Italy's plan to set up asylum-seeker center in neighboring Albania sparks debate

Immigrants landing at Lampedusa Island, Italy. Photo by: Vito Manzari/Matteo Penna (CC BY 2.0).

Immigrants rescued in the Mediterranean Sea en route to Italy will be hosted by Albania in a specific center until their asylum cases are assessed by the Italian authorities. This was agreed on November 6 in Rome by the prime ministers Georgia Meloni of Italy and Edi Rama of Albania.

Italy and Albania today signed an important memorandum of understanding which aims to combat human trafficking and prevent irregular migratory flows. A historic agreement for which I want to thank the Prime Minister @ediramaal and the entire Albanian government.

Earlier it was reported that, according to the deal, Italy would cover the financial cost of the construction of two immigration centers, which will be located at the port of Shengjin and in Gjader, in the northwestern part of Albania. But on Wednesday, in an interview for RaiNews24, Albania's prime minister Rama clarified that there are not going to be two centers.

“One center not two. There could have been two, but there is only one,” Rama said.

The Italian prime minister, announcing the agreement, said Albania would host nearly 3,000 people once the center is open in 2024. Meloni added that the Italian government hopes to scale up its capacity to process 36,000 immigrants annually. They will stay at the center during a fast-tracked 28-day asylum application period. Albania would also provide security at the premises, which would be under Italian jurisdiction.

Meloni came to power in October 2022 with a strong anti-immigration platform, but immigrant arrivals have almost doubled in 2023, year on year, according to government data published by Politico.

In the 1990s, Italy took in large numbers of Albanians, and Rome is now one of the most solid backers of Albania's EU accession hopes.

“We are friends, and between friends you help one another,” Rama said in Italy, quoted by Reuters.

The prompt agreement raises eyebrows

After the news broke, reactions, mostly against the deal, started to flow in. While Meloni's political partners call it a good deal, standing against it is the opposition, including Ricardo Magi, secretary of More Europe also known as Europa Plus Party, who says that this agreement is creating a prison in Albania similar to Guantanamo, Euronews reports.

In Albania, the opposition's Democratic Party requested clarifications in the Parliament by PM Rama to explain the deal with Italy and also warned that it will refer it to the Constitutional Court.

Citizens and representatives of local civil society organizations in Albania took to social media to share their objections:

This X (formerly Twitter) user raises the question if this center is the first of many to come:

Another X user made a comparison with the EU–Tunisia deal aiming to stem irregular migration:

The United Nations agency for refugees UNHCR said it is not a party to or involved in the Italy–Albania agreement and is currently seeking further information from the relevant authorities. However, UNHCR appealed for respect for international laws:

While the UNHCR's reaction had a soft tone, Amnesty International harshly denounced the deal:

‘Worrying trend’

Immigration experts say the agreement between Italy and Albania for the asylum-seeker center follows a worrying trend of European Union nations trying to manage immigration by looking beyond the bloc’s borders. They recall a similar move by Denmark to locate asylum-seekers in Africa that was later put on hold.

During Europe's 2015 migration crisis, EU governments struggled to cope with an influx of more than 1 million people, mostly Syrian refugees who crossed from Turkey to Greece, overwhelming security and welfare networks and stirring far-right sentiment. Since then, immigrants have been arriving in the Mediterranean by boat, to Italy, Greece, Spain, Cyprus and Malta, all EU member-states.

Commenting the Italy–Albania deal, the European Commission (EC), the executive branch of the EU, said that it has requested information about the details of the agreement. The EC's spokeswoman Anitta Hipper, quoted by ANSA news agency, said:

We are in contact with the Italian authorities. We have asked to receive details of the migration agreement with Albania. Before commenting further we need to understand what exactly the intention is.

Asked if the deal for the center between Italy and Albania is similar to the plan of the former EU member, United Kingdon to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, Hipper said:

It seems different to the agreement Britain has with Rwanda to send migrants to the African country.

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