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Outcasts trek to life of poverty

ALBANIA. Children with no prospect of any schooling are turning into a new underclass reports Miranda Vickers.

Thousands of children from northern Albania are being deprived of any form of education as their families trek southwards to new shanty settlements springing up around the towns.

Following the collapse of communism in 1992, there has been a dramatic and uncontrolled exodus from highland villages. Since then, from a total population of 3 million, nearly 500,000 people have left the countryside for the capital Tirana and the lowland towns.

There is an acute shortage of productive land in Albania's northern and central highlands.

During communist rule state-subsidised collective farms provided work and income for the highlanders and enforced restrictions on movement prevented rural dwellers from migrating to towns.

Now, however, there is an upsurge of blood-feud killings as families try to secure their land holdings on former state farms.

Those unable to acquire land are lured south by the prospect of jobs in Tirana and nearby towns where the overcrowded schools struggle to give places to local children, ignoring new arrivals .

Teachers also are reluctant to work in the remote northern regions. Gjerji Koka, 36, an elementary grade teacher, has lost 17 children from a class of 30 during the past two years.

"We feel isolated here," he explained. "The roads are so bad, it is sometimes not possible to travel. There is no work here so people think their children will have a better chance in Tirana. I too am hoping to go to Italy soon to join my cousin who works in a restaurant."

The first major migrant settlement to spring up in the summer of 1993 was at Kamza on the northern outskirts of Tirana.

Here, an estimated 35,000 people live a marginal existence. Large families are crammed into tiny wooden shacks with tar-paper roofs, no electricity, no drinkable water and, at best, with shallow, ineffective cesspits. The risk of an outbreak of cholera, which killed 42 people in 1994, is ever present.

For now, Kamza's children are busy. They help to build dwellings, dig cesspits or forage for discarded household objects in dumps.

The government says that a two-kilometre asphalt road will be built this year to connect Kamza to the main road and that drinking-water will be laid on. Given that about 80 per cent of young children and many adults there are already riddled with disease, including rickets and dangerous skin infections, the proposed measures are minimal.

A spokesman for the education ministry says new schools will eventually be built, but the immediate priority is to provide essential infrastructure and basic health care.

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