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Across the Adriatic

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BARI - 1991 agosto 1991  LO SBARCO DELLA MOTONAVE VLORA CARICA DI CLANDESTINI ALBANESI -   La nave vlora in porto - foto Arcieri - Quaranta

On 7 August 1991, the Albanian ship Vlora docked at the Port of Durrës, twenty miles west of Tirana, with a cargo of Cuban sugar. Thousands of people, desperate to leave Albania in the first throes of its ‘transition’ from communism, boarded the ship and prevailed on the captain to take them to Italy. The Vlora arrived in Bari the next day. According to a Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe report from January 1992:

After several hours of waiting in the port of Bari, the Italian authorities allowed the Albanians to disembark for humanitarian reasons and led them to La Vittoria Sports Stadium. As the Italian authorities started forced repatriation using military transport planes and ferries, clashes broke out between policemen and Albanians. The Albanians barricaded themselves in the stadium refusing to return to their country; some 300 succeeded in escaping.

The Italian authorities offered the Albanians 50 000 lire (40 US dollars) each and new clothes if they would return home. As this offer did not attract the Albanians, forced repatriation continued.

Photographs of the Vlora’s passengers disembarking in Bari have been circulating on the internet this month: first with claims that they show migrants from Libya or Syria heading to Europe now; then, a few days later, with the facts, setting the historical record straight. (I was sent them by someone who thought they were Europeans bound for North Africa during the Second World War.) Falsification can turn out to be a useful reminder of the past, once you’ve identified it. But even if the pictures had been taken in Tripoli yesterday, and the crowds of people were coming from the Middle East, how would that alter the obligations of countries like Italy under the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees?


Read more in the London Review of Books

Frances Stonor Saunders: Where on Earth are you? · 3 March 2016

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: Some Tips for the Long Distance Traveller · 8 October 2015

Daniel Trilling: What to do with the people who do make it across? · 8 October 2015

Jeremy Harding: At the Mexican Border · 20 October 2011

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