Focus: War In Europe: The poor robbed by the destitute

Corruption is nothing new in Albania, where aid routinely goes missing
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An official from one of the Islamic charities was walking through a Tirana market when he noticed sacks of flour neatly piled up in front of a shop. "That's funny," he told his companion. "We unloaded those last week. They were meant to go up to the refugee camp at Kukes."

That experience, say international charity workers, is becoming common as aid pours into Albania for exiles from Kosovo. Around 15 per cent of it is said to disappear after arriving in the country to reappear in local shops and distribution networks.

It is, perhaps, not surprising that in the poorest country in Europe, facing an influx of almost 435,000 refugees from Kosovo, there is will be maladministration and pilfering of aid. But what has struck diplomats, voluntary workers and Nato officials is the quickness and efficiency with which the black market system has become organised.

The items stolen are often the best clothes, the best food and medicine. In some areas, supplies have been simply hijacked by local criminals at the border posts near Kukes. Local Albanians, themselves impoverished, seized blankets, tarpaulins and food given to the Kosovars by aid workers as they came across the frontier. There were also accusations that some local authorities had stolen aid material, and their officials have sold them to shopkeepers.

After growing disquiet over such incidents, the country's Prime Minister, Majko Pandeli, at first blamed the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for "mishandling" the situation. Following protests from diplomats and aid agencies he changed track and called on the President to sack the law and order Minister Petro Koci.

There is nothing to stop individual refugees from selling food or clothing given to them. The agencies see this as a form of aid, as it generates income. But there has also been well-organised thefts from warehouses and other storage facilities.

There were complaints that dockers at the port of Durres refused to unload aid unless given a special "bonus". Lorry drivers with donations from the West claim they had to pay bribes to guards in order to expedite authorisation papers to make their deliveries.

This is not particularly surprising to government officials, who privately admit that corruption is a deep-seated problem. According to research recently released by the Albanian State Control Commission, one third of the country's administration was corrupt. The findings resulted from the examination of financial activities of 22 state ministers, customs and tax officers, banks, courts, and municipalities.

Some aid workers and diplomats feel that, under the circumstances, a loss of 15 per cent of supplies is not that bad, and is indeed better than in a few other war zones. They also point out the widespread poverty which leads to the criminality.

The security situation has also improved since Nato forces under the British Lieutenant General John Reith became involved in the humanitarian mission Operation Allied Harbour. Although the general insists that their role is purely to assist the aid organisations, the presence of armed troops has undoubtedly been a deterrent to would-be thieves.

Perhaps there should be little surprise to see people in this post-Stalinist backwater try to profit from its limited time in the spotlight. But among the exploited are also Kosovan refugees who have left the overcrowded camps to find their own accommodation in cities such as Tirana. There they are being charged up to US$500 (pounds 320) a month for a two-bedroomed flat.

"They stole from us at the border and they're stealing from us now," said Murad Quokaj, who has rented a one-bedroomed flat for his family at $300 a month. "It's very sad that when you've lost your home and country, people take advantage of you."