Where the welcome is not as warm as expected

18th April 1997 at 01:00
ITALY. The latest wave of Albanians fleeing their country for Italy is unlikely to be allowed to stay. By David Newbold

Erion Muzhaqi is a first-year pupil in a scuola media near Venice. He arrived in Italy from Albania six years ago with his parents and an older brother on an overcrowded trawler.

Some 30,000 Albanians fled the country in this way, in the first mass exodus, declaring themselves to be refugees and putting considerable strain on Italy's immigration services. In the end the authorities tried to distribute them evenly throughout the country. Erion and his family were put on a bus and taken to the prosperous North-East.

Since then, things have gone rather well for Erion. His father found work in a factory. Erion soon settled in at school, where he found it easy to make friends. He says he likes the way subjects are taught; he has a distant recollection of school being a stricter place in Albania. Although it's early days yet, Erion has no plans to leave Italy. He'd like to go on to higher education rather than work in a factory with his father and brother; and to judge by what his teachers say of him, he shouldn't have any difficulty doing so.

Erion is one of the lucky ones. It seems unlikely that the latest wave of boat people to flee the chaos of Albania will be allowed to stay in Italy. At present there are some 13,000 new arrivals temporarily housed in Red Cross tents, disused army barracks, or religious institutions. President Berisha of Albania has asked Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi to keep then until things return to "normal" in Albania, but tighter immigration laws and public opinion against the influx make long-term integration unlikely.

Albanians have a bad reputation in Italy. Last year over 2,000 were expelled - many of them for prostitution or racketeering - the highest number of expulsions by far for any immigrant community. One of the first of many spectacles the current crisis has offered Italian TV audiences was the sight of dozens of prisoners who had escaped from Albanian jails being rounded up and flown back to Albania, each one escorted by a carabiniere.

In the public imagination the link between Albanians and criminality is a solid one. Mayors in many towns, especially in the north of Italy, such as Milan, are refusing to make accommodation available to new arrivals, while the secessionist Northern League has worked on the fears of the public, threatening to introduce vigilante patrols if enforced settling goes ahead. The former Speaker of the Lower House, Irene Pivetti, herself a former supporter of the Northern League, made the unfortunate remark that Albanians trying to get into Italy should be "thrown into the sea"; two days later, on Good Friday, 89 Albanians lost their lives when the boat they were on collided with an Italian naval patrol boat attempting to enforce a blockade.

Most of the recent arrivals are still concentrated in Puglia, the heel of Italy, awaiting their fate almost within sight of the Albanian coast. Many have arrived without any kind of identification, and this includes hundreds of teenagers and young children who have run away from home or become separated from their families.

These children are put under the protection of juvenile courts, which assign them to religious institutions, where a new risk has recently emerged: being claimed by bogus parents. The mother superior of one institution in Brindisi got in touch with police after receiving calls from alleged relatives, providing contradictory or ambiguous information. The police suspect a paedophile organisation might be behind the attempt to claim the children.

For two families at least, however, a bright Italian future seems assured. After the Good Friday sinking, Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the main opposition party Forza Italia and owner of three national television networks, rushed to Brindisi to offer condolences. In a tearful encounter with the Albanian community, Berlusconi offered to "adopt" two families, promising work for the parents and schooling for the children.

The episode has a curious precedent. In 1991 the then Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti (now under investigation for links with the Mafia) adopted three Albanian boys, paying for their upkeep in a boys' village school near Naples.

Over the past two weeks the flood of new arrivals has become a trickle and the initial emergency seems to be over. But the dearth of new arrivals may not be due to the effectiveness of the Italian naval blockade or the end of the Italian dream for Albanians willing to pay up to Pounds 400 for the perilous crossing; it may just be that there are no boats left in Albania to get them out.

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