Albanians Aren’t Indebted To Italy For Its 1990s ‘Welcome’ – OpEd

Edi Rama’s justification for the migrant deal with Rome – that Albanians owe Italy a historic ‘debt’ to Italy – is based on a misreading of history.

The protocols signed by Albanian PM Edi Rama and Italy’s Giorgia Meloni last November by which the government in Tirana will allow Italy to build camps for migrants on Albanian territory have generated various negative reactions. The affair contains several politically dangerous and morally low features that deserve attention. One is the rationale provided by Rama to justify the agreement. According to him, the main reason for giving away national territory is an alleged “debt” that Albanians have towards Italy for the way it welcomed them in the early-1990s. Archival documents show that Italy’s “welcome” was a short-lived policy that served contingent state interests.

Migration to Italy starts in the 1980s

After relations with China ended in the late-1970s, communist Albania opened up to Western European states such as Italy. The countries were pushed to collaborate for opposite reasons. For the Albanians it was a matter of economic necessity. For Italy it was a means to expand its influence in the Balkans. Archival data shows that over 2,000 Italians travelled to Albania in 1983 as tourists, journalists, businessmen, professionals and diplomats. Italians and other Western Europeans were spotted in Tirana, Durres and other touristic localities. Back then, as today, mobility regimes were asymmetrical. It was easier for Italians to go to Albania than the other way around.

The first Albanians to reach Italy in large numbers came from Kosovo. In April 1984, the right-wing newspaper Il Tempo reported that Italian authorities had granted asylum to many migrants from Eastern Europe, the majority of whom, 444, came from Albania. The Albanian Foreign Minister Reis Malile belied the information, affirming that they did not come from Albania but from Kosovo, where they were persecuted. They declared being born in Albania because they feared being sent back, given the good relations between Rome and Belgrade. Similar events were recorded in November 1988, when 43 Kosovars hosted in the refugee camp of Capua declared Albanian origins.

Unlike Yugoslav citizens, Albanians could not obtain visas unless they had strong family or professional reasons. Crossing the border illegally was dangerous because the state reacted with ferocity. However, with the death of Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha in April 1985, people became more daring. On December 12, 1985, six members of the Popa family, four women and two men, eluded controls and entered the Italian embassy, where they asked for political asylum. The event provoked a diplomatic crisis. The Albanian authorities declared that the Popa were former fascist and Nazi collaborators and demanded that Italy give them up. The Italians refused. Foreign Minister Giulio Andreotti cited the protection of “human rights” as the main reason for the refusal.

The situation remained tense for months, as Albania’s authorities did not allow the Popa to go to Italy. The cars of Italian diplomats were searched and stalked for the fear that the Popa could escape. Some Italian politicians wanted a firmer attitude from their government. Exponents of the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano, MSI, which is now branded “Fratelli d’Italia”, wanted to break diplomatic relations with Albania because it did not allow the Popa to migrate to Italy. The Popa lived in the embassy for almost five years. They were finally authorized to expatriate in May 1990. This inspired many Albanians to enter foreign embassies in July 1990.

The Popa family brought the question human rights in Albania under the spotlight in Italy. In 1987, Italian associations sent petitions to Tirana demanding the release political prisoners and the introduction of other freedoms. This political atmosphere might have encouraged others to seek refuge in the neighbouring state. In August 1988, a lyrical singer who studied at the Conservatory of Turin informed the embassy that she had decided to stay in Italy because she wanted to marry an Italian. At the end of September 1988, Elvira Gjezi, who later became known with her penname Elvira Dones, disappeared from her hotel in Milan. She was there to attend a film fair with colleagues from movie production company Kinostudio.

The migratory trends in the Adriatic have seldom been a one-way process: people from different places were attempting to enter into Albania. For Instance, in August 1982, a 15 years old boy from Morocco hid inside an Albanian ship in the harbour of Nador and landed in Durrës. In the late 1980s, a few Italians wanted to move to Albania for political reasons. Albanian authorities found these requests awkward and rejected them.

In the late-1980s, workers at the harbour of Durrës opened the path for the boat migration of the 1990s. In February and March 1987, two sailors of the ships Teuta and Korabi landed in the harbour of Ravenna and ran away. The Tirana government asked the Italians to send them back. The Italians ignored the request. Later they informed the Albanian government that the sailors had migrated to the US. On 20 December 1988, workers at the harbour of Ravenna found a man hidden inside the Albanian ship 6 Shkurti. He had a passport with him. The workers denounced the crew of the ship because they forced the man to return on board after he had landed. The police asked the man what happened. The man was probably threatened by the ship crew and replied that he had accidentally fallen below deck because he was drunk. Italian authorities allowed the ship to return with the man on board.

On 6 January 1989, nine persons hijacked the boat Dukati and headed towards the Italian coast. The plan was carried out by captain Enver Meta and the sailor Bardhyl Vogli. The hijackers sequestered seven members of the crew who did not want to migrate and kept them in captivity for the whole trip. After arriving in Brindisi, they applied for political asylum. The Albanian government tried to persuade the Italian authorities to deliver the fugitives, portraying them as terrorists, drug dealers and mobsters. However, only one of them had a criminal record and it was not related to terrorism or drugs. Italian authorities arrested the captain and the sailor for sequestering the boat and for the kidnapping. The other six were hosted at the Caritas.

The captain, Enver Meta, exposed the poor social conditions and the lack of political freedoms in Albania to local media. On January 20, 1989, Meta and Vogli were absolved by court of Brindisi and transferred to a refugee camp. The judges argued that Albania’s lack of political freedoms was a known fact, and the country did not adhere to international agreements for the protection of human rights. The tribunal affirmed that Meta and Vogli had escaped from a situation that harmed their individual rights, such as the freedom to expatriate, freedom of thought and freedom of religion. The lawyer hired by the Albanian state suspected that the sentence was a “political decision”.

Policy on Albanian migrants hardens after dictatorship falls

In July 1990, over 800 Albanians entered the Italian embassy in Tirana. They were all transferred to Italy. In December 1990, the Albanian dictatorship formally fell. Between February and March 1991, over 20.000 persons reached the Italian coasts with boats that they’d squatted in the harbour of Durres. By then, the attitude of Rome towards Albanians migrants started to change.

In March 1991, over 18.000 Albanians applied for asylum, but only 672 were accepted. In June 1991, the spokesman of the Italian foreign ministry affirmed that Albania had undertaken important steps towards democratisation and respect for human rights. The change to the political setting justified more restrictive policies towards Albanian migrants. However, this evaluation did not consider the actual situation on the ground. Albania was then challenged by the worst political and economic crisis since World War II. The state could not protect “human rights”. Legal migration was almost impossible for most Albanians as they did not fit the requirements that were necessary to obtain visas.

The “welcome” to Albanians started in the late-1980s, with a few scattered cases of persons who went to Italy and who in many cases migrated to the US or elsewhere. This phase lasted until February-March 1991, when large numbers of Albanians went to Italy by boat. Albanians who tried to migrate in the subsequent months, such as those who travelled on the ship Vlora, were not welcomed. Most of the passengers were brought to the old Bari stadium where they were kept without access to water, food and toilets. Whereas the police tried to keep them inside the stadium, according to some sources, common people organized “hunting” campaigns (caccia all’albanese) to catch those who ran away. The Italian state took the “painful” decision to repatriate all persons that came on the Vlora.

Opposition figures criticized the government for the way it treated Albanian migrants. Bianca Gelli, of the Communist Party, sent a report to the UN in order to expose their “inhumane treatment”. Pino Rauti, of the MSI, was disturbed by the images of Albanians in the stadium because it made him think of his experience as prisoner in a concentration camp. In the first years of transition, Albanians were seen as victims of communism and had the sympathy of far-right politicians with nostalgic feelings such as Rauti. Mirko Tremaglia, another MSI exponent, made a proposal with neo-colonial undertones. He mentioned a plan of investment in North Africa and Albania conceived by his party in order to prevent migration. This goals of this plan sound similar to the recent initiative of PM Meloni, the Piano Mattei. Evoking Rome’s colonial past, Tremaglia affirmed that Italy had strong bonds with Albania before communism. He suggested that Italy should have obtained a mandate for the management of the aid in Albania because events in Somalia – another Italian former colony– showed that local governments could not be trusted.

Events in Bari set the tone for the treatment of Albanians in 1990s Italy. The emergence of corruption scandals in 1992 wiped out many Italian politicians who dealt with Albania in the first years of transition. However, the situation of Albanian migrants did not improve. The new governments, whether left or right-wing, continued to apply stringent migratory policies and Albanians were forced to cross the sea with illegal means putting their lives in extreme danger. The press and the police increased surveillance on them and used Albanians as scapegoats. Albanians worked and still work for lower wages and often without contributions. In many cases, the state did not protect them from greedy employers and traffickers because it refused to give them papers.

A myth designed to present Italy as ‘saviour’

The narrative of the “welcoming” is meant to boost the old myth of Italy as the “saviour” of Albanians. This myth serves to make Albanians feel guilty and indebted towards the Italian state and at the same time to conceal and forget the exploitation that the majority of them were subject to.

No one should feel indebted to Italy or listen to what demagogical leaders such as Rama and Meloni have to say about Albanian-Italian relations. It’s Italy that should feel indebted towards Albanians, given the human and material costs of imperialist politics and wars that it carried out in Albania. The camps and the expansionist framework of Italy’s foreign policy risk poisoning relations between Albanians and Italians. Beside reflecting the racist attitude of the Italian far-right towards Albanians and other migrants, they evoke the concentration camps that Italy built during World War II in Albania. I think Albanians and Italians should oppose their construction.

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