Albania: Operational Security Management in Violent Environments.

Report of a Training Course held in Tirana, Albania 21-23 May
Koenraad Van Brabant, Relief and Rehabilitation Network (RRN), Overseas Development Institute, London, 28 May 1999 (

Albania suffered from a widespread breakdown of public order in1991-2, in 1997 and again in September 1998. Many Albanians now have arms and crime has become increasingly organised. Aid agencies, whose numbers and assets have increased enormously in the last few months in support of Kosovar refugees, have had vehicles looted and offices broke into. As a result there was significant interest in the RedR workshop, with 20 participants coming from 14 organisations, including 1 Albanian NGO, the Swiss Disaster Relief and the UK DFID. Based on the InterAction training curriculum, agencies prior to the workshop felt that they could not afford to have personnel out on a course for 5 days. Consequently the workshop was reduced to 3 days but at the end participants expressed a desire for more in-depth work on the topics covered.

The aid operations in Albania take place in a conflictual environment: there is still strong distrust among the Albanian population of the government, whose administration is not always so effective outside the capital. Government officials informally admit that they have no real control over the port-city of Vlora, a major centre of organised crime and trafficking with Italy in fast speed boats. The Albanian police force has suffered from cases of corruption and collaboration with criminal gangs. Although the Albanian population is showing tremendous hospitality towards Kosovar refugees, there is growing pressure over resources and resentment that aid is channelled to refugees but not to the poverty-stricken host population. A further increase of refugees, from Macedonia and possibly Montenegro, can only increase the tension. Criminals, organised or not, are beginning to target refugees and are certainly watching the aid organisations. A reduction in NATO troop presence in Albania could lead to a rapid increase in crime. Finally many aid agencies have very rapidly recruited large numbers of Albanian staff, not always with extensive formal and informal references, which is likely to lead to internal problems in some.

A threat analysis by the participants indicated that armed robbery, of individuals, vehicles and office and warehouses, is perceived as the highest threat, followed by car accidents. Being caught in a riot or public disorder remains a threat. In future agencies may face dilemmas when 'offered' protection from criminal gangs - against a fee. Kidnapping for ransom and sexual assault are currently not seen as major threats. The crossborder shelling and sniper fire on the border with Kosovo, close to Kukes, are not a major threat as agencies generally do not have to be there. The risk of riots is higher in Macedonia. If refugees and aid agencies would return to Kosovo, mines and possibly booby-traps will be a major threat.

Although caution is required everywhere, a rapid mapping exercise revealed that certain areas are now known to be higher risk than others. The participants collectively discussed measures to prevent armed robbery and vehicle safety, the key advice to give to staff in case they get caught up in an incident, and the immediate steps to take by the country office. Most preventive measures comprise a protection strategy. In the medium-term however, especially the newer aid agencies will need to develop a strategy to enhance their acceptance in the various social environments in which they operate, for which good local contacts are essential. The workshop stressed the importance of security planning, as an ongoing process and as a team exercise, to ensure that everyone understands the threats in the environment and the logic behind the standard operating procedures.

A review of the communications environment revealed major concerns. Agencies are quite reliant on mobile telephones and landlines, but in times of public disorder these break down immediately. The US DART had been improving the email technology. The mountainous terrain makes radio communications difficult. The risk is that agencies develop individual communications technology which is not compatible or vulnerable to break down. There is an urgent need then to identify what the demands of the aid community regarding communications are, what investments in communications systems could also be of value to Albania, and then consult with technical experts for appropriate solutions and training.

A very fruitful exercise was the reflection on the relocation or evacuation experiences during the disturbances in 1997 in Albania, ordering the evacuation from Kosovo in early 1999, as well as a critical exploration of scenarios around Kukes, and the assumptions underlying possible responses. Finally stress management, individually but also on team level, was brought up.

Protection of refugees and especially camp security are also a growing concern for aid agencies. Refugees are becoming the victim of armed robbery and extortion. Most emotive however are stories and rumours of trafficking of children and women, for prostitution, mostly in Italy and Greece, already strong among Albanians, now also beginning to affect Kosovars refugees. UNHCR, UNICEF are beginning to focus on the issue. The Government of Albania has a plan to raise, train and equip a new police force to focus on camp security. But this will need financing and take time to implement.

The workshop was effective because it had been well prepared with a reconnaissance mission some weeks prior to the event, and because the facilitators/trainers had worked together before and shared a common understanding of what operational security management implies. The participants brought the context-specific knowledge, and in the various sessions and exercises good practice guidelines were immediately applied to the Albanian situation. Its value further came from the mix of individuals and agencies (Albanians and foreigners, with extensive country-knowledge or new to the country), which allowed a sharing not only of experiences but also of insights in how to operate in Albania. Contact was made with, and valuable input provided by the DFID-NATO liaison person, the UN security advisor, the European Police Advisory Mission to the Albanian Ministry of Public Order, the OSCE security advisors, and the ICRC.

Hopefully the networks and common understanding generated at the workshop will create some momentum and critical mass to follow up on a number of identified priority challenges:

  • the centralisation of security information in Albania,
  • better analysis and dissemination;
  • further security and first aid training within and between agencies
  • communications planning and coordination
  • protection of refugees
  • mines awareness programmes and training for Kosovars and aid organisations.