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Albania: Boat Deaths Bring Visa Outcry

Poverty-stricken Albanians risk their lives trying to smuggle themselves across the Adriatic
By Sokol Shameti

The recent deaths of two would-be Albanian migrants in a speedboat crash has provoked an angry torrent of demands for Tirana to call for western countries to ease their tough visa regimes.


Faced with harsh living conditions at home, more and more Albanians appear willing to risk their lives on a 65 km high-speed dash across the Adriatic to reach Italy, their gateway to the West.


In this latest incident, on the night of July 21-22, a speedboat carrying 36 desperately poor Albanians collided with an Italian patrol boat near the southwestern port town of Vlore, in the Otranto Strait, the shortest route to Italy across the sea. Two of the refugees drowned, 20 were injured and three were lost. An Italian sailor was also injured.


Many victims claimed the patrol craft operated by the Guardia di Finanza - Italian finance police - switched off its lights and deliberately rammed the speedboat. The commander, Franco Papi, denied this and suggested the latter's driver veered dangerously across his bows.


The incident brought back bitter memories of a similar crash in March 1997 when 83 Albanians drowned. Then, as now, there were loud demands for visas restrictions to be relaxed.


Albanian police have arrested five people on charges of illegally organising the crossing but the two boat drivers are still at large. The state prosecutor has launched an investigation and detained both vessels at Sazan Island while inquiries go ahead.


The fleeing Albanians, all from poverty stricken areas, had drawn out their life savings to pay 110,000 leks (about 800 euros) apiece to racketeers from an international trafficking ring, after vainly applying for visas. Less than a week after the incident Albanian police blocked 24 more people trying to cross the Otranto Strait in the same area.


An agreement signed three years ago by the two governments called for cooperation between the Guardia di Finanza and local police on stopping illegal immigration.


Around 800,000 expatriate Albanians now live in neighbouring Greece and in Italy. About half of those who've ended up in the latter were ferried by speedboats, according to national police chief Bilbil Mema.


Ilirian Idrizi, 36, an elementary school teacher, who was hit by a propeller in this month's fatal crash, had tried many times to secure an Italian visa. Finally he paid the racketeers "to take me to my death". Fatjon Hysi, 19, another survivor, in hospital with a lung illness, said, "It was a lot of money to pay (the traffickers' fee) but better that than face all the problems at Western embassies."


Albanians protested that visa procedures discriminated against them. There are always long queues in front of the Italian embassy in Tirana, and then once inside they can wait even longer to obtain an application form, unless, of course, they bribe Albanian staff at the embassy.


Once they have the form, they need a letter of guarantee from an Italian citizen, proof of employment and documents relating to ownership of property. They also have to prove that they have enough money for the journey.


Because there have been cases of forgery, officials meticulously check every single detail, further delaying the process. Last year, the Italian embassy issued around 37000 visas and the number is expected this year to be even higher. Since the beginning of the year, around 6,000 Albanians have been allowed to get part-time jobs in Italy.


Early last century, Italy was Albania's traditional link to the West. Albanians could come and go largely as they pleased. Now Albania is amongst the poorest countries in Europe and its citizens are far from welcome.


Neritan Cake, head of the police and secret service parliamentary commission, said they had repeatedly asked Rome to lift the visa rules but it was afraid that would bring an uncontrollable flow of immigrants.


Fatmir Medium, head of the opposition Republican party, blamed Italian politicians like rightist Umberto Bossi. "Bossi was the initiator of a very strict anti-immigration law making the situation intolerable," he said.


Social Democratic deputy and former foreign minister Paskal Milo said government efforts to reform the visas regime had been not enough. "We could probably not ask Italy for the kind of relaxed visa system which it applies to Bulgaria and Romania," he said. "But we could request its liberalisation for businessmen, professors, students and intellectuals in general."


After a previous boat crash former Albanian premier Pandeli Majko immediately met the Italian ambassador to Tirana, Mario Bova, to ask for amendments to the Guardia di Finanza agreement. This time Fatmir Mediu told parliament he blamed the Italian boat for the crash and asked for the accord to be scrapped.


Sokol Shameti is editor with the Albanian Klan magazine.


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