How Fear of Albanians Went Mainstream in 1990s Italy

The anti-Albanian campaigns in the British media today are all too reminiscent of the targeting of Albanians in Italy and Greece 30 years ago – and need to be fought, not indulged.
The recent anti-Albanian campaign in the UK has pushed Albanian politicians and intellectuals to take a stand in defence of their fellow nationals. The fact that some Albanians can address the problem in international media shows that part of Albanian society is more empowered than in the past. On the other hand, the recent attacks on Albanians, hint at enduring forms of marginalization that have never been seriously addressed. By relying on recently declassified archival material and on my own experience, I will investigate the anti-Albanian campaign in 1997 in Italy.

Negative and positive stereotypes about Albanians are the legacy of colonial ideology. However, the recent phenomenon of marginalization spread in the early 1990s, when Albanians emigrated abroad. Albanians felt unwelcome in Western European countries and some of them tried to conceal themselves in order not to be harassed. In Nineties’ Italy, Albanians denied their origins and refused to speak Albanian. In Greece, Muslim Albanians declared to be Orthodox and changed their names. In 2000s London, an Albanian who had no papers kept the curtains closed and slept with the door locked because he was scared of being spotted by the British police. In present-day Brussels, many young Albanians are diffident toward everyone that they do not know because they fear being deported.

Racism was there long before migrants arrived

The stigmatization that Albanians face today in the UK is not comparable to what many Albanians experienced in Nineties’ Italy. The 1990s was the time of Striscia la Berisha, a daily show watched by millions of people that portrayed Albanian men as dirty and rough and Albanians women as prostitutes.

Striscia la Berisha showed the degree of xenophobia that pervaded Italian society. This attitude was rooted in pop culture and generated aggressive behaviours toward foreigners. In the 1990s, Nazi-skin sub-culture had gone mainstream. Differently from today, few people were scandalized by the young wearing clothes with Celtic crosses and swastikas. Unlike what many sociologists and politicians claim, the emergence of far-right subcultures was not caused by migration. Fascism and racism were there before the arrival of “migrants”. Right-wing groups traditionally directed their hate and anger toward Italian Jews and left-wing groups. The arrival of “foreigners” or “extracomunitari”, gave them a new target, which was often not protected by institutions. Being an Albanian teenager in 1990s Italy meant fighting, enduring, coexisting and intermingling with fascist and Nazi youth.

Highlighting criminal links

Between March and November 1997, over 16,000 Albanians moved to Italy, fleeing from the dangerous situation that characterised Albania during the political crisis. After conceding them temporary residency permits, pressured by public opinion, the government started to incentivize their repatriation in the summer.

In August 1997, Albanian representatives in Rome noticed that the “hidden face of Italian society has started to appear”. In analogy to other Western European states, Italians were becoming more racist and xenophobic. Information concerning the alleged involvement of Albanians in criminal activities was emphasised, whereas the news of the beating to death of an Albanian in Olbia by a crowd of locals was almost ignored. The report concluded that the media campaign sounded similar to the ones conducted by the Greek press which preceded a massive “wiping” of Albanians from Greece.

Only a few days after this report, on August 30, the Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi issued a decree that prescribed the repatriation of all Albanians who had arrived in Italy since March 1997 and had no residency permit. These measures concerned 4,800 persons, the majority of whom lived in camps. The Italian government ensured that it would not use force to repatriate Albanians and instead adopted measures to encourage their voluntary return. For instance, a privileged channel for applying for Italian visas was promised to those who agreed to repatriate. The Italian government also promised to assist their social reintegration in Albania.

The majority of Albanians refused to return, saying that they had lost their houses, jobs and money in the financial and political crisis of 1997. The migrants organized protests asking for an opportunity to find a job in Italy. In some camps, such as in Cassano Murge, Albanians went on a hunger strike. The common difficulties and the tragedies in the Mediterranean brought migrant communities to solidarize with each other. The Albanian association “Illiria” and the Association of Pakistani Workers, co-organized a demonstration on May 28, in Rome asking for a new policy that allowed people to legally migrate without risking their lives. At the time rumours circulated that visas were sold in the Italian embassy and that the price demanded by illegal boats was more convenient than the amount of money asked to obtain a “legal” visa.

Pressure grows for repatriation

Prodi’s decree increased the climate of diffidence toward Albanians. The Lega mayor of Acqui Terme, proposed to reward those who reported “extra communitarians”. Journalist believed that the reward was meant for repatriating “clandestine” Albanians. Police unions demanded the forced repatriation of all Albanians who, in their view, were involved in organized crime and used children as shields. A 25-year-old Albanian was killed by the police after that he and three others with whom he was travelling in a stolen car did not stop at a control. He was shot in the back. According to the police, a gunshot was accidentally fired when the policemen was chasing the fugitives on foot. The policeman was neither suspended nor investigated.

On November 29, the Italian government issued another decree for the repatriation of Albanians. Italy offered 600,000 lire for adults and 300,000 lire for minors who decided to voluntarily return to Albania. On December 3, the police and the carabinieri stormed the camps and 650 persons were forcefully sent back to Albania. The Albanian embassy complained about the violent character of the operation. The ambassador affirmed that the new law was published on the Gazzetta Ufficiale on December 2. Albanians were not given time to be informed of the decree and evaluate the incentives that it offered. The majority of migrants did not beneficiate from the incentives because they were not considered “voluntary repatriations”.

The larger part of Italian public opinion agreed with the extreme measures adopted by the government. The president of Caritas, a Catholic humanitarian organization, said that it was better for Albanians to return because they could end up in the hands of criminal organisations. The geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, said that migrants should be selected from departures so that only those with a certain degree of culture could come and not only thieves and prostitutes. The leftist newspaper La Repubblica agreed with the Ministry of Interior that force was necessary to put an end to a situation that had become embarrassing and dangerous for Italian authorities.

One community singled out

The aforementioned opinions show that Italians of different social backgrounds had similar prejudices about Albanians. Police, religious leaders, academics and even leftist journalists, identified Albanians with criminals. The anti-Albanian narratives of the Nineties have transcended Italy and the 20th century and have become the most common way of singling out the Albanian community as an agent of crime and violence. In order to halt this trend, it is necessary to raise awareness concerning the historical stigmatization of the Albanian community in Western Europe and eventually take legal actions against racists, be they underground far-right groups, or mainstream politicians.

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