Photos of Albanian Refugees Arriving in Bari, Italy, 1991
These photos show the arrival in Italy of around 15,000 Albanians fleeing their country in 1991.
The fall of communism in Albania taking place in the early 1990s gave way to a disastrous economy and political situation. The overwhelming sense of hopelessness back then had pushed many Albanians to seek new lives in Europe. As is the case today, they were not always welcomed with open arms.
A good part of emigrants aimed for Italy, party because it was less than 100 miles away from Albanian ports across the Strait of Otranto, and partly because of the (erroneous) portrayals of wealth on Italian television adverts they were able to watch in Albania.
The cargo ship Vlora (pictured above) had just returned from Cuba and it docked in Durrës to unload its cargo and undergo repairs as its main motor was busted. Meanwhile, thousands of people had gathered in the port from all over the country in the hope of boarding any ship and sail to Italy.
Without anyone to stop them, about 10,000 and over 20,000 – according to reports – boarded the Vlora on 7 August 1991 by jumping in the sea and climbing aboard on ropes, filling virtually every inch of the ship (some were hanging from ladders for most of the voyage). Unable to talk the stowaways – some of whom were armed – out of their plan, the captain, Halim Milaqi, decided to sail the overcrowded boat for Italy, fearful of what could happen if amateurs were to commandeer the ship.
The Vlora then sailed with only its auxiliary motors, without a radar (due to passenger presence) and with excess weight. It also lost its cooling tubes after passengers cut them open to try to hydrate themselves, so the captain used seawater to avoid melting the motor. They arrived on Italian shores in the early hours of 8 August. Approaching Brindisi’s port at around 4AM, the ship wasn’t allowed to dock in the city hence the captain changed course to Bari, only 55 miles ways, which the weakened ship took 7 hours to reach.
Again, the ship wasn’t allowed to dock and the captain was advised to return to Albania. Captain Milaqi refused to back down and entered the port, communicating that he had injured people aboard after passengers they had spent 36 hours with virtually no food or water in stifling heat. He also insisted he could not mechanically turn around. Finally the Vlora was made to dock at the quay furthest away from the city center usually reserved for coal unloading.
The Italian government’s hard-line policy was to stop refugee ships from landing on Italian shores and otherwise deporting immigrants straight away. As such, the Vlora’s passengers did not disembark to a warm welcome, They were to be kept in the port and ferried back to Albania within days if not hours.
Around midday, the immigrants were brought to the Stadio della Vittoria stadium, where they would be kept until their deportation. By the afternoon the Albanians had understood that they were ultimately to be sent home, groups of them tried to force their way through the police cordon surrounding the stadium, with many managing to escape, the authorities then decided to stop bringing anyone to the stadium and close the gates, locking them inside. The night saw the tension flare up even more, with clashes between the police and Albanians trying (and succeeding for some) to break through the cordon.
However on the next days around 3,000 had been repatriated, some left voluntarily as the hostile reception and poor conditions had left them disillusioned about life in Italy. Their harsh treatment was criticized by human rights organizations and the Pope, but was justified by the Italian government as necessary to deter further irregular migration from Albania.
Although there was remarkable sympathy for the Albanians in Italy, the official Italian position was that these persons were seeking economic betterment in Italy and consequently could not be considered as political refugees.