Italy signs accord to send migrants to Albania, in deal slammed by rights groups

Italy will build two detention centers in Albania to house migrants trying to reach its shores, Prime Minister Georgia Meloni said Monday, in an attempt to control migration figures that have almost doubled in the year since she took office.

Meloni said the facilities are due to open next spring and will initially take in 3,000 people. Once the centers are “fully up and running,” Meloni said her government hoped they could process up to 36,000 people a year.

Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party is facing growing domestic pressure as it has failed to deliver on an electoral promise to limit illegal migration. More than 145,000 people have reached Italy’s shores since January, compared with 88,000 people last year.

Speaking in Rome alongside her Albanian counterpart Edi Rama, Meloni hailed the deal as a “European agreement” and an “innovative solution” aimed at curbing the rise in crossings over the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa.

“Mass irregular immigration is a phenomenon that… member states of the European Union cannot deal with alone,” Meloni said at a joint news conference with Rama, adding “cooperation between EU member states and what are, for now, non-EU countries, can play a decisive role.”

Albania was granted European Union candidate status nearly a decade ago but has not yet joined the bloc. The deal marks the first time an EU country has outsourced its asylum procedures to a country attempting to join its ranks.

“If Italy calls Albania, it is there,” Rama said. “We are a European state, but we are missing the ‘U’ in front but this, but that does not prevent us to be and see the world as Europeans,” he said.

The centers will be built in the Albanian ports of Shengjin and Gjader and are “in full compliance with the European Union and international law,” Meloni said.

One center will be used to process migrants rescued by boats at sea; the second will be used to house migrants who qualify to apply for asylum in the EU. It is unclear what happens to those who do not qualify, but the Meloni government has focused on using the threat of immediate deportation as means to deter migrants from arriving on Italy’s shores.

Immediate deportation is not allowed inside the EU due to human rights statutes that allow all arrivals to apply for asylum. Because Albania is not an EU member, those rules will not apply.

Migrants gather in the harbor of the Italian island of Lampedusa, waiting to be transferred to southern Italy in September 2023. - Alessandro Serrano/AFP/Getty Images
Migrants gather in the harbor of the Italian island of Lampedusa, waiting to be transferred to southern Italy in September 2023. - Alessandro Serrano/AFP/Getty Images

The plan would allow Italy to skirt the Dublin agreement, which states that the first country in which migrants arrive must care for them and process their cases.

Italy will provide the manpower to process applications, but Albania will provide police for security and surveillance, Meloni said, adding that minors, pregnant women and other vulnerable groups would not be sent to Albania. Few other details about the deal, including its cost, have been revealed.

The European Commission issued a terse response Tuesday afternoon. “We’re in contact with the Italian authorities because we need to see the details. We’re asking to receive detailed information on this type of arrangement,” a spokesperson said.

The deal echoes the United Kingdom’s controversial agreement to send thousands of asylum seekers to Rwanda, which has been mired in legal challenges since its inception.

Human rights groups and opposition politicians decried the announcement. The secretary of the left-wing More Europe party Riccardo Magi wrote on X that the deal would create an “Italian Guantanamo.”

In a scathing statement to CNN, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) condemned Rome’s plan, which it said “strikes a further blow to the principle of EU solidarity.”

“The Italian government’s plan to build reception centers for refugees and asylum seekers in Albania is a testament to its disproportionate focus on preventing people from arriving in the EU, rather than creating safe and legal avenues for those seeking refuge,” said Susanna Zanfrini, IRC Italy country director.

“Big questions loom over the application of Italian jurisdiction in Albania, as it remains unclear how people on the move could access asylum and exercise their basic rights in a non-EU territory,” she added.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) also reacted to the announcement by comparing the memorandum to other investments made in transit countries to prevent people from departing to seek safety from war, famine and other strife.

“The pact signed between Italy and Albania goes one step further than the outsourcing agreements that the Italian government or European institutions have signed in recent years with Turkey, Libya and Tunisia,” MSF said in a statement.

“The lack of access to Italian soil, the extraterritorial management of asylum applications, the application of accelerated border procedures and the detention of people in a third country represent a new attack on the right to asylum, as it is understood today,” the MSF statement added.

MSF, which operates a rescue boat in the search and rescue area between Libya, Malta and Italy, also expressed concern that sending ships with migrants to distant ports puts those people in jeopardy.

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