Albania-Italy disputed migrant deal moves ahead

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An Albanian court on Monday gave the green light to a deal allowing Italy to send migrants rescued in the Mediterranean by Italian ships to detention centers in Albania while their asylum applications are examined.

The agreement is part of the Italian government’s multifaceted efforts to stem migration, particularly crossings of the Mediterranean Sea, sending the message that many undocumented migrants will not be allowed directly into Italy, even temporarily.

The agreement was signed in November by the leaders of the two countries, but contested by Albanian opposition MPs, who said it violated the country’s constitution.

On Monday, Albania’s Constitutional Court ruled otherwise, paving the way for the agreement to be passed by Parliament, where Prime Minister Edi Rama’s Socialist Party holds 75 of 140 seats.

In Italy, the deal has already been approved by the lower house of parliament and has been sent to the Senate, where Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing political allies maintain a controlling majority.

Presenting the agreement last year, Ms Meloni called it “a model of cooperation between EU countries and third countries in the management of migration flows”, and said it was part of a “bold European spirit”.

The agreement would allow the construction of two centers around the port of Shengjin that could accommodate a maximum of 3,000 migrants at a time.

Initially, migrants intercepted at sea registered to request asylum and pleaded their case remotely before Italian judges. On the other, they would wait for responses to requests, which can often take months. Migrants whose asylum applications are rejected would be deported by Albania to their country of origin.

Children, pregnant women and other people described as “vulnerable” – including the sick and disabled – will not go to the centers, but will be taken directly to Italy for treatment, the government said.

In return for the Albanian Prime Minister’s support on migration, Meloni said she would do everything in her power to support Albania’s entry into the European Union.

More than 157,000 migrants landed on Italian shores last year, most from Africa or Asia, compared to 105,000 in 2022. according to data from the Ministry of the Interior. Countless migrants die trying to reach safety.

On Monday, the International Organization for Migration said that nearly 100 people have been “dead or missing” in the Mediterranean since the start of 2024, more than twice as many as those who died at the same period last year. In 2023, more than 3,000 lives have been lost in the Mediterranean, according to the group.

In addition to the agreement reached with Albania, Ms. Meloni also reached agreements with Tunisia and Libya to limit migration. But she argued that the European Union should share the burden of managing migrants arriving in Italy.

On Monday, Meloni met with African leaders in Rome to promote economic development in Africa and discourage young people from emigrating.

The deal with Albania is reminiscent of that sought by the British government, under which it would transport asylum seekers to Rwanda before their claims have been assessed, thereby paying their resettlement costs if the migrants remained there. The British courts have rejected the proposalbut this approach remains a top priority for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

When the agreement with Albania was announced in November, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatovic, warned of “a worrying European trend towards the outsourcing of responsibilities for asylum”.

“Outsourcing measures significantly increase the risk of exposing refugees, asylum seekers and migrants to human rights violations,” Ms Mijatović said in a statement. “The transfer of responsibilities across borders by some States also encourages others to do the same, which risks creating a domino effect that could undermine the European and global system of international protection. »

The Italy-Albania agreement was approved by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyden. called him “an example of original thinking, based on equitable sharing of responsibilities with third countries. »

But the proposed arrangement has been widely criticized by human rights groups.

Some critics have raised legal concerns about Italian jurisdiction in Albania and warned that it would be difficult to ensure that migrants in Albania would enjoy the same rights as if they were in Italy.

Opposition MPs in Italy have criticized the estimated costs for the construction and management of the two centers in Albania. Matteo Mauri, a lawmaker from the opposition Democratic Party, estimated that the deal would cost Italy 653 million euros, or about $700 million, over the first five years, for what he considers a negligible number of migrants.

“Not only is this agreement completely unnecessary and of questionable legitimacy under European Union law,” Mr. Mauri said, but it is also “extremely expensive.” The money, he said in a telephone interview, could be spent in Italy on existing treatment centers.

Ahead of June’s European elections, Mauri described the deal as a “political propaganda operation by the prime minister” that made the fight against immigration the political cornerstone of his party, the far-right Brothers of Italy.

In hearings in the Italian Senate earlier this month, some experts said the deal could become a model that could be replicated in Libya and Tunisia. Others have expressed doubts about the message Italy is sending to Europe.

Stefano Manservisi, professor of transnational governance at the European University Institute in Florence, called the agreement a “baroque construction” that created a dual reception system.

“Italy says that immigration must be managed at European level and is now removing part of this problem from the European debate,” he said. “On the one hand, Italy says it gets little help from the European system, but on the other hand, it is creating a system that cannot benefit from any European support.”

Fatjona Mejdini contributed reporting from Albania.

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