Albania and Italy have been strongly criticised by NGOs over a deal between the two countries under which thousands of migrants seeking entry to Italy would be temporarily hosted in centres in Albania.
Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni announced a plan to establish centres in Albania for asylum seekers during Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama’s visit to Italy on November 6.
Under the agreement, as outlined by Meloni, asylum seekers and refugees will be assessed in the centres in Albania, with Italian support. The centres will have a capacity of 3,000 people, and will be able to handle flows of up to 36,000 people a year.
"[W]e have worked together on an agreement that ... has three objectives: to fight human trafficking, to prevent illegal migration flows and to only take in those who truly have the right to international protection," said Meloni.
"What does this agreement consist of? This agreement entails Albania giving Italy the possibility to use certain areas on Albanian territory to establish, at its own expense and under its own jurisdiction, two facilities to set up centres for the management of illegal migrants."
Not a model for the EU
Announcing the deal, Meloni also commented that a similar strategy could be used by other countries, including fellow EU members, that are struggling with large numbers of irregular immigrants.
"I believe [the deal with Albania] could become a model of cooperation between EU and non-EU countries in managing migration flows," Meloni said in an interview with Il Messaggero.
The Italian prime minister said she had informed the European Commission of the deal and “not received any negative feedback”.
A European Commission spokesperson told bne IntelliNews that the deal must comply with EU and international law.
"We are aware of the operational arrangement between the Italian and Albanian authorities. We have been informed about the signature of this arrangement but we have not received detailed information as yet," the spokesperson said in an emailed comment.
"We understand that this operational arrangement would still need to be translated into law by Italy and further implemented. It is important that any such arrangement is in full respect of EU and international law.
Speaking on November 6, Rama expressed his country's commitment to assisting Italy, despite not being an EU member. He talked of repaying Albania’s debt to Italy and the Italian people, after the mass emigration from Albania to Italy after the fall of communism.
“[A]s I have said on other occasions, if Italy calls, Albania answers,” Rama said.
“[T]he truth is that geography has turned into what is called a curse for Italy because when you enter Italy you hear that you have entered Europe and the EU.”
Rama's willingness to support Italy in managing migration flows was reciprocated by a pledge from Meloni that she will advocate for Albania's EU membership.
“Albania is not only confirmed as a friend of Italy, but also of the EU. Even though it is not formally part of the EU, but is a candidate for joining the EU, it behaves, has an approach as if it is already an EU country,” Meloni said.
NGOs criticise deal
Among the NGO representatives to criticise the deal was the International Rescue Committee (IRC) senior director for Europe advocacy, Imogen Sudbery, who described it in an interview with The Guardian as “inhumane”.
"This latest decision by Italy is part of a concerning trend that undermines this right – focusing on preventing people from reaching Europe, rather than welcoming them with dignity and respect,” she told the daily.
The Brussels-based NGO Platform for Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) wrote on the X (formerly Twitter) social network: “Here we go again: after the UK's deal with Rwanda, Austria looking to follow suit, and the EU-Tunisia deal – Italy vows to build two new centres in Albania to externalise border management.”
The response to Rama’s move within Albania was mixed, as his Facebook feed filled up with a mix of congratulatory and critical comments.
“Focusing on relations with neighbouring Italy increases the progress of the country and the acceleration of the entrance path to the EU. A big bravo,” said one fan of the deal.
Others criticised the prime minister for “turning Albania into a refugee camp”. “Thanks for transforming Albania into Africa,” read one comment.