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News 27 Oct 15

1990s Albanian Refugee Route Could Reopen

Refugees heading for Western Europe could start using a route from Albania to Italy previously used by tens of thousands of Albanians after the Communist regime collapsed in the 1990s.

Fatjona Mejdini
BIRN
Tirana
Albanian migrants arriving at the Italian port Bari in 1990s. Photo: Wikicommons

Albania has said it is ready to play its part in the European Union plan for accommodating 100,000 refugees in the Balkans, but Tirana also fears that the country could be used as a new route to Western Europe for incoming migrants.

“It is believed that with the coming of winter the route could shift towards Albania,” Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said after a high-level meeting with EU officials and Balkan leaders in Brussels on Sunday.

Brussels meanwhile asked Albania, Greece and Macedonia to take measures to "strengthen the management of the external land border", an EU press statement said.

According to Albanian authorities, former military base in town of Bilisht in south Albania close to a Greek border is already ready to accommodate some 500 refugees.

Other abandoned military bases are also being prepared for possible influx of refugees coming from Greece.

After Hungary closed its borders, refugees have been seeking alternatives routes north.

The Strait of Otranto between Albania and Italy is 72 kilometers wide at its narrowest point and drew international attention in 1991 when tens of thousands of Albanians use it to flee the country after the fall of the Communist regime.

Albanians also used the sea crossing in 1997 when the country was swept by civil unrest.

On March 1997, 84 people, mostly women and children, drowned after their boat sank in the Straits.

Despite its perils, the route has also been used by drug smugglers and human traffickers.

During the 2000s, it was mainly used to transport illegal narcotics to Italy.

In 2006, overwhelmed by the large number of motorboats shipping drugs from Albania, the Albanian government decided not to allow any private small boats to sail in the country’s territorial waters.

The so-called sea moratorium remained in effect for six years but was eased gradually after maritime police forces increased their ability to control Albanian waters.  

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