittances, which sank to a five-year low last year.
In 2009 remittances totaled 780 million euros, equivalent to nine percent of Albania's gross domestic product. That compared to totals of 833 million euros in 2008 and 951 million euros in 2007, the highest figure ever.
Remittances would fall further and unemployment could rise if the number of returning migrants continues to grow. On the positive side, some may also bring back capital to invest.
Aliaj, the house painter, said thousands of Albanians were struggling just to get by in Greece, hoping the economy would improve. Their families from Albania were sending them tobacco, beans and potatoes via buses plying the slow, tortuous mountain route.
Like many others, he was tempted to stay home and cultivate land in his village Kuc, where his wife, daughter and son live.
But he was quickly sobered by the experience of his fellow villagers, who saw tonnes of their onions, beans and apples dumped into a river for lack of a proper market or storage.
"This gives me no enthusiasm to start an activity because the sale is not guaranteed. I will wait for a few months to see how things are in Greece and will go back there," he said.
Unlike Aliaj, Gerald Hoxha, 28, has returned home to his native village for good.
"Once my daughter finishes first grade (in the coming days), all the family will come here to settle for good. There is some work here for me, not much, but it will be better than in Greece," Hoxha said.
Having worked mostly as iron worker, including for the 2004 Olympic Games, Hoxha said he had seen his daily income fall from 70 euros to as low as 30 euros when he could find work to support a wife, seven-year old daughter and three-year old son.
"If I worked 24 days a month for 50 euros a day, it would be fine. But in the last four months of winter I could work only 20 days. And I think it will be much worse in September," Hoxha said, adding nobody was keen to build there anymore.
At the Kapshtice border crossing with Greece, duty officer Landi Ipo said the number of Albanians returning for good had increased as migrants were leaving the Thessaloniki area.
There are no reliable statistics on the number of Albanians that are returning home from Greece. Greek officials acknowledge that an increasing number of Albanians are leaving but say it is too soon to speak of a major wave of departures.
"They say they have no guarantees for the future there. They are coming back with everything they own," Ipo said.
Driving his Opel car past the Kapshtice border crossing into Albania, Arben Haka said he hoped to find something to do here because life was becoming too hard for a migrant worker.
"I am hopeful I will find something in my country, because the foreign land is no longer able to keep us," he said.
Although Albania remains one of Europe's poorest countries, with unemployment officially at more than 14 percent, the Greek crisis has prompted some thinking among the migrants.
Per capita GDP in Albania stood at $3,840 annually in 2008, compared to $29,361 in Greece, according to the World Bank.
Albania is one of the few European countries that did not go into recession. Gross domestic product (GDP) rose by 3.3 percent in 2009, down from 7.9 percent the year before, and is seen growing again in 2010.
"Why does our government force us to pick the cherries of the Greeks instead of providing us with development alternatives," Aliaj asked. "Albanians have toiled and sweated in Greece. If they had stayed at home, if the right policies had been in place, something great would have been achieved."
Editing by Adam Tanner and Noah Barkin