Cheap labour costs Greece dear: Greeks are waking up to the dangers posed by illegal immigration from Albania, writes Tony Barber in Athens

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The Independent Online
ANESTIS SINERIS, a 30-year-old ethnic Greek from Albania, was asleep in his basement room in the Athens suburb of Metamorfossi last week, when three other Albanians, one armed with a pistol, burst in. They robbed Mr Sineris of all his savings, the equivalent of about pounds 600 in cash, and made off.

Such incidents are so common in Greece now that most do not merit space in Greek newspapers. But they testify to a large and growing presence of Albanian refugees and illegal workers that is causing the Greek government and people some concern.

'Most of the Albanians keep to themselves and don't break the law. But a minority are up to no good, just thieves and criminals,' said Nikos Mertzos, a television and radio commentator in Salonica.

The Albanians started to cross Greece's northern frontier nearly two years ago, when their Stalinist system at home was cracking apart and Italian authorities thwarted the attempt by thousands to flee to Italy by sea.

Greek officials estimate there are about 200,000 Albanians in Greece, or one Albanian for every 50 Greeks. However, the number is fluid, because some Albanians stay for only a few weeks, while others arrive to replace them. With own country's economy in a state of almost total collapse, the Albanians know that even a month's poorly paid work in Greece can translate in to food, clothes and consumer goods.

'The Balkans produce some strange statistics,' said one Greek official. 'It seems, for instance, that more than five times as many refrigerators have entered Albania in 1991-92 than in the whole time of its national existence. The Albanians take them in from Greece.'

The Albanians do low-paid or seasonal jobs that many Greeks disdain and Greek employers like to take on Albanians because the labour is cheap and they can evade insurance costs. Officially, the Albanians need visas and work permits, but the Greek government is either unwilling or unable to patrol the border effectively and keep out the illegal immigrants.

The Albanians have spread out from the north-western frontier region of Epirus to Athens, Salonica and many Ionian and Aegean islands. Their language and worn and cheap clothing make them instantly recognisable. Few can afford to stay in decent accommodation. Thousands take shelter in barns, abandoned homes or slums. Some take to petty theft and scavenging, while others have guns and may be linked to criminal gangs in Albania.

For the moment, the Greek government treats the matter mainly as a social problem, but more serious dangers may lie ahead. Every Balkan country fears that it is only a matter of time before violence breaks out in ethnic Albanian communities suffering discrimination in the Serbian- ruled province of Kosovo and the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. About 2 million Albanians live in Kosovo, and at least another 400,000 in Macedonia. If the worst happens, hundreds of thousands of Albanian refugees are likely to flee south to Greece, posing a problem so grave that the government says it will have no choice but to close the border.

An added risk is that the Albanians in Greece will be so alarmed at the fate of their compatriots to the north that they will try to go to their aid, with weapons if necessary. Some Albanians in Kosovo, western Macedonia and Albania itself have raised the possibility of creating a Greater Albanian out of their three territories, although Albanian political leaders in each place have recently played down this prospect.