On the 8 August 1991, the ship Vlora sailed from Albania to Bari, Italy carrying some 20,000 Albanian refugees.
After the fall of communism, widespread political and social unrest coupled with food shortages led to Albanians seeking refuge abroad. Now that the borders were open following almost 50 years of closure, they sought to leave in droves. Many fled to Greece, some into the at-the-time Yugoslavia. Others stormed foreign embassies in Tirana, seeking political asylum and transport to other countries. Some 3000 Albanians entered the German embassy and were allowed to leave for Germany, via Italy.
On 7 August, the Vlora was docked in Durres after it returned from Cuba. Its engines were out of use and it was in the process of being repaired. Meanwhile, crowds had gathered in the port in the hope of boarding any ship to travel to Italy. With no one there to stop them, thousands boarded the vessel. Some jumped in the sea and climbed up ropes, others hung from ladders for the duration of the voyage.
The ship’s capital Halim Milaqi was unable to reason with them and set sail for Italy.
Powered by only its auxiliary motors, they arrived in Italy in the early hours of the following day. Approaching the port of Brindisi at around 4 am, the local police advised against docking there. The locality was still managing a mass influx of Albanians following the mass exodus in March of that year.
The captain changed course and headed for Bari- a 55-mile journey that took seven hours. The police were not prepared for their arrival. Attempts were made to stop the ship from docking but the captain refused to back down, noting the worsening conditions of the passengers on the ship who had been without food and water for 26 hours. The boat finally docked at the far end of the port and passengers jumped into the water, swam ashore, and many disappeared into the city.
The Italian government demanded that the remaining passengers be kept in the port before being ferried back to Albania. Some passengers were taken to hospital with heatstroke, dehydration, and due to being heavily pregnant.
Authorities then started moving the immigrants to the Stadio della Vittoria where they were to be kept until they were deported. Within a few hours, the Albanians began to realise they would be sent home so they tried to force their way through the police cordon. Police then locked the doors of the stadium and Albanian’s retaliated by holding the stadium groundsman hostage.
As night fell, tensions rose and there were a number of clashes between police and Albanians- some of which were armed. Police opened fire on some of the immigrants, injuring a number of them.
The following day, 3000 Albanians tried to escape with around 200 managing to do so. Police surrounded the rest of them and began transferring them to the port. Meanwhile, the situation in the stadium got worse.
By 9 August, the authorities had begun repatriating Albanians. Some were lied to and told they were being sent to other Italian cities, when in reality they were returned home. Many returned voluntarily due to the hostile reception they had received. By the 11th, 3000 remained, mainly hardliners who refused to do as the authorities requested. By 16 August, most of those that remained had been sent back to Tirana.
At the time, visitors to the stadium including Bishop Antonio Bello spoke of the horrific conditions there. He denounced the authorities for treating them like animals.
Italy put its ports under military control and offered Albanian EUR 9 million for food, if the government reined in those immigrants trying to leave. Migration still continued including that orchestrated by criminal gangs.
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