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Albania: Alarm Grows Over Refugee Exodus

Prague, 19 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - The Italian Government today declared a State of Emergency throughout the country at a special meeting in Rome on the crisis in Albania. The meeting with Albanian Foreign Minister Arjan Starova and members of the European Union (EU) needs assessment team came amid mounting alarm over the swelling tide of Albanian refugees crossing the Adriatic to escape poverty and chaos in their homeland.

Prime Minister Romano Prodi's center-left cabinet said in a statement following the meeting that the State of Emergency would last until June 30. The decree, which will allow the Italian government to resort to emergency funding, also confirmed that Italy will grant only "temporary" refugee status to the fleeing Albanians.

Some 10,000 Albanian refugees have arrived in Italy in five days and concern is now growing that the country could be facing a fresh wave of illegal immigration and crime, rather than a "genuine refugee crisis."

Late yesterday, Italy's Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs Piero Fassino told a Senate committee Italy was facing "an organized phenomenon of the tranferring of clandestine immigrants." He said proof is that the recent crafts entering Italy are Turkish, Greek and Cypriot. Police have since impounded the vessels to prevent them from going back and bringing more.

Italy today also expelled 135 Albanians deemed to be "dangerous," in the first such repatriation since the refugee exodus began from its chaotic neighbor across the Adriatic. Another group is reportedly scheduled to be repatriated later today.

Prime Minister Prodi, eager to prevent a repeat of the mass influx of Albanians in 1991 after the collapse of communism, has said his country wants to make sure the latest arrivals did not include criminals. Italy already has a serious problem with clandestine immigration from Albania, often involving drugs-running.

Meanwhile, most offers to leave Albania by boat are no more savory than the pyramid get-rich-quick investment schemes which precipitated the crisis. According to Western news reports from the scene, the majority of boatlifts appear to be controlled by local mafia groups, sometimes working in league with the police.

Refugees arriving in Italy and, to a lesser degree Greece, speak of selling their houses and cars to secure passage on the rusting ships, often described as no more than "floating wrecks." Once aboard, they are often parted with what little money they had left with which to start their new life.

The mayor of Brindisi, which has taken in the most refugees from Albania, said his city was fast becoming overwhelmed. Lorenzo Maggi said the Southern Italian port city was ready to accept a modest-size exodus. But "the phenomenon is taking on biblical proportions." Maggi warned of health and other problems if the exodus continues unabated.

In Geneva, the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) appealed yesterday for $11 million to assist Albanians deprived of food and medicine by the weeks of violent unrest. According to an ICRC statement, the sum would cover urgent needs for the next three months and finance the activities of the Albanian Red Cross.

Albanian Finance Minister Arben Malaj has said the country is facing a food crisis because looters had stolen the government's food reserves. Malaj said the situation is going to become critical, if there is not a quick intervention. Other officials say an unknown quantity of food is now in the hands of armed groups.

Edmund Leka, a government official in charge of coordinating foreign aid, said the cost of replacing lost food stocks would be anywhere from $50 to $100 million.

Meanwhile, thousands of Albanians neither fortunate nor lucky enough to escape are living rough. One such citizen was recently reported to have approached a journalist and pulled out a small handful of sunflower seeds from his trouser pocket. He said, "Look, this is my breakfast. I'm living now like a bird."