ROME - Rights groups and organized crime experts are expressing rising alarm at the prospect of Syrian and Iraqi war refugees — many of them women and children — heading into Albania from Greece, now that the main Balkans route into Europe has been blocked by a series of border closures.
The move would lead refugees to use people smugglers linked to the Albanian mafia, an extremely violent organized crime network. In the 1990s, in the aftermath of the long-running Balkans war, Europe's police forces considered the Albanian mafia to be a dominant player in the sex trafficking of women on the continent.
Now that Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia and Croatia have all effectively shut their borders to asylum-seekers, one alternate route for refugees already in Greece — and newcomers crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey — is to travel overland to Albania and then cross the Adriatic Sea to Italy.
That route — known as the "Adriatic Connection" — has for years been plied by the Albanian mafia for drug-running and weapons trafficking, although it was used for people smuggling in the 1990s.
An alternate route to the European Union for refugees in Turkey is through Bulgaria into Greece and then across the Adriatic. Such a route also would require help from people smugglers.
"Up until now, there were no indications that there was a flow of migrants through the Adriatic; but it stands to reason that, with the closure of the Balkan route, another route may open," Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano warned Thursday.
Aid agencies, fences
Save the Children and other non-governmental organizations are discussing setting up teams in Albania. Women and children make up more than half of the refugees currently in Greece, as well as those arriving on smugglers' boats from Turkey, according to U.N. agencies.
"From what we are hearing, refugees at Idomeni and elsewhere in Greece are talking about going through Albania — although they do realize that is a much riskier route,” Iman Aoun of Save the Children said in an interview with VOA. “In addition to organized crime, what adds to the danger is that there are few relief agencies there to assist the refugees with shelter, food or services."
Bulgarian officials, fearing an influx of tens of thousands of refugees trapped in Greece, say they are planning to build a fence along part of their border, while Albania has requested Italian military and police assistance to beef up its frontier security.
During the Balkans war in the 1990s, Albanian mafia groups forced hundreds of vulnerable women into prostitution, trafficking them to the prosperous countries of northern Europe and seizing control of brothels in such cities as London and Milan.
Matteo Albertini, an expert on the Italian and Albanian mafias who coined the term Adriatic Connection, agrees with the concerns of rights groups.
“There are, indeed, risks for abuse,” he said, adding that a lot depends on whether there will be further border closures.
"That could make the situation worse," he said, and "the arrival of migrants in Albania could easily revive this smuggling path" across the Adriatic.
Since the 1990s, the Adriatic Connection has been used mainly for drug smuggling and gun running rather than people smuggling, says Albertini, who writes for www.Balkansanalysis.com and lectures at the Alma Mater Studiorum - University of Bologna.
The rising prospect of refugee women and children entering Albania comes just weeks after Europe's police agency announced that an estimated 10,000 unaccompanied migrant children have disappeared in the past two years on the continent.
Europol chief of staff Brian Donald warned that organized crime rings and sex traffickers were likely behind many of the disappearances.
"We just do not know where they are, what they are doing or whom they are with," he said.
About half of the missing are thought to have disappeared after registering with authorities in various member states; the rest, prior to registering.
In May 2015, Italy's Foreign Ministry admitted that 4,840 unaccompanied minors, who had been rescued by the Italian coast guard crossing from Libya, had simply vanished.
The head of the central division of the Libyan coast guard, Colonel Rida Benissa, told VOA in an interview last year that he suspected the Italian mafia — which has close ties to Albanian mobsters — and the smugglers had a joint hand in child trafficking.
However, Save the Children's Aoun says that the estimates of missing children may be too high.
"Sometimes refugees will register in one country but not in another when they move through it, and so it looks like they have disappeared when they haven't really,” he explained. “The system just records them as missing. And registration policy is not always consistent between countries, and so there are a lot of discrepancies."
Even so, Aoun worries about penniless, vulnerable refugee women and children trudging through Europe.
"Two weeks ago, we had five Iraqi siblings who turned up in Serbia," he said. "The oldest claimed he was 18, but there are suspicions he was much younger. And the others were all young, the youngest 10 years old. And they tramped through forests for days, and at one point were held at gunpoint by the smuggling networks. So, all these border restrictions are placing kids and women at even more risk."