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Troubled Albania Remains Illegal Freeway Into Europe

In the southern Albanian seaside town of Dhermi, folks are busy doing nothing much at all.

Old men squat at the dilapidated waterfront playing chess. Some pore over letters from young relatives who left in search of work abroad after the failure of risky pyramid investment schemes last year left thousands of families destitute. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), expatriates working abroad - often illegally - send home $1 million a day.

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"We live on the money our young people send us," acknowledges Dhermi's mayor, Islam Cani. "Without them, we'd be dead."

When the country's biggest pyramid, VEFA Holding, froze interest payments Feb. 15, 1997, it set off a chain reaction. Angry investors took to the streets, looting government arsenals and plunging much of the country into anarchy.

A year later, the Socialist-led government of Prime Minister Fatos Nano has improved the security situation, but economic problems remain severe.

"We have noticed, particularly in many villages in the south, emigrants haven't invested their savings to increase livestock or for other business ideas," says Zef Prece at the state statistical office. "Instead, they've been buying boats to smuggle more people across."

Although 85,000 Albanians have found casual work in Italy, a 50-mile hop across the Adriatic, the real problem, say Western officials, is with those - perhaps three times as many - who have moved farther afield.

"For most of those who get past the coast guards," says the Italian ambassador to Albania, Paolo Foresti, "our country is just a transit camp." Italy, explains Mr. Foresti, is a signatory to the Schengen Accord, a treaty that has virtually abolished border controls within most of the European Union.

In a bid to curb illegal immigration, the Italian government has given Albanian officials modern helicopters and speedboats. And to help dissuade Albanians from wanting to leave, Italy, along with other governments and relief organizations, has granted generous aid and soft loans to Albania.

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There are signs the measures are working. It's estimated that the number of Albanians who attempt the sea crossing has fallen to around 500 a week - a 10th of the number at the height of last summer. Still, unlike the pyramid scams, it's unlikely the smugglers will run out of fresh "investors" anytime soon.

Increasing numbers of third-world economic refugees are choosing Albania as a launch pad to a better life. Ethnic Kurds from Turkey, Tamils from Sri Lanka, and Vietnamese nationals have found their passage smoothed by Albania's visa-free, open-border policy, and the smugglers' extensive contacts abroad.

"Generally, they will pay half the money in their home countries, then they're put on a plane. They're met at [Tirana] airport and taken to the coast, where they pay the balance as they board the boats," says Mulis Mani, chief of police in the Albanian port city of Vlora.

Typically, Mr. Mani alleges, the job of ferrying the refugees is subcontracted out to locals.

"If they get caught, and we confiscate their boats, then there's always more people who are willing to take their place," he says.

"The problem is, it's like drugs - there's just so much money involved that everyone has his price," says Dhrmi's Mayor Cani. "No one wants to do honest work."

Yet things don't have to be this way. Seaside settlements such as Dhrmi, along what is known as the "Albanian Riviera," could be at the forefront of the country's economic recovery. Washington, for instance, has pumped in $240 million to build sewage systems and resurface roads to help attract Western tourists.

Yet so far, little has been achieved. One Dhrmi resident, who received a low-interest loan from the German government to turn his home into a bed-and-breakfast, boasts of how he put the money into boats instead.

There are signs that international tolerance is wearing thin with the "something for nothing" ethos that has steadily sucked much of the drive and initiative out of the reconstruction effort. When the Socialist Party took power in elections last June in the wake of the pyramid fiasco, Western embassies warned the new government it was close to having the aid carpet pulled out from under its feet. Now the World Bank and the IMF have made curbing smugglers a condition of further assistance.

It remains to be seen whether the stick will prove more effective than the carrot.

"People still think they don't need to work," sighs Cani, waving an arm at the surrounding abandoned orange and olive groves, groaning with unharvested produce.

"Dhermi is just one big pyramid," he says.

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