Emigres discover bitter taste of Western life

March 27, 1991

By Peter Annear

The Straits of Otranto — an 80 kilometre stretch of the Adriatic — were the corridor for the exodus of 20,000 Albanians in the second week of March from Durres, Vlore and Shengjin to Brindisi, Otranto and other ports in the Apulia region of south-east Italy. Chaos and squalor ruled the Brindisi dock while the Italian government refused to provide adequately for the influx of emigres, who were forced to camp out. Nearly 2000 have already returned of their own accord to Albania.

The Italian government voted on March 7 to return most of the emigres. On the same day, the Albanian government declared Durres a military zone in an attempt to halt thousands of would-be emigres from seizing ships, and banned mass gatherings in Tirana and three towns.

At least one Albanian was killed on March 6 as police dispersed people pressing to enter foreign embassies in the capital, Tirana. The rush was apparently triggered by rumours that the embassies were offering visas and passage out of the country.

This is the second exodus from Albania in 10 months. Last June, 5000 Albanians left the country after storming Western embassies. Many of those are still in refugee centres in Western Europe awaiting resettlement in other countries.

Rioting broke out on the Brindisi docks on March 8, a result of inadequate food supplies. Running battles occurred between baton-wielding police and crowds of hungry Albanians. Some jumped the dockyard walls to make their way into the town of Brindisi. Italian radio reported thousands of small thefts in the town, especially of food. The refugees now constitute about a fifth of the small town's population of 72,000.

The Christian Democratic Italian government of Giulio Andreotti has labelled the Albanians "economic refugees" rather than "political refugees". Italy has only to protect those seeking political asylum, deputy prime minister Claudia Martelli is quoted as saying.

In late February, the ruling Albania Party of Labour, headed by Ramiz Alia, appointed Fatos Nano as prime minister of a new government, which claims to have held talks with foreign countries to enable Albanians to go abroad to work. The talks proved fruitless.

In the first week of March, the new government stopped all food exports, declared a freeze on investments and announced staff cuts in its top-heavy administration — including a 50% cut in diplomatic and trade representatives abroad — in an effort to boost the economy. More hard currency was made available for food imports and for essential raw materials in an attempt to boost domestic production.

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