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Balkans Special Report

  Albanian Smugglers Prey on Refugees Fleeing to Italy

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 7, 1999; Page A16

ISLAND OF SAZAN, Albania A dinghy powered by two high-powered outboard engines lies smashed by the pier on this island just off the port of Vlore in southern Albania.

Two weeks ago, the dinghy, packed with 46 people, mostly ethnic Albanian refugees, was skirting the Albanian coast at night when it was spotted by a speedboat operated by the Italian tax police, the Guardia di Finanza.

In his haste to elude the Italian police, the pilot of the smuggling boat raced too close to shore and clipped some rocks, tossing his human cargo into the water. Four people were killed, including a 3- and 5-year-old brother and sister who were sitting on their parents' laps when one side of the boat disintegrated. Their aunt was also killed, and their mother lost a leg.

The pilot of the boat escaped.

Of the 430,000 Kosovo refugees housed in tent cities and run-down shelters in Albania, thousands impatient with their living conditions have set their sights on Italian shores across the Adriatic Sea. If they make it, they are guaranteed political asylum by the Italian authorities who, nonetheless, are trying with little success and even less cooperation from local authorities to turn them back.

"If I get the money I will go," said Naim Berisha, 18, from the Drenica region of Kosovo, who is living in a decrepit refugee camp run by local authorities in Vlore. "Those with money have gone. The smugglers come here and make the arrangements, and the next day you leave."

An established criminal community in Vlore that has long transported Albanian women across the Strait of Otranto to lives of prostitution in Italy is now exploiting the dreams of refugees like Berisha. Vlore was the epicenter of Albania's violent disintegration in 1997, and the central government in Tirana has never fully reestablished the rule of law in the city.

The smugglers charge up to 1,200 German marks [$636] for every person crossing, and several hundred ethnic Albanians, some selling their last possessions to make the trip, have crossed every night since NATO's air assault on Yugoslavia began on March 24 and the first refugees began to stream into Albania. They are packed, often 40 at a time, into boats that comfortably seat a handful of people.

More than 6,000 refugees have landed on beaches along the heel of Italy in the past week, including 1,000 on Thursday, the heaviest night. It remains a treacherous trip. Smugglers have tossed refugees, including infants, overboard to distract authorities and elude capture, said Italian officials. And they have been known to circle on the open sea for a couple of hours and then drop refugees on Albanian headlands, telling them they are in Italy.

"On some nights we see 20 or 30 boats in a three-hour period," said an officer with the Guardia di Finanza as his unit's speedboat cut across the sea at 40 knots. "We perform maneuvers on the sea to force them back to Albania, but they just come again." Italian police officers in Vlore and on the island of Sazan agreed to talk about their work on condition of anonymity.

Italian speedboats patrol the waters but cannot cut off the illegal, dangerous trade. Under a 1997 agreement between Italy and Albania, Italian police are allowed to maintain a presence in Albanian waters, but only Albanian police officers can make arrests.

And that hasn't happened. Despite major Italian investments in equipment for the Albanian police force, which was devastated by the 1997 riots, it is extraordinarily lackluster, judging by its arrest record.

Standing on the shore in Vlore, it's easy to see smugglers' boats being pushed into the sea by tractors. They appear to be in clear violation of a new Albanian law outlawing speedboats with high-powered engines. Italian police point them out with a certain weariness, and the Albanian police do nothing in response. In the six months since Italy created an anti-smuggling unit here, Albanian authorities have sequestered and held one boat. An estimated 110 are operating in the area.

"One boat," said an Italian officer, in exasperation. "And that was to show they were doing something."

In interviews here, Albanian authorities said there are only six or seven illegal boats operating in Vlore, a figure that the Italians find laughable and that is belied by the number of people landing in Italy.

Italian police officers said the local police almost never act quickly on intelligence about the movement and location of boats. In one incident, an Italian officer said, the Guardia di Finanza forced a boat back to shore and radioed its location but was told that the nearest Albanian police car was out of gas.

Italy has invested millions of dollars in new cars and communications equipment for the Albanian police in the past two years.

The Albanian police, in fact, live in fear of the smugglers. Local special police forces wear black masks to protect their identities. Even masked, they are reluctant to challenge the heavily armed smugglers head-on. In the first police operation against smugglers this year, seven boats were seized. The response of the gangs was swift. Smugglers kidnapped the local police chief, and more than 100 gang members stormed the location where the boats were being held. The police fled, and the smugglers reclaimed their vessels. They released the chief a couple days later, and no charges were filed as a result of the assault.

"When you consider the social conditions here and the state the police force was in after the total anarchy of 1997, even the arrest of one smuggler is a step forward," said one Italian police officer.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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