The southern half of Albania slipped away from government control in March as Albanians protested the collapse of pyramid investment schemes that resulted in at least $1.5 billion in losses to investors. Anti-government forces took control of cities such as Vlore, Sarande and Gjirokaster.
As fighting and anarchy spread, there were fears that boatloads of Albanians would cross the 40 miles of Adriatic from southern Albania to Italy, repeating the exodus of 40,000 Albanians in 1991 after communism collapsed. Italy declared a state of emergency to deal with Albanian migrants.
Between March 13 and March 24, some 12,000 Albanians reached Italy on boats that were impounded in Italy to prevent them from returning for more Albanians. Upon arrival, the Albanians were fingerprinted and most were offered three month temporary residence permits and permitted to go anywhere in Italy. Italy's interior ministry said that Albanians would not be given political asylum because Albania was a case of "degeneration of public order" rather than political persecution.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees asked Italy and Greece to allow Albanians to enter and stay "as long as necessary." However, on March 24, 1997, Italy announced that boats carrying Albanians across the Adriatic Sea would not be permitted to land. Italian Interior Ministry Undersecretary Giannicola Sinisi said that the Albanians coming to Italy "are looking for a better life, better-paid work. In short, they are immigrants. I can understand it but we cannot accept them. The law says they should be turned away at the border or repatriated."
The reaction of Italians to the current Albanian migration has been much less welcoming than it was to the sudden influx of 1991. Many Albanians reportedly paid boat owners $700 to take them to Italy, which has led some Italians to see the Albanians as economic migrants. The Italian press reported that some Albanians were arrested for car theft, attempted rape or fraud, and that many Albanians were using the violence in their country as a pretext to escape to Italy and the wealthy West.
Milan's mayor asserted that most of the Albanians "to break the law. They are violent (and) they don't work.'' One newspaper asserted that the Albanians were "more mafiosi than refugees."
The Italian government said it would repatriate Albanians without proper entry papers who seek political asylum; Italy has so far forcibly returned about 300 Albanians who were deemed "dangerous" or "undesirable." Amnesty International asked the Italian government to grant all Albanian asylum seekers in Italy temporary refuge.
There are about 1.1 million legal immigrants among Italy's 57 million residents, including 64,000 Albanians--legal Albanians are second only to Moroccans. Another 200,000 Albanians may be illegally in Italy. Italy deported 13,000 Albanians in 1996.
Greek border police reported on March 8 that the number of Albanians crossing into Greece with valid visas is increasing, but that the number of illegal entries is below average despite the unrest in Albania. Greece has moved eight divisions of troops to its northern province on the Albanian border and halted its ferry service to Albania.
At the border post of Kakkavia, more than 400 Albanians with visas, mostly women and children, entered Greece on March 8. Another 200 Albanians from Sarande, a third of them children, arrived March 8 on the regular ferry that stops at the Greek mainland port of Igoumenitsa and at the Greek island of Corfu.
There are an estimated 80,000 ethnic Greeks in southern Albania.
Meanwhile, Yugoslavia reported in mid-March that its borders with Albania had been "hermetically sealed" against illegal immigration.
Albania is the poorest country in Europe. About one-third of the Albanian government's $960 million budget in 1996 came from European assistance. Albania received $450 million in European aid between 1991 and 1995.
Italian economist Ernest Savona recently estimated that the 250,000 to 300,000 illegal immigrants who arrived in Europe in 1993 paid an average of $500 apiece to smugglers, generating $125 million to $150 million in smuggling revenues. Worldwide, people smuggling was estimated to have been a $7 billion business in 1993.
"Italy Orders Blocking Boats Of Albanians," Washington Post, March 25, 1997. Charles Truehart and Vera Haller, "Italy welcomes Albanians with compassion--and worry," Washington Post, March 19, 1997. "Amnesty alarmed by Italy's repatriation of Albanian asylum-seekers," Agence France Presse, March 19, 1997. "Hundreds of Albanians cross into Greece," Agence France Presse, March 8, 1997. Jude Webber, "Italy refuses political asylum for Albanians," Reuters, March 8, 1997. Jude Webber, "Italy to repatriate Albanians seeking refuge," Reuters, March 6, 1997. Jane Perlez, "Albanian President Tightens Grip, Cracks Down on Protests," New York Times, March 4, 1997. John Phillips, "Italy mobilizes anti-immigrant force to repel Adriatic exodus," Times, March 4, 1997