Boat-people ban leaves Albanians high and dry

A boom town may go bust after the main, illicit, industry was shut, Andrew Gumbel writes from Vlora
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The Independent Online
The Albanian port of Vlora has the easy confidence of a boom town. New BMWs and Mercedes line the main streets, and relaxed, tanned men sit chatting at its beachfront restaurants.

Yet Vlora has just lost, at least temporarily, the work that until last month was the mainstay of as much as 70 per cent of its 30,000-strong population: ferrying migrants illegally across the 50 miles that separate it from south-eastern Italy.

The Albanian authorities, bowing to the demands of the European Union nations they so badly want to please, seized 54 powerboats, rounded up some of the traffic's ringleaders, expelled dozens of Sri Lankans, Kurds, Chinese and other migrants, and clamped down on corruption in the local police, who had let the whole business go ahead under their noses.

"Nobody is leaving for Italy any more," boasted Vlora's police chief, Sokol Mulosmani, the third man to occupy the post in a month. He was sent down to the coast from the capital, Tirana, to sort out the mess.

The clean-up has been remarkable for its efficiency in a country where scams and semi-legal businesses are tolerated simply because the population has no other way of making a living. It also appears to have been several notches more successful than attempts by the Italian authorities to stop the boats landing once they have set out to sea.

But inevitably it has left large sections of Vlora's population bitterly disillusioned, as the source of their wealth has been snatched away. "We have our dignity too," said one speedboat driver, called Mentor. "All the factories have closed, and we have been left with nothing. We weren't doing this job for any reason but the money."

In the past few months, Albania had become the easiest jumping-off point for Asians and other immigrants to reach Western Europe, partly because of the country's lax rules on letting people in and out and partly because of its proximity to Italy. At the height of the traffic, hundreds of people were leaving Vlora each week in speedboats that generally held around 20 people each. The charge per person was between $400 (pounds 260)and $600 per trip.

The Kurds and Chinese were soon joined by large numbers of Albanians, some of whom were too poor to hope to reach Italy legally, others also fed up with the near-impossibility of obtaining a visa.

The Italian consulate in Tirana issues only a handful of visas per day, creating vast queues at its offices.

According to Albanians with direct experience, the only sure way to obtain an Italian visa is to pay $1,000 on the black market. It therefore became cheaper for Albanians to take the illegal speedboats. They generally paid less than the Kurds and Chinese, and were allowed two or three attempts at entering Italy for the same price.

A while ago the Italian authorities encouraged Albanians to apply for their visas by post, but according to Italian residents who have been inside the consulate, the written applications lie unopened in huge piles.

Albania took up this issue at a meeting of the two countries' foreign ministers in Rome two weeks ago. The Italian foreign ministry agreed to open a second consulate in Vlora. No date was given, however.

The burning question now is how Vlora can hope to make a living.

The Communist-era chemical works which dominates the seafront has long been closed and the fishing industry has all but fallen apart, in the absence of subsidies, because of the high price of fuel and the limited opportunities for export, particularly since a cholera scare in Albania last winter.

Immigrant-smuggling may not be entirely dead as an industry. Around 16 speedboats have escaped the clutches of the police, and some are still believed to be leaving from inlets well away from the town. One diplomatic observer noted last week that other boats were leaving surreptitiously from Albania's other port, Durres, about 62 miles to the north.

"It's a cyclical thing. With our scarce resources, the smugglers can quickly come back," admitted President Sali Berisha's spokesman, Genc Pollo.

Vlora's mayor, Elham Sharra, is a firm believer in the tourist potential of his town - not unreasonably, given the beautiful stretches of unspoilt beaches nestling beneath the mountains to the south.

But, as in the rest of Albania, a major tourist industry will remain a dream as long as the quality of the roads and buildings remains at its present chronically poor level.

Meanwhile, the town lives on with money accumulated over the past few months. "President Berisha, he is a great man," said Mentor. "He let me buy my two sofas, my colour television, my video machine. I suppose I am happy."