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Sunday, May 30, 1999 Published at 18:42 GMT 19:42 UK

World: Europe

Refugee wave hits Italy

Thousands of refugees have crossed into Italy in the last decade

About a thousand refugees from Kosovo have arrived on the Italian coast in the past 24 hours, ferried there by smugglers.

Kosovo: Special Report
Some 470 Kosovo refugees were rescued on Saturday night after the men they paid to ferry them across the Adriatic abandonned ship.

Officials from the Italian port of Bari spotted the ship about 20km offshore, and ferried the refugees to safety. They have been granted temporary asylum and taken to reception centres.

Two Albanian smugglers fled in rubber rafts when they realized they had been seen by coastguards, the refugees said. The boat had left Ulcinj in Montenegro late on Friday night for the Adriatic crossing.

Another 175 refugees were ferried ashore on Sunday morning, after an Italian naval patrol boat sighted overcrowded fishing boat off Otranto.

Some of the passengers were in a poor state of health. And several hundred more refugees were found along southern Italian beaches early on Sunday.

High price

The BBC's David Willey: "huge profits being made by organized crime"
Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema said on Friday that Italy was paying a very high price for the conflict in Kosovo. He said that Italy had done more than many richer countries to help refugees from Kosovo.

[ image:  ]
Italy is setting up special offices are two Albanian ports to process asylum applications and enable Kosovars to travel to Italy by regular ferry services, instead of paying huge sums to smugglers.

Although Italy is ready to help genuine refugees, it is also anxious to crack down on the illegal entry of Asians and East Europeans into the European Union.

With its long sea coast, Italy has one of the most porous EU borders.

An international conference in Naples has highlighted the huge profits to be made by trafficking in people.

The United Nations estimates the turnover from such smuggling at $7bn a year. Many migrants - particularly women and children - end up as virtual slaves or are forced into prostitution.

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