War In The Balkans: Refugees - Albania's resources stretched to breaking point by refugees

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The Independent Online
"THIS COUNTRY is a poor country. How long can it really maintain this?" Sadako Ogata, of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said about Albania.

Faced with an exodus from Kosovo of horrendous proportions, Albania has made enormous efforts to ship the refugees on to other towns rather than allow them to fester in the muddy fields of the border town of Kukes.

Nevertheless, the arrival of at least 300,000 desperate people bodes ill for an impoverished, chaotic country, which is still trying to recover from the anarchy that followed the collapse of pyramid selling schemes in the spring of 1997.

"It is very bad for us. We are risking an epidemic and diseases," said Defrim Elezi, who sells cigarettes and soft drinks in Kukes. "Prices are so high because the Kosovars are here, and people think they have money." The influx has brought inflation to Albania, which previously had none, as it produces nothing, collects no taxes and more or less lives off smuggling drugs and guns.

Many Albanians resent the Kosovars. In the past, ethnic Albanians living in Tito's Yugoslavia were free to travel abroad and make money, while the xenophobic regime of Enver Hoxha in Albania kept their cousins isolated and poor.

None the less, perhaps two-thirds of the residents of Kukes opened their doors to the refugees. Mr Elezi had 17 Kosovars staying in his house for five days, before they moved south.

But opportunism has also surfaced. Much of the humanitarian aid earmarked for refugees ends up on the black market. "There was a reluctance to put aid in because it would disappear into the pockets of the criminal gangs," said one Western observer in Albania. The government is also using the crisis to extract more money from the international community. Tirana has already told the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that it wants to renegotiate its loans. As aid pours in for the Kosovar refugees, it will exacerbate tensions with the desperately poor local community and may destabilise the fragile political situation.

Few of the doctors, architects, engineers and other middle class refugees from Kosovo will remain in Albania and set up work in Tirana.

Even the influx of foreigners - aid workers, journalists, soldiers and so forth - will bring Albania only short-term gains. They bring in money, but push up the cost of living for everyone else. "Someone from Skhodra told my parents that Kukes had won the lottery with this," said Genti Hajdari, a student from Kukes. "But you see can the conditions here. Kukes used to be a beautiful town and now it is dirty. And the prices have all gone up for us."