BRINDISI, Italy -- Fearing an epidemic among thousands of Albanian refugees sleeping in the open amid squalid dockside conditions at Brindisi, Italian police began rounding them up yesterday evening to move them into local schools for the night.
The move appeared to be the first step in the Italian government's pledge earlier in the day to find temporary shelter for about 20,000 Albanians who have sailed on rickety boats and rusty ships across the Adriatic Sea to this and other Italian coastal towns in the last few days to seek work and refuge.
But a Foreign Ministry spokesman repeated yesterday that those who did not meet requirements for political asylum or have a visa to enter Italy would be sent back.
In a statement issued in Geneva, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees called on Italy to determine whether the Albanians qualified for political refugee status before sending them back.
The action to shelter the Albanians, some of whom have been in Brindisi for a week, was the first decisive step taken by authorities in this southern port town of 92,000, whose narrow streets around the dock area are filled with about 16,000 Albanians, mostly young men in their 20s and 30s but also
families with children.
"During the night we are going to move all of the Albanians into 38 local schools," Raffaele Belardi, Brindisi's regional minister of civil protection, said after an evening meeting with emergency and local officials.
"Tomorrow morning between 8 and 9 they will get breakfast, and between 12 and 2, 7,000 will get a hot lunch and the rest will get a cold lunch," he said.
Police said there were also about 1,700 Albanians at Monopoli, 1,200 at Bari and dozens at other coastal towns. Though officials had earlier said no more boats would be allowed to dock in Brindisi, police said small boats continued to arrive yesterday, dropping off scores of Albanians.
But Foreign Ministry spokesman Alessandro DiFranco said that the coast guard was trying to turn around ships arriving from Albania and that Italy had called on that country to stop the exodus and to release 215 political prisoners.
"That would be considered a sign that would tame the high spirit to leave Albania," Mr. DiFranco said.
The Italian government also pledged to give about $9 million in emergency aid to Tirana in the form of food and medicine in a show of support for the liberalization program of Albanian President Ramiz Alia.
Last July, Italy received more than 3,000 Albanians who had sought refuge in Western embassies in Tirana, but most of them went on to Germany.
The scene yesterday evening was one of festive chaos as traffic jams of empty ambulances, freight trucks and police convoys developed in the narrow streets of the port area around clumps of grimy-faced Albanians and curious Italians.
Worn-out blue trousers and jackets that seemed to come from another ideology and era littered the back alleys after they were dumped there by Albanians who received new slacks or sweaters.
In front of one school, a local Italian woman stood at the locked gate, begging a guard to allow an Albanian family with one child to spend the night there.
"We want to help, but everything is so disorganized," she said.
On another corner, a group of young Albanians from the port of Durres, from which most of the ships have left, talked of their 40-hour crossing on a boat someone had commandeered by pointing a pistol at the captain's head.
"Just imagine: There are only about 100 pistols in private hands in all of Albania, and we had three on the boat," said Nino Toci, 27, a mechanic who said he had come to Italy with several friends because he believed it was a rich country and that there was work here.
A woman in the group looked shocked when told many Albanians might have to go back if they did not qualify as political refugees under the Geneva Convention.
"All of us are political refugees," said Elsa Shuka, 33, a mother who said she had spent Thursday night in the open with her husband and her 6-year-old and 11-year-old children. "I am a political and economic migrant."
As she spoke, a small red Fiat drove up to the curb, and an Italian boy rolled down the window and handed the Albanians shaving cream, a razor and some soap. The boy's mother, Irene Cecchini, said, "I don't think they should be allowed to stay in our country, but I and the people of Brindisi are trying to help."
But tension was visible in other parts of town. Police and relief workers said hospitals were filled with Albanians who had suffered mild injuries.