Photos of Albanian Refugees Arriving in Bari, Italy, 1991

By | January 9, 2017

In 1991, Albanians fled their country. These pictures show the arrival in Italy of around 15,000 Albanians.

When communism in Albania fell in the early 1990s, it gave way to a catastrophic economy and political situation. The overwhelming feeling of hopelessness had pushed several Albanians to explore Europe for a new life. As is the case today, discrimination prevails.

A good part of migrants pursued Italy, distance-wise it was less than 100 miles away from Albanian ports across the Strait of Otranto, and partly due to the (erroneous) portrayals of confounding wealth on Italian television adverts they have watched in Albania.

Vlora (pictured above), a cargo vessel had just returned from Cuba and it docked in Durrës to take off its cargo and have the main motor repaired as it was busted. At that time, thousands of people gathered at the port in the hope of boarding any ship that would set sail to Italy.

Unable to stop the migrants based on the reports, about 10,000 and over 20,000 boarded the Vlora on 7 August 1991. Some jumped in the sea and others climbed aboard on ropes, practically filling every inch of the ship. Some were even hanging from ladders for most of the voyage. Since the captain, Halim Milaqi, was unable to call off the stowaways – some of whom were armed – he decided to sail the overcrowded vessel for Italy, afraid of the consequence if amateurs were to commandeer the ship.

The Vlora set a course with only its auxiliary motors, without a radar because of staggering passenger presence and with excess weight. Having lost its cooling tubes, after passengers cut them open to hydrate themselves, the captain utilized seawater to prevent the motor from melting. Barely arriving on Italian shores in the early hours of August 8th, upon approaching Brindisi’s port at around 4AM, the vessel wasn't permitted to dock in the city. Thus, Captain Milaqi changed course to Bari, only 55 miles away, but took 7 hours to reach due to the ship's weakened state.

Yet again, Vlora wasn't allowed to dock and the captain was admonished to return to Albania. Captain Milaqi refused to back down and insisted to enter the port, communicating that there were injured people aboard after passengers spent 36 hours with basically no food or water in suffocating heat. He also persisted because he could not mechanically turn around. Finally, the Vlora was consented to dock at the quay away from the city which is usually reserved for coal unloading.

The Italian government’s unyielding policy was to refrain refugee ships from docking on Italian shores or otherwise deport immigrants straight away. So, the Vlora’s passengers did not alight the ship to a warm welcome. They were to retain in the port and must be ferried back to Albania within days, if not hours.

By noon, the immigrants were to stay at the Stadio della Vittoria stadium until their deportation. When afternoon came, the Albanians comprehended that they will ultimately be sent back. As such, many of them tried to force their way out or through the police cordon surrounding the stadium. Several of them managed to escape, thus, the authorities chose to stop bringing them to the stadium and close the gates to lock them inside. Night came, the tension flare up even more, with riots between the police and Albanians trying (and some succeeding) to break through the cordon.

However on the following days, around 3,000 had been repatriated. Some left voluntarily due to the hostile reception and harsh treatments they received. Although criticized by human rights organizations and the Pope, the Italian government justified their actions as necessary to prevent further irregular migration from Albania.

Although there was a noteworthy sympathy for the Albanians in Italy, the official Italian bearing was that these people were seeking economic betterment; therefore, could not be considered as political refugees in Italy.

H/T RareHistoricalPhotos