Albania: Football Team Trafficking Scam

Albanian criminals are coming up with ever more ingenious ways of smuggling migrants.

Albania: Football Team Trafficking Scam

Albanian criminals are coming up with ever more ingenious ways of smuggling migrants.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

Fake football teams are among the latest scams adopted by Albanian human traffickers, following a police crackdown on the shipment of illegal immigrants across the Adriatic Sea.

Following the election of Fatos Nanos' government last August, a high profile operation was launched against speedboats carrying migrants to Italy, drastically reducing the number of daily crossings.

However, traffickers, who often operate with the cooperation of corrupt police and government officials, are finding ever more ingenious methods of keeping the flow of human traffic moving. Last week, thirty Albanian teenagers en route to the Netherlands as members of the Adriatik under-15s and under-17s soccer teams were intercepted at Durres port by police, who discovered they had each paid 2000 euro for their visas and were planning to join relatives in Italy.

Two soccer coaches, a club sponsor, a municipal official from Kavaja, 50 kilometres from Tirana, were among nine people arrested. The minister of youth and culture, Arta Dada, denied claims that she had signed documentation authorising the trip, pointing out that the national soccer federation was responsible for the paperwork. Two senior federation officials were questioned, but not arrested.

The soccer federation immediately announced it would review its visa procedures for teams travelling abroad. This was not thought to be the first time fake soccer teams had been formed to gain visas for illegal immigrants.

Albania has long been an important transit point for illegal immigrants from eastern European countries and for Kurds, who arrive via Greece. An estimated 6,000 people have been trafficked through Albania in the last two years and the country had risked sanctions because of its high rating by the State Department in its reports on the global problem of human trafficking.

In the latest State Department report last June, Albania's rating was lowered, an acknowledgment that the government has shown a willingness to address the problem, although it still has a long way to go. The European Union also require progress in anti-trafficking efforts before Albania will be allowed to begin negotiations for a Stabilisation-Association Agreement, the first step towards joining the EU.

The rating change followed parliament's adoption in 2001 of a national strategy for tackling human trafficking, which provided for the creation of anti-trafficking units in police districts around the country.

In a news conference on April 19, interior minister Luan Rama said recent smuggling incidents were not isolated. He added that the authorities knew of policemen and politicians who were either directly involved or who maintained links with mafia rings involved in people smuggling.

The head of the Durres branch of the secret police or State Information Service, SIS, was among those arrested in another anti-human trafficking operation two weeks ago. Fifteen people were detained in Albania and Italy, in a swoop on a smuggling ring, which police say trafficked about 60 children last year.

The trail started last September when an Albanian couple, who had been under Italian police surveillance for over a year, were arrested in the town of Pescara in southern Italy. Their Italian lawyer was arrested soon after.

Some ring members passed the trafficked children off as their own, others prepared false documents to produce at the border or helped secure easy passage at the checkpoints. The intended destination of the children is not known, but police said that threats against their families were used to keep them silent.

Italian police said the ring was directed from Durres and involved customs officials and port police - a number of whom were arrested.

A third scam was recently uncovered in which the JAT airline was used by a trafficking ring operating between Tirana, Belgrade and New York. Colonel Ilir Zylyftari of the Tirana police told IWPR that JAT repatriated seven Albanians who presented false documents in Belgrade. Back in Tirana, they told police that they were supposed to pay 7000 euro on arrival in the United States to ring members including policemen from Tirana's Rinas airport.

Rama dismissed five high-ranking security officials from Rinas to enable further investigations, although two policemen who were arrested were later released. The minister acknowledged that ever more sophisticated methods of smuggling presented officers with an ongoing challenge and called for a national effort to combat human trafficking.

Alban Bala is a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent in Tirana.

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