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In the miserable camps and shelters for Kosovo refugees, the notorious scafisti who for years have spirited Albanian women across the Adriatic Sea to lives of prostitution have found lucrative new prey for their nocturnal crossings. At least six young women have disappeared from the squalid camps here in Vlore during the past month, and hundreds of other displaced and despondent Kosovo Albanians have paid small fortunes to the body traffickers to smuggle them into Italy in dangerously overcrowded rubber speedboats under cover of darkness.
The unregistered high-speed vessel crammed with 46 people crashed into a rock jetty shortly after midnight when an Italian navy crew spotted the boat and gave chase. His sister-in-law also died, and his wife lost a leg in the disaster. The boat pilot or pilots--scafisti in Italian--got away. As many as 10 boatloads of 40 or more illegal emigrants slip out of Vlore each night, headed for the Italian coast, says Eric Filipink, an observer here for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE.
Unlike the Albanian prostitutes and job seekers who have been the chief customers of the scafisti since hard-line communism collapsed here more than seven years ago, refugees from Kosovo have the right to claim political asylum in Italy if they manage to get there. Many refugees also have relatives in Germany and Switzerland who will give them shelter if they can somehow circumvent the time-consuming visa routines, making Italy a convenient corridor to illegal Western refuge.
Vlore has long been the hub for illegal human trafficking because of its proximity to the Albanian mafia strongholds of Fier and Berat. Recent shake-ups of local and national law enforcement administrations in Albania have also allowed the scafisti unfettered pursuit of passengers from among the refugees.
Since the refugee crisis in Yugoslavia worsened two months ago, Italy has stepped up its naval presence along the Albanian coast to intercept the scafisti before they enter international waters.