The country’s economy was in ruins. Social unrest escalated into rioting. Strikes and protests were rife amid galloping inflation and mounting unemployment, and poverty was rapidly increasing.
When the First Secretary of Albania’s Communist Party, Ramiz Alia, won the March 1991 elections, he implemented new reforms to curry favour with the people. But the perception was that very little had actually changed, and in view of the economic crisis, many Albanians chose to emigrate.
The mass exodus towards Italy had begun. Since the end of the 1980s the inhabitants of this isolated nation had been attracted to the “Western paradise” portrayed on Italian television, available via transmitter installed in neighbouring Montenegro. They had also learned the Italian language from watching programmes televised by Rai (Italy’s national public broadcasting company) and had dreamed of winning easy money on quiz shows.
With no future prospects in their own country, the Adriatic Sea no longer represented a fearsome or insurmountable barrier.
After the first boat landings in the spring of 1991, Rome granted a special residence permit for 12 months. During this time the Albanian migrants were expected to attend training courses and find jobs to prove they would not be a financial burden on the State. A mass exodus ensued and in August the situation reached crisis proportions.
One significant incident was the arrival of the Vlora, a ship returning from Cuba with a load of sugar. While the Vlora was unloading her cargo in the port of Durrës, around 20,000 Albanian citizens jumped aboard and coerced the captain, Halim Milaqi, into setting sail for Italy.
The overcrowded vessel docked in the port of Bari on August 8, 1991. The desperate stowaways filled every nook of the ship from the hold to the radar. The Italian authorities were totally unprepared for an “invasion” of such magnitude. An attempt was made to blockade the entrance to the port and to force the Vlora to turn back, but Captain Milaqi persisted. Conditions onboard were becoming unbearable. For humanitarian reasons, the vessel was allowed to berth, albeit at the quay furthest away from the city centre. But Rome ordered that the “boat-people” be ferried back to Albania within days.
Scores of passengers threw themselves into the water to escape the torrid heat. Others endeavoured to flee, while on the pier, throngs of weary figures gathered.
The vice-prefect, Giuseppe Cisternino, and the mayor, Enrico Dalfino, organised the distribution of water. Slowly, the possibility of a plan was emerging...The asylum-seekers could be transferred to Bari’s multipurpose stadium until they were ready for repatriation. Once they realised their destiny, many Albanians tried to sneak away. While some succeeded, the majority were thwarted by the police who shut the iron gates on them and suspended transportation from the port.
At this point, the refugees managed to expel security staff from the stadium. They barricaded themselves and took possession of the grounds. This set the stage for a dramatic eight-day siege.
Breakouts continued, as did clashes between the detainees and the police.
The Italian authorities had to uphold their hard-line policy to deter further arrivals. According to the government, behind this phenomenon was Alia himself. It was rumoured that the new leader was exploiting the situation to exert pressure on Western Europe to help Albania financially.
Meanwhile, officials succeeded in ferrying and flying back a number of the disillusioned foreigners, but not everyone complied.
This gave rise to a series of lies on behalf of the Italian government.
A number of the remaining diehards were duped into believing that they would be relocated to other Italian cities.
By Sunday August 11, there were about 3,000 migrants left in the stadium. A bribe was deemed to be the answer: the police chief, Vincenzo Parisi, announced that those who agreed to return to their native land would be offered new clothes and the sum of $50,000 lire – a small fortune in Albania. Many accepted, but not everyone.
A final lie had been reserved for the most steadfast to lure them out of their enclosure.
“You’ve won: you may stay in Italy”, they were told three days later.
But no sooner had the remaining hopefuls exited the stadium, than they were herded onto buses and driven to the airport. Destination: Tirana.