Vlora, a migrant tale where history repeats itself (photos + videos)

Back in 1990…

Christmas Eve, 1990. The first Albanian refugees pass through the unprotected borders with Greece.

The foreign minister at the time was conservative Antonis Samaras. He tried unsuccessfully to close the borders that he and the New Democracy government led by former prime minister Kostantinos Mitsotakis had opened as a way of letting Greeks from North Epirus gain entry into Greece, bringing with them thousands of Albanians bound for what they believed to be a better future.

Later, Samaras went on TV calling on Greeks to stay where they were so that the branch of Hellenism in Albania would continue to exist. Mitsotakis visited Tirana, in an effort to stop the flow of migration, but it was too late. By January 1991, 11,000 people crossed the Albanian border into Greece.

In Italy, there was a similar flow. On August 7, 1991, Albanians boarded the Vlora in the hope of heading to Italy on its way from Cuba where it had shipped 10,000 tons of sugar. The real number of people that crammed onto the ship is unknown with some figures ranging from 10,000 to 20,000.
The ship crossed the Adriatic. As the ship approached Italian ground some fell to sea to approach Italy a moment sooner, unable to handle the crushing atmosphere aboard. Others screamed “Italia! Italia!” on the ship.
They were transferred to the La Vittoria abandoned football field where they stayed for hours under a scorching sun without water, food or even access to toilets. Occasionally, helicopters would drop bread and water from above.
Policemen arrived and told them that they would be deported. It was believed that they would accept their fate along with a change of clothes and 50,000 lirettes per person. Nonetheless, they were angered and started pouring into the roads where policemen with clubs and fire arms pushed them back into the field.
In groups, they were returned to Albania.

On August 14, the 2,555 remaining Albanians were told that they would be allowed to stsay. Instead, they were woken up two days later and sent back to Albania.

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It is estimated that 300 people who boarded the Vlora lost their lives either because of accidents or police violence. A small number managed to escape.

Their story was told in the documentary, La Nave Dolce (The Sweet Ship).

Vlora photograph used as a Benetton advertisement…