TIRANA - The Albanian market vendor paid 1,200 euros ($1,419) to a "chaperone" late last year to take her 16-year-old son to France, where he joined thousands from the Balkan country seeking asylum.

"It's a huge sacrifice, I pray to God every night," said Bukurie, 40, who declined to give her family name for fear of problems with authorities.

She said the teenager, her only son, is now in a centre for unaccompanied minors, studying French and hoping to start a cooking apprenticeship so that he can apply to stay in France when he turns 18. "My only wish is that he can have a better future," she told AFP.

Nearly 29,000 Albanians sought asylum in the European Union in 2016, according to EU data agency Eurostat - one percent of the country's entire 2.9 million population.

It places Albania, a candidate for EU membership, among the top asylum-seeking nations along with Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Eritrea.

Despite being considered a safe and democratic country, Albania remains a leading source of asylum seekers to the European Union, an irregular emigration pattern that Tirana has vowed to crack down on.

Mass migration from the former communist state is driven by Albania's average monthly salary of about 340 euros and an unemployment rate affecting nearly one in three young people.

Bukurie said she and her husband struggle to support their family of seven, coming to the capital from the rural outskirts each day to sell just a few kilogrammes of vegetables and two or three litres of milk.

"A mother should not be condemned for only thinking about better prospects for her child," she said.

"We have decided to stop this phenomenon, which really worries us," said Rovena Voda, Deputy Interior Minister, who expressed particular concern about unaccompanied minors.

Eurostat figures show Germany was the favoured destination of first-time Albanian asylum applicants last year, but France took the top spot in the first quarter of 2017.

More than 4,000 Albanian citizens sought asylum in France in the first half of this year, according to Aida Hajnaj, the police chief for borders and migrants.

Last month French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb described the influx as a "fundamental problem" that needed resolving.

Albanian asylum-seekers are taken care of in France until their request is rejected - but they take up a large proportion of French hosting capacities at the cost of citizens from war-torn countries.

France has an important advantage in the eyes of applicants: the slow speed of its procedures, according to Albanian police sources.

It could be an entire year before asylum candidates are rejected, in which time some of them try to reach Britain, the sources say.

Paris and Berlin's threats to reinstate visas for Albanians appear to have galvanised authorities back home. Albanian Foreign Minister Ditmir Bushati met Collomb in late July to discuss the problem.

Tirana presented France with "an action plan to get concrete results within three months in the fight against irregular immigration", Voda said.

The plan includes stronger controls on those leaving, particularly to prevent the emigration of unaccompanied minors. Another is strengthening the crackdown on criminal networks.

Albanian police "are investigating agencies, law firms, associations or registry offices who provide false papers to asylum seekers," according to Voda.

Between January and May, 1,083 citizens were readmitted in Albania after presenting false papers in France to claim asylum, the interior ministry said.

Police say that, in a bid to prove their life is in danger, asylum seekers sometimes place explosives under their vehicles or in front of their apartments.

Another method is to claim that they are potential victims of a vendetta, caught up in the rapidly-dying Albanian tradition of "blood feuds".

Land disputes, discrimination related to sexual orientation and domestic violence are also listed as reasons for seeking asylum.

Parents, like Bukurie, often organise the departure of their own children.

In 2016, more than 500 unaccompanied Albanian minors were registered in France, notably in the country's east.

But parents "who thought that they were sending their children to a better future... do not realise that a number of them become victims of human-trafficking rings," said Alain Bouchon, who runs an association in the eastern French town of Bourg-en-Bresse.

The traffickers "force them into prostitution and begging," Bouchon said.

To fight this phenomenon, Albanian authorities have also "engaged the criminal responsibility" of parents, according to Voda.

In May, 44-year old mother Miranda Locka was sentenced to four months in prison, commuted to 18 months' probation, for having abandoned her children in Germany.

But still authorities may struggle to stem the flow of emigrants: according to a recent Gallup study, 56 percent of Albanians want to leave if a possibility arises.