THOUSANDS of hungry and exhausted Albanians being beaten back by Italian police present a tragic picture. Many of the mostly male Albanian peasants believed that the streets of Italy, and the West, were paved with gold. What they got instead was a deep whiff of tear gas and disillusionment.Italy has been criticized for turning back these refugees in a forceful and abrupt manner. Yet the flooding of refugees West from unstable, formerly Stalinist realms is not a trend Italians or any other European countries are anxious to encourage - particularly with Albania's neighbor, Yugoslavia, in turmoil. No Europeans want the swarming docks at Bari to be a precedent. On Italy's behalf, it should be remembered that this spring Rome offered refuge to 24,000 Albanians. Italy has given $90 million to Albania in food aid. The 17,000 refugees turned back were economic, not political, refugees. No one believes they will be persecuted on their return. (Some 400 may now stay if they can prove political grounds.) This week Italian Foreign Minister Gianni de Michelis flew to Tirana to promise the Albanian authorities another $100 million in aid in exchange for assurances that Albania would keep its population at home. That is a generous promise. Italy's President Francesco Cossiga flew to Albania the next day, partly as an act of good faith and partly to underscore Italy's desire that Albanians stay put. Albanian peasants, used to socialist isolation, don't easily adapt to Western society. Refugees this spring were in constant cultural clash with locals. They don't speak the language, have no means of travel, and few have jobs. Job and language training is needed, but for now the Italians argue they have their own problems to attend to. Albania is in a painful transition. It wants to move away from an era of secret police, no religion, and no private property. It has been admitted to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. But the country is paralyzed. Opposition exists, but communists control the parliament. Meanwhile, nothing works. There is little food. The best thing the West can do is to continue helping Albania get on its feet. That will take time.