Ardjan Citozi caught his first glimpse of Italy's coast at one in the morning a little more than a year ago. He and 38 other Albanians were drifting in absolute darkness on a raft in the Adriatic Sea, waiting to sneak onshore.
Living as an illegal alien in Italy, Mr. Citozi's life might have seemed difficult. He lived in a small, poorly heated room, drove a truck without a license for "under-the-table wages," which were often withheld, all the while steering clear of the police.
But not once did he question the wisdom of leaving the poverty of the tiny mountain town of Kruyr in his native Albania, one of Europe's poorest post-communist states.
"I knew that after the hard times, Italy would be good," he says, "And I was right. In Albania there is nothing, really - only poverty and no jobs."
His journey cost almost as much as the average yearly income in Albania, about $800. Most of the money was raised by his mother from the sale of her house. She wanted her son to find a better life outside of Albania.
Most of the 56,336 Albanians legally employed in Italy, as well as an estimated 100,000 illegally employed, have entered the country since the fall of communism in Albania in 1991.
Illegal immigrants now hold 30 percent of Italy's black-market jobs and compose a third of Italy's jail population, according to Justice Minister Maria Giovanni Flick. Albanians constitute the single largest group of immigrants from countries in Eastern Europe. The former Yugoslavia is a close second, with 51,518 legal immigrants, and Poland is a distant third, with 21,293 legal aliens.
The government's immigration policy, which many believe is too lax, has been hotly controversial. Right-wing parties have called for the Army to stop prostitution rings run by Albanians and for new laws that would make the expulsion of illegal aliens automatic.
The number of illegal aliens expelled in the last few years has risen dramatically - a record 4,832 foreigners repatriated and another 115 arrested in the first six months of 1996 alone. Italy has tightened security by putting the Guardia di Finanza, a special police force, at land and sea borders.
Life on the street for women
Not all Albanians in Italy find legitimate work. Many Albanian women, lured to Italy by the promises of marriage or good jobs, end up as prostitutes. Lena, a young acquaintance of Citozi's, was one such woman. She was drawn to Italy by the prospect of marriage to an Albanian who had prospered in Italy. But soon after her arrival, her intended informed her he was deeply in debt and took her to work on the street where many other Albanian women prostitute themselves.
The Italian government estimates that at least two thirds of the 15,329 Albanian women now holding work permits are forced into prostitution. But in the drive to combat illegal immigration, Italian authorities have not yet targeted the sex trade as a focus for action.
Living in the shadows
For Albanian men like Citozi, daily life in Italy is full of anxiety. Even buying a train ticket, Citozi explains, can be treacherous. Albanians with only a rudimentary knowledge of Italian tend to raise suspicions. It's not uncommon for them to make it as far as the train platform before being reported to the police.
The competition for under-the-table jobs is fierce. Citozi says his only initial contact in Italy was a man named Giovanni, who put him up in a remote house with no electricity, water, or heating. He was given a mattress and a tiny gas-heater and put to work driving Giovanni's truck. Rather than pay for heat in the winter, Citozi slept in his clothes. Each morning he jogged to warm himself up before taking a shower outside with cold water. Six months into Citozi's clandestine stay, Giovanni abruptly left town, leaving Citozi without a job or a sponsor for his work-permit application.
Giovanni's boss - and the owner of the house Citozi lived in - kept him working as a truck driver but failed to pay him, Citozi says, claiming Citozi owed him rent money. Meanwhile, his hopes of gaining legal status grew dimmer. But after four months of unpaid labor and a trip to the Albanian Embassy in Rome, Citozi succeeded in getting a work permit.
Since then, life has improved. He now receives room and board in exchange for doing work around the home of an elderly Italian truck driver. In addition, Citozi works for an acquaintance who runs a fruit-packaging business. His monthly income is now roughly $930, more than 10 times what he might have earned in Albania.
And he's not going back.