Albanian Migration to Italy


In the final days of 1989, as communism faltered throughout Eastern Europe, Albania was facing upheavals too. The country had been isolated for decades, maintaining an antagonistic stance not only with the West but also against the fellow travelers in Soviet Union, China, and Yugoslavia.

The collapse of the communist regime there would trigger the largest population movement seen in Europe since the Second World War. In 1990, hundreds of men, women, and children sought asylum in Western embassies in Tirana, and many were resettled through a UN-brokered plan. However, what began as a trickle soon became a flood. By early 1991, tens of thousands of people were converging on the Albanian Adriatic littoral, hijacking boats and vessels to cross to southern Italy.

Amidst this febrile environment, Albania held its first free elections in 46 years in March 1991. However, many doubted that the new democractic government would bring any meaningful change. More maritime exoduses followed, culminating in the voyage of the Vlora in August 1991.

The Vlora had recently returned from a trip to Cuba, carrying a cargo of sugar. Crowds broke into the dock and forced the captain to sail to Italy. Fearing for his life, he complied, setting out with only the boat’s supplementary motor (Vlora was in docks to repair its primary motor), and without radar. The boat had a capacity of around 3,000, but it carried nearly 20,000 people on that voyage. Its destination was the port of Brindisi, where thousands of Albanian refugees had successfully disembarked in March. This time, however, the Italian authorities ordered the ship to turn away and set course for Bari.

In her biting memoir of the end of communism in Albania, “Free: Coming of Age at the End of History,” Lea Ypi remembers:

“On the screen of the small colour television we had recently bought, I saw the dozens of men who had managed to climb to the tops of the masts, half naked, with sweat dripping down their necks, their faces dirty and badly shaven, their hair grown long at the back, in mullet fashion. Standing there precariously, struggling to hold on, they looked like the self-proclaimed generals of an army that had lost its morale before the battle had even started. They waved their arms senselessly at the television cameras, shouting, “Amico, let us exit!,” “Let us disembark!,” “We are hungry, amico!,” “We need water!” Above them hovered two or three helicopters. Under them, on the deck, swayed a sea of people: thousands of men, women, and children, scorched from the heat, injured from waiting in close quarters, pushing one another, wailing, desperately attempting to leave the boat. Squeezed inside the cabins, other passengers perched on the windows, gestured or shouted instructions to those on the deck, encouraging them to dive into the water. Some followed the advice and were arrested. Others managed to escape. The rest continued to scream: that they had consumed the last lumps of sugar from the cargo hold several hours before, that many people were severely dehydrated and were drinking sea water, that there were pregnant women on board.

…. A journey of about seven hours lasted thirty-six. When the disembarkation orders finally arrived, the crowds were forced into buses and locked in a disused stadium, guarded by police. Those who tried to leave were arrested and beaten. Packaged food and bottles of water were dropped by helicopter. Inside, men, women, and children fought to reach the supplies. Some people had brought knives with them and started to use them to stab other people to get their way.”


The Italian government’s policy was deportation by all means. It argued that since Albania was no longer a communist state, the arrivals were economic migrants rather than asylum seekers. It requisitioned private ferries to transport them back to Albania.

The entire saga, dubbed the “Albanian Invasion” by the Italian press, was vividly chronicled in photo accounts of the day, reflecting changing attitudes in Italy.

A day before the first wave of immigrants arrived on March 6, 1991, the Milanese paper Il Giorno featured a picture of an Albanian couple in Brindisi celebrating their son’s first birthday. In the photo, the family was smiling, composed, and well-dressed – just like any ordinary Italian family, a picture of seamless integration. Yet, the accompanying headlines warned, “The Albanian Wave Does Not Stop, as Thousands of Refugees Wait in the Ports of Durres and Vlore.”

Two days later, Il Giorno would carry a photo by AP photographer Massimo Sambucetti of Albanians jumping ashore from a ship that reached Brindisi after running a blockade. That picture would be on the front page of almost every Italian daily, as well as many international papers.

Then came the Vlora, with its overloaded crowd of migrants. “Invasion,” thundered many papers, reaching for Dante’s Divine Comedy and its images of damnation and Charon’s ferries teeming with condemned souls in a boat to Hell. The photo (first photo, topmost) by Luca Turi was one among many that underscored those allusions.

The day after the Vlora arrived in Bari, Sambucetti would capture an iconic image of an Italian policeman in riot gear standing guard over an exhausted, half-naked Albanian lying at his feet. Sambucetti recalled that day:

I was in my hotel room, transmitting the pictures of the Vlora, which had just been brought to me by our Bari stringer Luca Turi, and that showed thousands of refugees just disembarked and waiting on the quays of the harbor. All of a sudden, a rattle coming from upstairs shook the building. I rushed out of my room to check what was causing all that noise and saw dozens, maybe hundreds, of policemen in anti-riot gear running down the stairs.
“Where are you going?” I shout. “There is a revolt in the stadium!” A policeman answered me. I just had the time to grab my cameras, queue a couple of pictures in the Leafax and run to the stadium

[Leafax enabled Sambucetti to transmit around a dozen pictures over analog telephone lines — a black-and-white image taking 10 minutes and a color one about 30 minutes].  

Sambucetti’s picture (above) would be featured around the world. British newspaper Independent’s headlineabove it read: “Incompetence and Brutality.” Italy’s president, Francesco Cossiga, denounced it, arguing that the photo misrepresented Italy as an unwelcoming country. The AP photos would be the finalists for the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for spot news coverage and Sambucetti won the 1992 Baia Chia Photojournalism Award.


The crisis dragged on, with Italy pressuring the Albanian government to put its ports under military control and halting passenger trains to stop the flow of emigrants. Italy also offered financial aid to Albania to take back the immigrants. Undocumented immigration continued on a smaller scale, using the cover of night and speedboats organized by criminal gangs. Approximately 800,000 people are estimated to have left Albania between 1989 and 2001, which was twenty percent of the population, and about half went to Italy.

Over time, the immigrants assimilated well into Italian society. However, as debates over African and Levantine migration into Europe grew, the Albanian integration was held up as an exception rather than the rule. Justifications followed on how the Albanians already knew Italian as a second or third language, as they intercepted Italian TV channels even during the Cold War, and how even though they were Muslim, they were not very attached to religion.

The images of that “invasion” summer were largely forgotten. “In March, they said we were all victims. They accepted us. In August, they looked at us as if we were some kind of menace, like we were about to eat their children, one neighbor told Lea Ypi.

As for Luca Turi’s photos, during later bouts of migrantion crises, they were reused to accompany various fake news stories about contemporary refugee populations (Africans, Muslims, Syrians), shared not only by fringe groups but also by far-right parties and politicians.

For Ypi, integration was inevitable:

“The West had spent decades criticizing the East for its closed borders, funding campaigns to demand freedom of movement, condemning the immorality of states committed to restricting the right to exit. Our exiles used to be received as heroes. Now they were treated like criminals.

Perhaps freedom of movement had never really mattered. It was easy to defend it when someone else was doing the dirty work of imprisonment. But what value does the right to exit have if there is no right to enter? Were borders and walls reprehensible only when they served to keep people in, as opposed to keeping them out? The border guards, the patrol boats, the detention and repression of immigrants that were pioneered in southern Europe for the first time in those years would become standard practice over the coming decades. The West, initially unprepared for the arrival of thousands of people wanting a different future, would soon perfect a system for excluding the most vulnerable and attracting the more skilled, all the while defending borders to “protect our way of life.” And yet, those who sought to emigrate did so because they were attracted to that way of life. Far from posing a threat to the system, they were its most ardent supporters.



If you like what I do and what I write, or simply wants me to write more, you can support me via Patreon. I had tremendous fun researching and writing Iconic Photos, and the Patreon is a way for this blog to be self-sustaining. Proceeds mainly go to buying photography reference books. Readers who subscribe on Patreon might have access to a few blog posts early; chance to request topics or to participate in some polls.

Even if Patreon isn’t your thing, you can support by re-sharing, or tweeting about the blog or the specific posts on here. Thanks for your continued support!  Here is the link:

The Boat of No Smiles

Are there faint echoes of Vietnam in modern migrations? 


In the late 70s and the 80s, “Vietnamese” was almost invariably followed by the term “boat people”. Between 1975 and 1992, around two million people (nearly four percent of the country’s population) fled Vietnam by boat to escape poverty, oppression, and war. It was a perilous journey — up to 250,000 people died at sea from storms, illness, food shortages, and piracy.

Photographer Eddie Adams, now better known for another iconic photo, remembers being on the frontline of this exodus, and getting into a refuge boat which was turned away:

No one, no country, was letting the refugees land. You couldn’t even find out about them. At first, I went back and said the story was impossible to cover. Then I had an idea and got in touch with the Thai Marine police (I knew Thailand very well) who had been shoving the boats right back offshore to certain death. I told them would like to go with them on patrol in the Gulf of Siam.

They OK’d it, so we headed for the most likely point in northern Thailand, getting there at 4am when a refugee boat had just pulled in; the Thai authorities were getting ready to cast it off again. It was Thanksgiving Day in 1977. I suddenly asked the Vietnamese if I could go with them— I bought gas and rice – they had no fuel or food. There were forty-nine people aboard that fishing boat, including children— in the hold that same day a baby was born. The Thais towed us back out to sea and set us adrift. On that boat, there was no room to lie down, so they all had to sit up straight, waking or sleeping. I cannot describe the despair. There were dramatic pictures of mothers with half-dead children in their arms but something even worse was there.

Whenever you go to refugee camps in a war zone where terrible things have happened, where bodies might be stacked up, and disease everywhere, you still find children who gather before the camera with a smile. This was the first time in my life that no child smiled. I called the pictures, “the boat of no smiles.” The boat was hardly moving- they didn’t even know where to go.

Then we were approached by another Thai boat with a megaphone ordering me off at gunpoint— they were afraid someone would let them dock knowing there was an American aboard. I had mixed feelings about getting off. I wrote the story and sent the pictures immediately, and they ran. Peter Arnett did a story also and a few others. Within a couple of days the administration asked the AP to present the photos to Congress. And Carter said let them come to America. The Congress had been thinking about it, sure, but the pictures did it, pushed it over.

The photos convinced the American government to allow 250,000 refugees to enter into the United States. Tragic drownings were to mobilize public opinion and a coordinated plan led to resettlement of over 1.3 million refuges across the developed world (China also took in 300,000 Vietnamese of Chinese blood).


In 1978, Adams and Arnett traveled to the Malaysian island of Bidong, “once a paradise with blue waters, white sandy beaches fringed by coconut palms, topped by a verdant hillside,” but by then one of the most crowded refuge encampments in the world — where 40,000 refugees huddled in a space the size of football field.

Here, tales evoking Sophie’s Choice were played out, as the developed nations selected who could migrate where, with varying criteria. For instance, the United States gave priority to those who had served in the South Vietnamese military and their families. An acquaintance of mine had to choose between migrating and his 10-year old brother-in-law (as the latter, not being his blood relative, was not accepted by the US). Making the choice all the harder, his newborn son was dying from dysentery: it was a decision between leaving behind a 10-year old boy or condemning their newborn child.

It has perhaps glib to compare the boat people to modern refuges, except to note that migrant experience was never easy. Yet there are faint echoes of Vietnam in modern migrations: in both United States and Australia (where the Vietnamese were the first non-European emigrants of significant size), the arrival of foreigners who worshiped different gods, from a country which espoused an ideology antithetical to Western values, and a country which until recently had been at war with them, initially caused great social disquiet.

Four decades on, these fears are a distant memory. By forgetting them, however, we condemn ourselves into repeating same mistakes over and over again.