Just two years ago, Albania made headlines around the world for its approach to refugees. While the European Union has come under fire for sometimes poor accommodation options for asylum seekers, the Albanian government has been quick to house Afghan refugees in five-star hotels. There they waited for their next flight, mostly to the United States. This reception practice has been explained by the Albanian population’s own experience with migration and flight, and by the firm Albanian commitment to protecting strangers, which has historically saved many lives.
Now, on Monday of last week, Italian right-wing populist Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama once again announced a solo effort: Italian reception camps on Albanian soil. Another pioneering initiative? General circumstances and prospects say otherwise.
The agreement between Meloni and Rama stipulates that people fleeing across the Mediterranean to Italy will be transferred to immigration centers in Albania, where Italian officials will decide on the possibility of asylum in Italy. Minors, pregnant women and people who have already arrived on the mainland should be exempt from this. There are currently no details about this arrangement, but it is known that the migration centers planned for spring 2024 will provide space for 3,000 refugees and that the agreement will initially be valid for five years. Italy will cover the construction of the centers as well as all administrative costs and will operate them under Italian jurisdiction. Albania provides security services.
It is difficult to estimate what consequences the agreement with Italy might have for Albania in the medium and long term. According to the plan, up to 36,000 people will be subject to extraterritorial asylum procedures every year. However, a large proportion of people arriving in Italy do not have the right to remain. So what happens to people in Albania whose applications are rejected? Will they then have the right to apply for asylum in Albania and will Albania then bear the administrative and supply costs for this? What conditions will people live in in reception centres? What happens to people who cannot be “deported” for health reasons, for example? What should stop people from trying their luck with the EU again via the Balkan route?
It cannot be ruled out that a large part of the responsibility for refugees ultimately falls on Albania. The implementation of Italian sovereign rights over Albanian territory and the general compatibility of the agreement with international law also remain open. Human rights organizations are clearly critical.
Strong relations with Italy
In Albania, the project is being treated differently, as is often the case given deep political polarization. The decision was unexpected because there had been no prior exchange in Parliament and no public debate. This measure and project were met with strong criticism from the center-right opposition. She expresses this primarily by referring to security risks – the first protests under the slogan “Lisa is not Lampedusa” were organized in her region. Residents’ response was also mixed.
Acceptance of refugees is generally high, many Albanians have their own experiences with refugees in their families, and the long-standing social commitment to protection continues to shape their self-image. The relationship with Italy is also strong, and with it supports extensive cooperation. But many people are also expressing concerns about burnout due to the expected increase in numbers.
A political victory for Meloni
The fact that Rama is now making such a deal is somewhat surprising. A few years ago he spoke out against EU asylum centers in Albania and against dumping desperate people “like toxic waste”. Now this action is justified by an attitude of solidarity towards Italy. The political impact of this high-level initiative is actually significant: this deal will help his right-wing populist counterpart, because she has made the fight against “illegal immigration” one of her campaign themes and has not yet been able to achieve it. Meloni could see the move as a political win.
The fact that she spoke clearly in favor of Albania’s accession to the European Union on the occasion of the announcement of this deal is interpreted by some observers as a quid pro quo. However, since Italy has traditionally supported the country’s application for membership, this is unlikely to be the only reason. Rather, Italy’s great economic and political importance in general was related to its neighbor on the other side of the Adriatic Sea. Rama himself said he would not do this to any other country, but Albania was indebted to Italy after the country took in many Albanian refugees after the collapse of communism in the 1990s. It is an argument that is not without a certain irony.
However, in general, the impact of the planned project beyond political signaling is questionable. Given the very long time to process asylum applications so far, the capacity of the planned reception centers appears to be rather low. According to the Italian Ministry of the Interior, more than 100,000 refugees arrived in Italy by boat in the first eight months of this year alone. It remains questionable whether the planned deal represents any major relief for Italy.
Nor will it act as a deterrent. The prospect of a potential shift through Albania will not stop people fleeing to Europe; Their level of suffering is very high. However, it may be Meloni’s calculation that in case of doubt, they could choose an alternative route instead of the route to Italy or try to travel from the hubs to other EU countries after their application was rejected.
Attempts to take asylum procedures outside territorial borders have failed
However, outsourcing the processing of asylum claims – a human right – to other countries is not the only idea of the right-wing populist Italian government. The declaration of intent comes at a time when the topic is being discussed controversially across the European Union and asylum policy is taking a new direction. Just last month, the European Union introduced its asylum reforms. There is also talk of strict reception facilities, but on the EU’s external borders and therefore within the EU.
An agreement was also reached this week in Germany As part of the Federal State Conference To further tighten refugee policy. So far, attempts by European countries to take asylum procedures extraterritorially have failed because they have not been compatible with EU and international law. The controversial asylum deal between the UK and Rwanda is currently undergoing legal review. As long as respect for human rights and the possibility of implementing procedures in a similar manner cannot be guaranteed, extraterritorial asylum procedures are not possible.
Asylum Procedure is not a call center
The European Union Commission has not yet commented negatively on the agreement. Rather, it simply warned of the need to respect international and European Union law. Given the enormous challenges at the EU’s external borders, Italy’s unilateral approach to the issue of asylum procedures in third countries may be a clear reaction to the lack of unity and insufficient solidarity within the EU. However, a sustainable solution can only be through a common European path that does not create a competitive situation between member states. However, what is currently worrying is the extent to which right-wing populist forces dominate this debate. Even if their anti-human motives were by no means common, the competition between ideas about isolation and outsourcing, which broke out among all the other political forces, would still be in their favour.
Albania is part of the Council of Europe, a member of NATO and a candidate for EU membership, and therefore certainly cannot be included in many of the other controversial partnership ideas on migration. It is also unfair to hold Albania responsible for this deal; The partnership between the two countries is highly unequal. But it has shifted responsibility from Italy, and therefore the European Union, to a third country that is supposed to carry out the “unpleasant work.” This may have worked well in the call center sector in recent years.
However, this is not compatible with the liability arising from the right to asylum set out in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. This challenge requires a greater effort than simply pushing the problem beyond the borders of the European Union, because that will not work either. Anyone serious about ending deaths in the Mediterranean creates legal entry routes without undermining the human right to asylum. An important start is to promote your solidarity and European ideas rather than following right-wing narratives about combating symptoms.
Posted on November 10 IPG Magazine
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