30 March - 5 April 2000
Issue No. 475
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Lost hopeBy Zeina Takieddine
In the centre of Albania's south-western city of Vlora stands the Monument of Independence -- it was here where Albanians declared their freedom in 1912 from five centuries of Ottoman rule. But today, Vlora is known as something else: a gateway for escape to Europe.
Illegal immigration from Albania continues to be one of the most pressing problems for Western Europe as a whole, but for many Albanians and foreign emigrants, it is the "only way out." Business is mainly centered in the port city of Vlora; from here, both Albanians and other foreigners -- particularly Kurds, Chinese and Filipinos -- leave for Italy, which is a signatory state to the Schengen Accord. The treaty virtually abolished border controls within the European Union -- meaning that once Albanians reach Italy, they can move freely in Europe.
As night falls, an eerie feeling descends on Vlora and an atmosphere of emptiness prevails; its people in a state of apathy. The reason: even though their future was born here, they have little hope for their future.
The clandestine trafficking of people is a rapidly expanding business. Gangs and so-called mafia bosses enjoy relative freedom in a country where law and order have still to take hold. The overall security situation in Albania is very poor, despite efforts by the authorities to bring stability. And the fact that some members of the political class are involved in criminal activities leads to the inevitable result that gang activities are in most cases covered up.
The security vacuum is evident. Gangs of men hanging around street corners, bars and cafes playing bingo or just discussing daily and political affairs is the night-time scene. There are no women in sight.
"We do not dare go out after dark," says 22-year-old Hilda, "It is just not safe." Hilda does not take chances since she has already paid a price: rape. "I cannot even do anything about this," she says. "Who should I go to? The city is run by the mafia. I am scared to even report it."
It is all about "rules", explains Christina Roccella, a representative of the European Commission Host Organisation (ECHO) in Vlora. "Hilda did not abide by them. There are certain times when one can feel safe to roam the streets and there are certain roads that you can or should not use. For example, you know not to pass through the coastal road at night, because speedboat drivers are getting ready to make their journey. You do not hang out at places where speedboat owners and drivers go. It is organised chaos, that is what it is."
Learning the rules may not be enough. Security problems, along with the lack of employment opportunities, have pushed so many people to seek a better life elsewhere. Official statistics show more than 15 per cent of Albania's 3.5 million population has fled the country over the past 10 years.
"Basically, Albania is still the poorest country in Europe," said Giovanni Porta, spokesman in Albania for the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). "People are leaving because they want a better future. Of course they would stay if they had security and economic development. If there is improvement, the flow of people leaving will stop."
Each morning, dozens line up outside Western embassies, particularly those of Greece and Italy, hoping to obtain a visa. But many are not successful. "I brought all the necessary documents that the Italian consulate requested but I was still denied a visa," Altin, a 26-year-old Albanian, lamented. "They wanted me to show them a bank account worth some 2,500 US dollars. If I had that money, I would not be here."
It is people like Altin who become targets of gangs in the business of transporting emigrants to Italy illegally. It costs approximately $1,000 to get on a speedboat leaving from the south-western coast around Vlora to a destination on the other side of the Adriatic Sea. Italian authorities say that they have stopped more than 20,000 people trying to enter Italy illegally from Albania last year, and believe thousands of others escaped arrest; they claim that roughly 170 people were killed trying to cross in 1999. Speedboats are also used for the transit of drugs and prostitutes into Europe.
Twenty-seven-year-old Irgus was one of those Albanians who were forced to leave Italy. "I took a speedboat to Brindisi. I was heading to Milan," he explained. "But I was caught by the Italian police and sent back to Albania. I wanted to go to make some money to survive. I will try again, using whatever means, to reach Italy. I want to live like a normal man."
Revenues from émigrés working abroad are an important source of hard currency; at least one in every two families has a relative working outside Albania. Official figures show transfers from abroad amount to some $400 million annually.
In a bid to dissuade Albanians from leaving, the Italian government has given Albania soft loans and aid. It has also launched an aggressive campaign to stop illegal immigration, like installing new radars on Sazan Island and on a man-made island in the Adriatic. But the speedboat drivers are responding in kind. They are equipping their boats with increasingly sophisticated weaponry, like anti-tank missiles and their own radars.
"I sometimes make the three-hour trip three times a day," says one speedboat driver, who has been in this business for the past six years. "But we face dangers, particularly from the Italian Finance Guard who patrol the waters. Some of our boats have more than one engine, so that we are able to run away from the Italians." He claims there are between 70 to 80 speedboat drivers in Vlora.
To some Albanians, speedboat drivers are helping those who want to leave. But to others, they are organised criminals with close links to the police and authorities in both Italy and Albania. There are stories of speedboat owners who extract money from émigrés without getting them to Italy. "They drive around Sazan Island and then inform passengers they have to return because the Italian guard is onto them," said one Vlora resident, who preferred to remain anonymous. "They lose their money and their chance to get to Italy."
There have been many instances of speedboats and larger vessels carrying Albanian refugees sinking in the Adriatic. Some reports put the blame squarely on the Italian guard ships, claiming they deliberately hit the boats. Many ask whether it was coincidental that the only survivors of a 29 December boat crash were the driver and the Italian guide, who have since been in hiding.
The Albanian government has put the fight against "crime and corruption" among its top priorities. But it has also made it clear that trafficking and organised crime in general is not just Albania's problem, but one that belongs to all of the Southern Balkans region. Officials here claim that most of the foreign illegal emigrants who use this country as a way to reach Europe come from Greece, Macedonia and Montenegro, among other countries.
This claim is substantiated by reports from the Italian police that show only 7,000 out of the 49,000 illegal immigrants caught are Albanian. Other statistics show that during the last few months at least 1,900 Kurds have entered Albania illegally, either through the airport or the Greek-Albanian border-crossing at Kakavia. While observers believe Tirana could do more to halt illegal operations, they stress the need to improve the socio-economic conditions as a first step.