Italy is ready to send naval ships to ferry refugees from Albania, rather than risk having them exploited by the mafia who control the traffic of illegal immigrants to Italy.
The Interior Minister, Rosa Russo Jervolino, has sweeping powers to cope with the arrival of refugees after a state of emergency was declared on Friday.
Yesterday the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said more than 80,000 people had been displaced in the past four weeks alone. "Only last weekend we heard that 25,000 people had been forced from their homes in the villages of Drenica and Srbica," said a spokeswoman. "That was before the bombs began to fall."
The UNHCR's representatives reported movement on the borders of Albania, Macedonia, Hungary and even Bosnia.
"We are expecting the worst," the spokeswoman added. "The indications are that there will be a mass outflow. When they come it will be their last resort and they will be desperate."
The southern Italian region of Puglia is bracing itself to provide hospitality on a scale not seen since a rusting ship crammed with 20,000 Albanians limped into the port of Brindisi in 1992. The authorities have set up a crisis centre in Bari which will eventually cater for 7,000 arrivals at a time.
But the Italian government wants its European partners to share the responsibility for housing the refugees. It has asked that the EU provide 30m euros (pounds 20m) over two years to help cope with the emergency.
Rough seas and the naval blockade of the Adriatic have halted the highly organised Albanian gangs who offer pounds 600 passages to Italy on overloaded speedboats and motorised rubber dinghies. To avoid capture, the traffickers frequently dump their human cargo before they reach shore.
Many will never get that far. Albania and Macedonia which share borders are the obvious first-destination countries for fleeing Kosovar Albanians.
Albania is theoretically ready to help its Kosovar blood brothers, but is itself far from stable. Macedonia, which has a large Albanian minority, has already taken in 20,000 refugees, but fears destabilisation if there are many more. The country has been offered pounds 1.4m by Taiwan to help cope with the flood.
Among EU countries, Italy and Germany have borne the brunt. The numbers arriving in Britain are much smaller.Reuse content