Prospects of plenty draw Albanians, but Italians slam the door on masses of illegal immigrants seeking aid

MOST of them are gone now, but the 10,000 Albanians who poured into Italy last week were a reminder of how unsettling the post-Communist era can be.Until recently, Albania was Europe's most isolated nation. Today it cannot keep its citizens at home. Neighboring Yugoslavia teeters on the brink of civil war, held back for now by a cease-fire brokered by the European Community. In short, the old Balkan order is fast disintegrating and nothing but uncertainty appears to be taking its place. It was precisely worries about Albania's future - above all its economic plight - that motivated the latest group of would-be immigrants arriving Thursday at Bari, Italy on the merchant vessel Vlora. In Rome, officials reacted swiftly and firmly: The new arrivals, said Interior Minister Vincenzo Scotti, must be sent home "by all means available." "We have already done more than our duty," added Prime Minister Guilio Andreotti, recalling the more than 20,000 Albanian refugees Italy has already absorbed this year. "We are absolutely not in a position to take these others." Certainly the estimated 4,000 police and militia dealing with the situation in Bari had their hands full. The Albanians, many armed with knives, fought with each other whenever supply helicopters dropped food and water. Others, enraged by the prospect of being sent home, attacked officials. Several escaped the stadium where they were held, and attempted to break into houses and restaurants. Medical officials worked day and night to treat the many Albanians who were wounded or diagnosed with dehydration, malnutrition, and sunstroke. Italian Finance Minister Rino Formica spoke with some of the Albanians in Bari Sunday. "There aren't places of work, there aren't places to stay," he said. "You must return to Albania." Yet Italy remains inviting. Durres, the home port of the Vlora, lies about 60 miles across the Adriatic from Bari - a scant 60 miles separating Europe's poorest country from one of the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations. The contrast of living standards goes a long way to explain the emotions of hope, despair, and rage played out in Bari last week. Food shortages illustrate the economic disparity. In Albania, meat, milk, sugar, and other staples are rationed. On the television news here, an Albanian boy stood before a table with bread and fruit on it. "Niente," nothing, back home, the refugee poignantly explained in broken Italian, pointing from one foodstuff to the other. Only Western aid and economic cooperation will stanch the flow of emigration, Albanian and Italian officials stress. As the latest refugees were still being sent home yesterday, Italian Foreign Minister Gianni De Michelis arrived in Tirana for talks with Albanian officials about the refugee crisis and the Albanian economy. Earlier, Deputy Prime Minister Claudio Martelli had said his government must reach agreement with the Albanian authorities on how to avoid new exoduses; speed up economic, food, and medical aid; create and Italian relief center in Albania; and "go all-out to Europeanize the Albanian problem" by involving the European Community at large in resolving the country's economic difficulties. "We can transform a problem of mass illegal immigration into the prospect of aid and solidarity with a neighboring country," he said. It is a hope shared in Rome and Tirana.

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