Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Traffickers Risk Death on Albania's High Seas

Lack of funds, surveillance equipment and official corruption hamper task of controlling the illegal trade in people and drugs.
By Neil Barnett

At dawn, an ageing Chinese diving ship, bought by the Albanian navy for use as a patrol vessel, scours the coastline off the depressed port of Vlora in southern Albania, searching for human traffickers.


The tough sailors on board are on the lookout for inflatable smuggling speedboats like the one that sank in the early hours of January 9, causing the deaths from exposure of 20 Albanians from poverty-stricken Shkodra.


Their speedboat had been designed to carry eight people. Instead, it left Vlora in high seas, groaning under the weight of 38 passengers. All were illegal immigrants desperate to get across the 65-kilometre stretch of water to Italy.


With no life jackets or flares to attract coast guards, more than half the people on board disappeared under 15-foot waves.


Ilir Manco, commander of the Vlora naval district, admits that even when his vessels spot one of the tiny boats – which is unlikely in the poor visibility in the dark - there is precious little they can do about it. They are not fast enough to pursue the boats, and have no authority to use the twin 14mm canon placed on the foredeck.


“The smugglers cross in rough seas at night and when the seas are up the boats are invisible to radar and the naked eye,” Manco said. “Even if the boats are spotted they move at between 35 and 70 knots, which is far faster than most of our boats. Sometimes they even outpace helicopters.”


The Balkans has always been a crossing point for civilisations and cultures, but since the collapse of communism in Yugoslavia and Albania the region has assumed a new role as a transit route for traffickers in people and narcotics.


No solution relying purely on heightened security can stem the smuggling of people, drugs and cigarettes. Poverty is what drives the trade. According to the World Bank, Albania is Europe’s poorest country.


Almost a quarter of Albanians are registered as unemployed; many more do not earn a living wage. Only 18 per cent of the population enjoys a regular electrical supply and only one in six households has constant running water.


Women are trafficked into the Balkans from Ukraine, Moldova, Russia and Romania, then moved through Central Europe or across the Adriatic or Ionian seas to Italy.


Illegal immigrants come from the Balkans and the former Soviet Union but also from as far as the Kurdish lands and Afghanistan. Their desire to get into the EU is a lucrative business, and each passenger pays 1,300-1,500 euro, according to Albanian police sources. The trafficking of heroin and contraband and counterfeit cigarettes is a huge business, run in parallel with human smuggling activities.


The Albanian navy is teaming up with its better-equipped Italian counterpart to tackle the problem. But the gangs’ ruthless tactics make it difficult to stop the smugglers’ boats once they have left shore.


The Albanian government is stepping up its efforts to stop the smugglers. “Until the government cracked down in 2003, the speedboats used to wait in the harbour like taxis. It was completely open,” one man said in a Vlora cafe.


Now the boats are hidden, but as the recent tragedy shows, the smugglers remain determined to move their illicit cargoes.


Commander Manco’s work is restricted by lack of funds and equipment. “Our boats are limited in speed and although the Americans and Italians have donated some boats, we lack spare parts. On some, the rudders have never worked,” he said.


A common ruse of the smugglers is to throw off their pursuers by hurling their human cargo into the sea, obliging the security forces to pick them up as the smugglers speed off.


Lack of resources is not the only factor preventing the authorities from catching the traffickers. Corrupt officials also turn a blind eye at frontier crossing points. The rash of incongruously flashy and empty apartment buildings springing up on Vlora’s run-down streets suggests some people have large sums of cash to clean, as do the new BMWs and Mercedes cruising the grimy boulevards with blacked-out windows.


On January 20, Ilir Rrokaj, head of traffic police in Vlora, was arrested on suspicion of organising the smuggling ring. Artur Rrokaj, one of the surviving smugglers from the January 9 tragedy, turned out to be the son of a police chief – from the lawless Shkoder region, where many of the victims came from.


Erion Veliaj, of “Mjaft” (“Enough”), a civic action group, says the immigrants’ tragedy is directly linked to corruption. “Low-ranking police officers are paid on average euro 100 a month, and as such the probability of one being bribed is very high,” he said.


But in this case, he adds, senior officers were involved in organising the smuggling ring; the rank and file merely obeyed orders.


To control Albania’s land borders is as hard as guarding the high seas. Albanian border guards each have to patrol 25 km of mountainous terrain on average, and on foot. They seldom have vehicles or hi-tech gadgets, such as ground motion sensors or night vision goggles, to help them do their jobs.


In the last month, two episodes have thrown light on these normally obscure multi-billion dollar illicit businesses.


On January 30-31, Albanian and UN Police seized a huge, 55 kilogramme haul of heroin in two raids on the Kosovo border with Serbia and Montenegro and in Kukes, in northern Albania.


Marco Nicovic, an attorney and former chief of Belgrade police, told IWPR that up to 95 per cent of the land routes from Turkey, where opium is refined into heroin, pass through the Balkans on their way to western markets. “Three-to-four tonnes of heroin transits the region every month,” he said.


Nicovic outlined two main routes; one running via Nis in southern Serbia, then westwards into Kosovo and Albania and across the sea to Italy, or northwards via Belgrade or Zagreb into the EU and US.


“The Albanian groups have links in Turkey, Kosovo and the diaspora in Western Europe and the US, which means they control a high-quality smuggling channel,” he said, “but they work closely with Serbs, Montenegrins and Russians.”


In the world of crime, Nicovic adds, politics and history count for little. Power and profit are all that matter. Nor are the gangs specialised. Once they have the infrastructure to cross borders they move heroin one day, women the next, and cigarettes the day after.


While the Balkan lands bestride the dividing line between rich and poor, it will always offer an opportunity for those who are desperate to get rich fast, or get out as fast as possible.


The Albanian naval patrols are a start. But the dawning of a prosperity that touches ordinary people is the only real answer to the smuggling phenomenon, and that will not happen overnight.


Neil Barnett is a journalist covering South-East Europe.


More IWPR's Global Voices