The Philadelphia Inquirer
May 11, 2000

Illegal routes thrive on hopes of millions

First of two parts
By Jeffrey Fleishman

OFF THE SOUTHERN COAST OF ITALY - The water dance begins at night.

The 88-foot Italian coast guard cutter slices through choppy seas. Three
Albanian smuggling boats move swiftly off the starboard side. More
rubber boats race toward secret coves to the south. Within minutes, dozens
of illegal immigrants are jumping into the surf and scampering along
the moonlit beach.

Floodlights dart through the pines and palms and into the marshes. Police on
foot chase down some of the immigrants. Others, their clothes
soaked and sticky with sand, lie low in the weeds and thicket, waiting for a
chance to creep inland and disappear into the darkness.

They come every night with the rhythm of the tides. Iraqis. Albanians.
Chinese. Moldovans. Pakistanis. They are part of a $7 billion worldwide
people-smuggling industry. More than four million people a year, most
relying on criminal syndicates and circuitous routes, are funneled from poor
and war-ravaged corners of the globe toward the prosperity of the West.

Long a problem for the United States, illegal immigration is becoming a
crisis in Europe. Every year, 500,000 to 800,000 illegal immigrants and
asylum-seekers trek into the continent. Their fates are tied to Russian,
Chinese and Eastern European crime clans that run violent smuggling
networks that charge immigrants $250 to $5,000 each.

Chinese are flown from Beijing to Bulgaria and herded west along Europe's
back roads. Families from Romania, Latvia and Ukraine sneak through
the bombed landscape of the former Yugoslavia. North Africans slip across
the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain. Turks, Kurds and Afghans fan through
Greece and move north into Albania, where they cross the Adriatic Sea to
Italy - the gateway to Western Europe.

Facedwith this unending flow, parliaments from Rome to London are agonizing
over where compassion ends and tougher laws begin.

Immigrants have emboldened right-wing political parties, especially in
Italy, France and Switzerland. In Austria this year, a backlash against
immigrants propelled the xenophobic Freedom Party to a place in the
coalition government. Some European leaders fear immigrants could reignite
nationalism just as the continent is easing border restrictions for trade.

"The more countries try to close the door on immigrants, the more organized
crime to smuggle them will grow," Jan Niessen, an official with the
Migration Policy Group in Brussels, Belgium, said. "The problem is that
Europe doesn't have a uniform immigration policy. The 15 member
countries of the European Union are just beginning to work on these issues."

Often those who want to sneak into Europe are more persistent than those who
want to keep them out.

Consider Juzef Sahmad. His desperate odyssey was a smuggler's dream. He and
his wife, Faten, fled Iraq in 1997. They crossed the mountains into
Turkey and were smuggled into Greece and then into Albania before climbing
onto a rubber boat that zipped across the 30-mile-wide Adriatic Sea
to Italy. During the couple's 36-month journey toward a better life, Faten
bore one child and conceived another.

"Our quest has been treacherous," said Juzef, who paid $4,200 to smugglers
but now sits in a refugee center in Brindisi on Italy's southern coast.
"We hope now for good things in the West."

For all the alarm over illegal immigrants such as Juzef crossing its
borders, Europe may find it cannot survive without such new arrivals.

Europe has the lowest fertility rate and one of the oldest populations in
the world. The continent has reacted by beginning to open its borders to
some legal migrants, especially those with high-tech skills. But the United
Nations this year reported that Europe would need at least 135 million
immigrant workers by 2025 to keep its pension systems solvent and its
workforce competitive in the global market.

A solution would appear to lie in the nearby regions of the Middle East, the
southern Mediterranean and Asia. Unlike Europe, countries in those
regions are burdened with rising birthrates and widespread poverty. They
could supply the continent with a steady stream of workers. But many
Europeans fear such an influx would jeopardize their culture.

While politicians debate the perils of immigration, the mafias benefit.

Listen to what U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali saw happening in
1994: "International crime gangs have extended from the traditional
spheres of activity . . . to money laundering, the trade in nuclear
technology and human organs, and to the transport of illegal immigrants."

Surges of immigrants swept across Europe immediately after the collapse of
communism in 1989. By the early 1990s, an estimated 1.5 million
immigrants - 500,000 of them illegal - were moving east to west every year.
The crime syndicates quickly seized control of the traffic, which grew
throughout the decade as wars in Bosnia and Kosovo sent three million to
four million refugees and asylum-seekers fleeing.

Accurate statistics on illegal immigrants are impossible to calculate. The
immigrants live in a clandestine world. The International Centre for
Migration Policy Development in Vienna estimates that for every illegal
immigrant arrested at border crossings, two more successfully sneak past
police. For Germany, one of the most popular destinations, that means that
for the 292,584 immigrants arrested at the borders between 1990 and
1998, about 600,000 others slipped in.

By the late 1990s, criminal syndicates - like sinister tour companies - had
well-established smuggling routes for those seeking jobs and political
refuge. Some ran through Europe's finest cities: Prague, Budapest, Berlin,
Milan. Others were carved through more obscure places, such as
Albania, which has emerged as a crossroads for hundreds of thousands of
illegal immigrants.

The poorest and one of the most corrupt countries in Europe, Albania is
strategically placed on the smuggling highway. Its organized-crime clans
are vicious and its southern coast is just 50 miles from Italy. An estimated
100,000 to 300,000 illegal migrants a year pass through Albania's
mountains and ports on their way to countries such as Italy, Germany and

Albania became a smuggler's capital in 1991 - six years after one of
Europe's most oppressive communist regimes began crumbling with the death
of President Enver Hoxha. About 400,000 Albanians, many of them on battered
fishing boats, fled their ruined land in the early '90s. Today,
according to smugglers and police, the human cargo leaving Albania is much
more diverse: About 60 percent is made up of illegal immigrants
representing as many as 15 nationalities.

"Word has gotten around the world that Albania is a transit point to Italy,
a guaranteed entrance to the back door of Europe," said Maj. Angelo
Loconte, head of the mobile police unit that patrols the Italian coast
around Brindisi, Italy. "On a warm, summer night, 1,000 illegal immigrants from
as far away as China and India will cross the Adriatic. Thirty to forty
smuggling boats come toward us after every sunset. The most we can do is
catch 30 percent of them."

Many never reach shore. Boat engines explode. Rough seas with 20-foot waves
hurl people to their deaths. Last Dec. 30, a rubber boat carrying 59
people capsized shortly after leaving the Albanian port of Vlora, killing
all aboard. Four days later, waves swept three illegal immigrants off a boat
loaded with seven Albanians and 22 Chinese. Sometimes Albanian smugglers
toss people overboard to escape police boats.

"But nothing stops them from coming," said Capt. Stefania Occhioni, an
Italian detective who recommends whether illegals are deported or granted
asylum. "We've found Iranians and Iraqis hanging on to the undersides of
trucks on ferryboats. We recently found 80 Bangladeshis hiding in a
truck loaded with onions. They were buried in onions and all crying when we
pulled the tarp back."

Mustan's nightly runs

At night, when the sea is flat, Mustan hoists his 26-foot rubber boat from
its hiding place and slips it into the harbor on the southern Albanian
coast near Vlora. Men and women - emerging from cheap hotels and rented
rooms - jostle toward the boat, each toting a bag of clothes, and some
carrying babies.

Engines whine as other rubber boats move out of the harbor. The moon rises,
and as many as 40 smuggling boats - carrying about 1,200 people -
buzz like a swarm of bees toward Sazan Island. The water dance and
pirouettes begin. An Italian police boat moves out from its island dock and
gives chase, attempting to cut off a few smuggling boats before they reach
the open Adriatic Sea.

As police describe them, most smugglers are as skilled as Indy race-car
drivers. With two 250- to 500-horsepower motors, they zig and zag, cutting
small circles in the water. The 45-foot-long Italian police boat, hampered
by its wide turning radius, has trouble keeping up. Floodlights slice across
the sea. The smugglers' passengers bounce and cling to ropes, and sometimes
the Italians shoot nets toward the smugglers' propellers.

"But we simply outmaneuver them," said Mustan, who calculated that since
1995 his rubber boat has made 200 trips a year from Albania to Italy.
"We put about 30 people in the boat. So, 30 times 200 times 5 is how many
illegal immigrants? About 30,000. We charge foreigners about $250 a
head. We charge Albanians $400 a head, but that's because we guarantee them
a trip back if things don't work out."

Until late 1997, Mustan - who does not want his last name used, to protect
him from police - and his smuggling buddies (each boat has a driver, a
mechanic and a guard) worried little about the police. They paid kickbacks.
The Vlora police department was so corrupt that at least one captain
ran his own smuggling boat. In 1998, as the business reached its height and
illegal immigrants hid nightly in 40 homes and 15 hotels along the
coast, Vlora police made no smuggling arrests, according to government records.

Recently, though, Mustan has felt the heat of European politics. Germany and
other countries pressured Italy to stem the flow of illegal
immigrants. Italy leaned on Albania. The two governments agreed that the
Italian finance police and coast guard would assist and train Albanian
authorities to stop trafficking. There has been some success.

In 1999, Vlora police detained 1,212 illegal immigrants, including 745
Kosovars fleeing the war in Yugoslavia. Police arrested 15 smugglers,
confiscated 15 boats, impounded 25 cars and smuggling buses, and shut down
three secret mills that produced rubber boats. The department also
fired 18 percent of its force.

"Yes, we're arresting people and trying to stop this," said Besnik Bregu,
Vlora's regional police director. "But our laws need reforms. There's little
on the books for cross-border trafficking. Most smugglers pay a $700 fine or
spend two months in jail. That's nothing for a criminal making big
money. We need to get tougher."

Nothing will stop Mustan from his nightly runs. He is, he said, a creation
of circumstance. Like tens of thousands of Albanians, Mustan lost his
life savings in the 1997 government-led pyramid schemes that plunged the
nation into anarchy. Banks were wiped out, towns devastated. Fifty
percent of Albanians today live in poverty. Mustan, a sunburned man with
thick arms and a pistol stuffed in his pants, said his rubber boat was
the only way he could rebuild his life.

"I will tell you when all this smuggling will stop," he said. "When Italy
stops charging people $2,000 for a legal visa to enter its country. How can
Albanians or other poor people afford that? No boat smugglers are getting
rich. It's a job in a country that offers no jobs. Smuggling is a large
network in Albania. But it's not organized like the big mafias. For
instance, I have five friends in Albania. They call me from time to time
when they need to send people to Italy. I have friends all over the country who do this."

Mustan would not elaborate on the Russian and Chinese mafias that funnel
people from around the world and toward his rubber boat in Vlora.

"It is better not to speak of this," he said. "But the police will not stop
this. We're helping people start a new life."

One family's tale

Juzef Sahmad spent three hours bouncing through rough seas on a rubber boat racing out of Albania. But as soon as his foot touched the beach
below the Italian city of Brindisi in October, Sahmad was arrested and
hauled to a holding center with his wife, Faten, and their 2-year-old son, Saymon.

It had been a long journey.

A husky man with a shaved head, Juzef outlined his plan to Faten back in
1997. The couple were living in Baghdad. Juzef worked in a shoe store
owned by his father. But years of the West's economic sanctions against
President Saddam Hussein had ravaged businesses and lives. Juzef
joined street protests against the regime. He was quickly targeted as a traitor.

"I just yelled and yelled that Saddam was no good," said Juzef. "They put me in prison for 10 months. They beat and tortured me with batons.
When they released me, it was still not safe."

One day Juzef's father pressed $3,000 into his hand.

"Go," he said.

Juzef and Faten paid a smuggler $2,000 to lead them over the mountains in
northern Iraq and into Istanbul, Turkey. "We had $1,000 left," said
Faten. "We had no passports or documents. We had to stay out of sight. We
found an apartment where other illegals lived. Saymon was born
there. In October of 1997 we paid another smuggler and walked 10 days from
Istanbul and into Greece. . . . It was cold. My son was just a baby and
I had to hold him close."

They rented a one-room apartment in Athens. Again, they stayed hidden in a
warren of alleys. Juzef earned $50 to $100 a month cleaning houses.
They were nearly out of money and needed an additional $2,200 smuggling fee to get from Greece to Albania.

"We had to save everything," Juzef said. "It was hard. We had the baby. We
worried about our families back in Iraq. One night I called my parents'
home in Baghdad. My mother answered. She told me my father was beaten to death by the Iraqi police who came looking for me months earlier."

Juzef and Faten spent nearly two years in Athens.

In September of 1999, they had saved enough money for the smuggler. They
crossed the mountains of Greece and descended into Albania. They
were taken to a small shack - one of dozens of rooms, hotels and apartments
built by smugglers to house everything from people to drugs to
weapons. They waited there 10 days with 50 others: Chinese, Moroccans,

A man with a gun came in the night, leading them to a rubber boat.

"The sea was furious," said Faten. "I held Saymon tight. But I was pregnant
with another child and I became ill and got sick in the boat. Then, just
when we thought we'd made it to a new life, the police grabbed us on the

They were two of 20,229 illegal immigrants caught by Brindisi police last
year. Juzef and Faten applied for political asylum. These days they sit in a
two-story immigrant holding center, listening to Chinese, Albanian, Yugoslav
and Ukrainian conversations they don't understand.

"I just want to find a job and give opportunity to my family," Juzef said.
"I'd like to stay in Italy, but if that doesn't work out, we'll move again.
Maybe London. I'd like to go to the U.S., but I know there is no hope of
that. I will never go back to Iraq. There will be fortune somewhere in the

Stakeout at sea

The smuggling boats that escape the blockade at Sazan Island skip over the
Adriatic Sea and begin to fan apart as they approach the Italian coast.
The Italian finance police are ready. A 109A-II helicopter with night vision
and infrared cameras skims the sky beyond the jetties.

Italian coast guard cutter No. G-84 cruises through a rolling sea at 30
knots, then kills its engines about one mile off the beach.

"We sit here and pretend we're a fishing boat. We wait to see what comes,"
said Stefano Leccia, a captain with the finance police. Just about
anything can streak across Leccia's radar on this stretch of water: luxury
boats loaded with weapons and drugs, high-powered speed boats laden
with black-market cigarettes from Montenegro, and hundreds of illegal
immigrants hanging on to rubber boats.

There is a smugglers' pecking order to this contraband.

Cigarettes are the most valuable. Then drugs. Then weapons. And, finally,

"That's why the immigrants get the cheaper boats," Leccia said.

Radar picks up something moving toward the beach. The cutter's engines
growl. It heads south at 40 knots, past a lighthouse and churns along
coves thick with pine and cypress. Then, the radar goes blank. The cutter
slows and slides farther south, waiting again for the water dance.


East European girls face rape, violence in Albania

VLORA, Albania, May 13 (AFP) - Women from Romania, Moldova and
Bulgaria face beatings, rape and prostitution when they arrive in
Albania, which has become a centre for international trafficking in
young females.
Many of the women dreamed of a European Eldorado and did not
know they were to be sold into prostitution, but their final
destination is often the mental hospital in the port town of Vlora
in southern Albania.
For the hundreds of young women, some of them still adolescent,
the Albanian port of Vlora is an obligatory transit point on the way
to western Europe. Some of them have refused to be broken by their
ill-treatment while others have given up and can go no further.
Alina, 18, is one of the latter. Huddled in a corner of a police
station in Vlora, her face bruised and swollen, she jumps at the
slightest noise. Repeating that she is Romanian, she says that her
passport was confiscated long ago by the pimp who abused her.
Police found her naked in a nearby forest, where she had been
beaten and raped.
"At least she is alive. Last night, we found the body of a
14-year-old girl in a back street," one of the policemen said.
Alina will be kept for a few days in a cell here before being
handed over to the port city's pyschiatric hospital. There she is
likely to face worse treatment. Reliable sources said she would
probably be drugged and raped by other inmates.
Three other Romanian women and a Moldovan share a cell next to
Alina's - two women from Bucharest, Loredana, 18 and her sister
Mihaela, 16, and 15-year-old Bianca from Mirsa in central Romania,
along with Angela, a 16-year-old Moldovan.
The four were arrested as they prepared to leave for Italy,
where they had been promised well-paid jobs, a rich wedding and a
life of ease. The women also believed they would be able to send
money to help their poverty-stricken families.
The promises bear no relation to reality and the women's planned
final destination was the brothels of Europe's major capital
"Trafficking in women is booming in the Balkans and the former
Communist countries," said Fitore Palushi, an Albanian woman police
officer. "Whether they admit it or not, they are all for sale and
they all have their regular pimps, even though some of them do not
know it."
From Vlora, at least a dozen women are smuggled into Italy every
night, headed for prostitution, and the traffic is constantly
The traffic is also lucrative for the smugglers. For just one
woman handed over personally to pimps in Italy, the smuggler will be
paid 3,000 dollars, three times the normal tariff for an ordinary
illegal immigrant.
A recent report released in France said that transit camps
existed in Albania, where women were trained to submit to their
future punters by repeated rapes and beatings, before being sent to
western Europe.