Italy faces a new Albanian armada

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The Independent Online
IT IS a still, windless night in the narrow strip of water which separates the southern Italian port of Brindisi from Albania, and there is little moving except for the fishing vessel making its way out into the Adriatic.

"There's quite a swell over the other side," says Michele Saracino, captain of coastguard launch 255. "Only a couple of boats have put out tonight. It's going to be slim pickings."

The pattern in cross-Adriatic traffic is different now from a year ago, when leaking boats, dangerously low in the water, arrived in Italian ports carrying desperate Albanians fleeing the anarchy at home. The occasional large vessel still arrives: yesterday a Turkish boat dumped 140 Kurds on a beach near Reggio Calabria.

But most of today's illegal immigrants cross in big rubber dinghies with powerful outboard motors. Owned by Albanian crime outfits, the boats line up on beaches near the Albanian ports of Durres and Vlore waiting for trade.

With a full complement on board - 20 or 30 passengers each paying one million lire (pounds 350) for a trip which can take as little as two hours - they set out for El Dorado on the other side of the Adriatic.

"At this time of year, with fine weather, 10 boats or more make it across to this part of Italy every night. It is well organised and they know there's very little we can do," says Giovanni Biso, head of the Brindisi harbourmaster's office.

"They are in small, fragile boats. We're in launches. We can't force them to stop: any brusque manoeuvring, and we send a boatload of people to the bottom. I'd rather not have that on my conscience."

Many boats carry arms, or drugs, as well as humans. Some make unscheduled stops not far off the beach to allow lurking partners in crime to strip their passengers of valuables.

Brindisi is warned of departing boats by Italian coastguards patrolling off the Albanian coast, or by Italian navy ships in mid-Adriatic. On this particular night, three boats will leave Durres and four Vlore, but all will be driven back to harbour by strong winds.

"When they make it across we catch up with them on this side and follow them to the beach, notifying police on land, who pick them up," says Biso. "Or at least that's the theory."

In fact, the commander admits, only about 20 per cent of the hundreds of illegal immigrants who make it on to Italian beaches in southern Italy every night are caught, and subjected to the tough immigration rules approved in March. Albanians are put on the next ferry home.

"They turn up again a few nights later," Biso says. "The fee for their passage across gives them the right to a certain number of shots, not just one."

The pilots of the boats, if caught, are dragged before magistrates and given prison sentences technically up to 15 years.

But they rarely exceed three. Many non-Albanians, especially the growing number of Iraqi Kurds, apply for asylum. Others get their marching orders immediately but have two weeks to leave the country.

Few use that time to arrange to return whence they came: the security in immigrant detention centres is lax, and hundreds, if not thousands, of inmates are believed to have walked out of them unmolested since the beginning of 1997.

They join the many more who are never caught at all.Italy's Interior Minister Giorgio Napolitano earlier this week said the number of clandestini in Italy was at least 24,000. For them, this country is often no more than a stopover on the way to France or Germany.

"This is a European problem, and not just an Italian one. Yet the whole weight of the thing has fallen on our shoulders," said Biso. "Italy can do all the patrolling it likes up and down the Adriatic, but the problem will never be solved as long as Albanians have no reason to stay in their own country."

In an attempt to give them a reason, Italy's Prime Minister Romano Prodi was in the Albanian capital, Tirana, this week to open a trade fair to boost investment by Italian companies. But his country has a long way to go if it hopes to bring about an economic miracle on the other side of the Adriatic. "If the flow of clandestini is to stop, what is needed is a kind of Marshall Plan for Albania," said Biso. The same thought clearly occurred to Mr Prodi who spoke of his hopes that the explosive situation in Kosovo - the ethnic Albanian region of Serbia demanding independence - might be resolved without bloodshed.

"If Kosovo blows up, the whole region blows up and God knows what will wash up on our shores," said Commander Biso. "Last year's mass exodus of Albanians would be nothing in comparison."