Nerws: War in Europe: Smugglers latch on to Kosovans

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Subject: Nerws: War in Europe: Smugglers latch on to Kosovans
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Tue Jun 08 1999 - 13:51:13 EDT


War in Europe: Smugglers latch on to Kosovans
Escape route: If money is upfront, they will spirit refugees to sanctuary,
as long as they can outrun patrols
JOHN HOOPER IN VLORA, SOUTHERN ALBANIA
The Guardian (London), June 1, 1999, p. 5

Our conversation at dinner was twice interrupted by sustained exchanges of
small arms fire. Our sea bream had been coaxed from the Mediterranean by
the now-customary local method of dropping in a hand grenade. The men at
the next table were migrant traffickers, openly discussing arrangements for
the following night.

'Vlora - Kalashnikov! Vlora - Beirut!" toasted our host as we clinked
glasses and downed more of his excellent 'grappa", made on the premises in
an unlicensed still.

This is a town so falteringly in the grip of the state that when police
inspect arriving vehicles, the officers, fearful of reprisals, wear face
masks to conceal their identities. 'It's like a volcano," said one of the
few foreigners living here. 'Lots of tensions underneath."

Those tensions are building fast - for reasons that have a direct bearing
on the Balkan refugee crisis.

Among Vlora's few sources of income is a trade in human beings. For the
past five years, smugglers working mainly with semi-rigid inflatables have
carried tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of Albanians, Kurds, Chinese,
Pakistanis, Indians and others across the Adriatic into the European Union.

Now the smugglers have been handed a new source of raw materials for their
human trade: the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is starting
to move tens of thousands of Kosovans down from the border to within
tantalising reach of this hazardous escape route.

In the past few days, calm seas have allowed the smugglers to step up their
operations. About 5,500 illegal immigrants, most of them Kosovan Albanians,
have landed along the southern coast of Italy in the last week alone.

The traffickers' boats are usually powered by two outboard engines of up to
400hp each - rather like putting a formula one engine into a Fiesta. Pitted
against them are 30 guards of the Italian revenue based on Sazan island,
which sits at the mouth of the broad inlet from which the smugglers
operate. The guards have an operations room and three high-power motor
launches of their own; and they are making the traffickers' lives hell.

They can harry up to three vessels at a time all the way to Italy, and
record the departure and return of every one.

Despite clear evidence, the Albanian police have been re luctant to impound
the speedboats. Vlora is a stronghold of the ruling Socialists.

When the local chief of police authorised the Italians to grab six of the
vessels last January, the smugglers banded together to take him hostage,
and the government backed down. Last Friday, however, the Albanian police
seized a returning vessel for the first time.

'This could be a breakthrough," said Captain Bruno Biagi of the revenue
guard. 'The boats represent an investment of pounds 40,000 each. It will
force the traffickers to think before setting off."

A local journalist, in frequent contact with the smugglers,said: 'Most are
trying to find another way of getting people across. Others are saying that
if the Italians continue to obstruct them, they will shoot them."

On the other side of town, in a row of erstwhile grain stores, some 1,850
Kosovan refugees are living in pitiful conditions as guests of the
cash-strapped Vlora council.

Block 2 brings to mind a Victorian engraving of a workhouse: occupants
sleep on mattresses laid out on pallets crammed edge to edge. The store is
unlit and the beds stretch in barely separated rows into the gloom. It is
hot, noisy and smelly.

Fiqirie Mehmeti, from Prizren, who was studying economics at university
before she fled, said the screaming of babies at night made it almost
impossible to sleep. 'There is no cooked food. All we get is bread and
cheese. There is milk once a week,' she added.

The first rickety showers had been installed two days earlier. But there
was still no hot water, and skin infections were rife among children.

'What I most want is to return to Kosovo", said Ms Mehmeti.

'But if the situation does not change, then we would all like to go
elsewhere. Ten families have left for Italy in the past seven days."

Those Albanians who opt for the smugglers' route face increasing risks. In
the past two weeks, eight Kosovan refugees have died as the traffickers
have resorted to increasingly hazardous manouevres to evade their pursuers.

But now a safer, though more costly, route is opening up. Ms Mehmeti said
the families who had left the grain stores had all gone by ferry.

'They had no passports, no visas. They just paid," she said. The price she
cited - pounds 670 - matched exactly that given independently by the local
journalist, who said that hundreds had left in this fashion.

Whether the new route involves bribing Albanian officials or purchase of
forged documents is not clear. But it relies for success on Rome's decision
to grant Kosovans automatic refugee status.

As we walked past burning garbage, bawling infants and harassed mothers to
the gates of the compound, Ms Mehmeti pointed to a makeshift shelter. An
Italian voluntary worker had been giving classes there, she said.

"I'm learning Italian," she added brightly. "I like Italian very much."


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