The Albanian government is moving to crack down on the illegal trafficking of refugees through Albania to countries in Western Europe and beyond. Tirana has opened an international center intended to help in the fight against such trafficking. Alban Bala of RFE/RL's Albanian unit reports from the port city of Vlora.
Vlora, Albania; 25 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Earlier this month, the high tide washed ashore near the Albanian port of Vlora the body of a young man, whom local police identified as a victim of the trafficking in refugees. The man apparently drowned while heading by boat across the Adriatic Sea to Italy.
In an effort to cut down on human trafficking and prevent such tragedies from occurring, Albanian Prime Minister Ilir Meta last week attended the inauguration ceremony in Vlora of the International Antitrafficking Center. The center was set up with the assistance of Greece, Italy, and Germany.
It remains unclear how the antitrafficking center will function or when it will become fully operational. The Albanian authorities and sponsoring government have declined to release any information about the center due to security considerations.
Meta says one of his government's top priorities is to eliminate human trafficking operations from Albania. He announced that a national strategy to fight such trafficking would be introduced to the government and predicted that it will be passed soon.
"When we took this initiative to create such a center here in the city of Vlora, known in the past as the last crucial stop for the trafficking in humans headed from East to West, we intended to combine our efforts with the efforts of governments and police forces of neighboring countries -- countries in the region -- and those of the European Union in order to stop the illegal trafficking headed from Albania to Italy and Western Europe and at the same time to help prevent [these people from] reaching other countries."
Vlora's police department so far this year has impounded 35 boats, filed charges against 92 persons for human trafficking, and blocked some 7,000 people from leaving for Italy illegally. Italian officials say some 5,000 people a month tried to enter Italy illegally aboard boats from Albania last year.
Although police pressure on the trafficking of refugees has increased, virtually everyone in Vlora knows from where such boats leave, who is working on them, and which traffickers offer the best price for passage.
Lieutenant Colonel Daut Brace is Vlora's police chief. He says the police have identified the individuals engaged in trafficking and the means by which such activities are carried out: "Vlora's police department has accurate data regarding individuals engaged in trafficking, their environment, their manner of trafficking, the different points along the coast from which they depart for Italy. More precisely, the assistance we expect to receive concerns information about people who should be punished for contacts they develop abroad."
Brace insists the number of trafficking organizers is small but that the network of people supporting them is quite large: "Their collaborators represent a large network. I speak of hundreds, although they're not highly involved in crime. In a certain way, they assist the trafficking -- more precisely, [they find] a way of living since they are unemployed or face other economic and social problems."
Many Albanian officials who are not willing to speak on the record say other countries in the region openly support the illegal trafficking in humans. Police officials allege that Serbia, Macedonia, and Greece serve as safe corridors for Asians heading to Western Europe.
The Greek ambassador in Tirana, Dhimitrios Iliopoulos, rejects these accusations: "My answer is negative. I mean, we have heard this information and checked it. In fact, these are not mainly Turkish Kurds, they are Iraqi Kurds, who unfortunately for some reason or the other come to Greece but don't go any further, because we have prepared for them some refugee camps, where they stay until -- their target is to go mainly to the U.S. or Canada. It's not Europe."
According to official figures, more than 100 Kurds enter Albania every day from Greece through the two main border crossings -- at Kakavija and Kapshtica. Turkish citizens do not need a visa to enter Albania. In contrast, Iraqi Kurds do and often cross the border illicitly, reportedly paying smugglers some $500 each for the privilege of doing so.
Italy is likely to benefit most from the International Antitrafficking Center in Vlora. Italy's ambassador to Albania, Mario Bova, insists his country is not changing anything about its policy toward the 150,000 to 200,000 Albanian emigrants already living in Italy.
"[This center] represents our everlasting commitment, a better fulfillment of this commitment and a multilateral, even European, cooperation -- something which will make our bilateral action become more effective. So everything is improving, since Europe is now following these problems -- which means not only Italy or Greece, but in the whole European context, it has become more important."
Italy has about 2,000 soldiers based in Albania, a portion of which are there to combat human trafficking. Italy maintains a naval base on Sazani Island at the mouth of the bay of Vlora. Italian forces have been training and cooperating with Albania's coast guard to combat the smugglers.