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Italy in crisis over Albanian influx

Overwhelmed by more than 10,000 refugees who have poured across the Adriatic from Albania in the past week, Italy yesterday declared its own state of emergency to match that of its anarchic Balkan neighbour.

The government announced it was setting aside some pounds 25m to provide shelter, food and medicine to Albanians over the next three months and agreed to give the "refugees" temporary residence papers until conditions improved back home.

Although intended to make Italy look like the good Samaritan of the international community, the emergency looked destined to perpetuate an already absurd situation, in which Albanians with no particularly good reason to leave their homeland take up the offer of a free holiday in Italy in the secure knowledge that they will be welcomed with open arms.

While Albania's other European Union neighbour, Greece, has sent in the army to patrol its borders and try to ensure that the collapse of state authority in Albania does not lead to unfettered cross-border traffic in drugs and arms, Italy appears to have thrown caution to the winds. As a result, Greece has seen no significant increase in Albanian immigrants, while Italy is swamped.

Reception centres in Puglia, the Italian region facing Albania on the Adriatic, have been overwhelmed - they were prepared for no more than 3,500 refugees - and thousands of people have been bussed to cities in Tuscany, Abruzzi and the Marches. Charities have provided thousands of packets of nappies and biscuits and found foster-homes for families with young children.

While the charitable efforts have been laudable, they appear to be based on a misunderstanding of the situation in Albania and an even graver mis- understanding of the nature of the so-called refugees.

Italian television has repeatedly talked of food shortages, poverty and civil war in Albania, when in fact the shortages have been temporary and the civil war non-existent, since the armed gunmen rampaging around the country have been firing in the air, not at each other. Although the situation has calmed down in the past few days, the number of boat people arriving in Italy has actually increased.

As some Italian officials are beginning to acknowledge, the "refugees" are not impoverished victims of Albania's fraudulent pyramid schemes but families with at least $1,000 (pounds 630) in ready cash, a small fortune in Albania, which they have handed over to mafia gangs as the price for their passage to Italy. A significant minority have fled Albania because they fear criminal prosecution - either because they have broken out of jail during the recent chaos or because they profited from the rampant corruption of the discredited regime of the past five years.

Yesterday, the Italian army escorted nearly 300 "undesirables" back to Albania amid growing fears of an outbreak of delinquency in and around the refugee reception centres.

"Not only are the Albanian mafiosi arriving, but so are Albanian weapons being put at the disposal of local organised crime groups," warned Pier Luigi Vigna, Italy's top anti-mafia prosecutor and one of the few officials in the country who seems to understand what is really going on.