Albanians go barefoot to their barren land: Greece is expelling thousands of immigrant workers, who prefer virtual slave labour to the poverty of home. Tony Barber in Kakavija reports

THEIR CLOTHES were dusty and their faces were burnt from weeks of labour under the Greek sun. Barefoot, bent double beneath sacks of possessions, one spare hand gripping a plastic bag, they staggered along the short stretch of no man's land that marks the border between Greece and Albania.

There were about 20 in all, mostly middle-aged men and teenage boys. Once inside Albania, they were surrounded by taxi drivers offering to take them, for a fat sum, to their home towns.

The Albanians crossing at the remote, mountainous frontier post of Kakavija last Friday were the latest victims of a sour dispute between Albania and Greece. The Greek authorities, fed up with hundreds of thousands of Albanians who have crossed the border illegally in the past two years in search of employment, began to expel them on 25 June. The Albanian authorities complain that Greek policemen and soldiers have treated the Albanians like dirt, beating them with clubs, destroying their belongings and bundling them across the border with volleys of verbal abuse.

Ajim Canaj, who worked for a month as an agricultural labourer tending olive trees and cutting grass near Ioannina in northern Greece, said: 'I was trying to make some money for my wife and three children at home. My employer paid me very little and never even gave me a slice of bread to eat. Then last week the police arrived. They knew exactly where all the Albanians were working. They came at night and beat my friends. It was too dangerous for me. I came back to Albania of my own will.'

During his illegal stay in Greece, Canaj saved the equivalent of pounds 50. It seems a pitiful amount, but it is more than twice the monthly wage of a worker in Albania's ravaged state sector. Hard graft and humiliation in Greece are better than the desperation and squalor at home.

Rifat Arapi, a 21-year-old with a tuft of beard on his chin, had worked on a variety of farms across Greece in the past two months, sleeping in the open air or in barns. 'We heard that the Greek police were getting very tough, so we decided to come back. The police were arresting our friends and searching their pockets. If they found some money, they tore it up into little pieces. But I will go back if the situation improves. I didn't manage to save much this time.'

Mikel Bitri, the commander on the Albanian side of the border, said that the Greeks had forcibly expelled about 26,000 Albanians in the past fortnight. Hundreds of others, like Ajim Canaj and Rifat Arapi, had chosen to get out while the going was good.

Greece's Public Order Ministry estimated last February that about 150,000 illegal Albanian immigrants were in the country. The figure is deceptive, because many Albanians stay for only a month or two, and are replaced by others. Greek authorities say they deported 84,000 Albanians in 1991 and 379,000 in 1992. Since Albania's population is about 3.3 million and almost all the illegal immigrants are male, this means that one in four or five Albanian men may have entered Greece without permission in search of arduous, poorly paid work.

Nothing illustrates better the hardship of life in Albania, Europe's poorest and most barren country.

The pepole have thrown off the communist system which, under the Stalinist Enver Hoxha, was one of the world's most secretive and ruthless dictatorships. But his legacy remains. Albania is a country of crumbling houses and pot-holed roads where mules and bicycles are as common a form of transport as cars. Small children, apparently abandoned, lie wrapped in blankets on the streets, while others beg for money or try to sell cigarettes and soft drinks. Some apartment blocks lack doors or windows, some homes have no flushing toilets. There is little incentive to stay in this forlorn land, and every incentive to leave.

The Albanians who have entered Greece have spread themselves far and wide. When the police began their latest campaign of expulsions, in an operation called 'Broom Sweep' by the press, they found Albanians in Athens, Crete, Kos, Patmos, Rhodes and the Dodecanese islands. But not all Greek politicians agree with the deportations.

'These massive expulsions of poor people are no response to the serious political problems posed by Greek-Albanian relations,' said Maria Damanaki, the president of the radical Left Coalition.

The dispute between Athens and Tirana is, indeed, about rather more than illegal immigration. The Albanian government says the expulsions were in retaliation for its deportation two weeks ago of a Greek Orthodox priest from the southern town of Gjirokaster. The authorities accused the priest, Chrysostomos Myaidonis, of inciting the Greek minority in Albania to campaign for unification with Greece.

The ethnic Greeks live in a part of southern Albania that Greece calls Northern Epirus. Although the present Greek government disclaims any ambition to annex the area, previous rulers have taken a different view. It was not until 1987 that the former Greek prime minister, Andreas Papandreou, formally ended the state of war that had existed between Greece and Albania since the Second World War.

Ever since it won independence in 1913, one of Albania's greatest fears has been partition between Serbia and Greece. In the current Balkan climate of aggressive nationalism and territorial rivalry, these fears are increasing. Expulsions of Albanians from Greece, though entirely justified from a legal point of view, may be pouring more fat on the fire.

(Photograph omitted)

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