Only two years ago, Albania made headlines around the world with its approach to refugees. While the EU has drawn heavy criticism for its sometimes poor accommodation options for asylum seekers, the Albanian government has been quick to house Afghan refugees in five-star hotels. There they awaited the continuation of their journey, mainly to the United States. This welcoming practice is explained by the Albanian population’s own experience of migration and flight and by the deeply rooted Albanian commitment to the protection of foreigners, which has historically saved the lives of many people.
Last Monday, the head of the Italian right-wing populist government Giorgia Meloni and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama once again announced an individual effort: Italian reception camps on Albanian soil. Another flagship initiative? The general conditions and outlook say otherwise.
Agreement for five years
The agreement between Meloni and Rama foresees that people fleeing the Mediterranean to Italy will be taken to migration centers in Albania, where Italian authorities will decide on possible asylum in Italy. Minors, pregnant women and people who have already reached the continent should be exempt. There are currently no details on 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 assess the consequences that the agreement with Italy would have for Albania in the medium and long term. Under the plan, up to 36,000 people will be subject to an extraterritorial asylum procedure each year. However, a large proportion of people who arrive in Italy do not have the right to stay. So, what happens to Albanians whose applications are rejected? Do they then have the right to request asylum in Albania and will Albania then bear the administrative and supply costs? In what conditions will people live in the reception centers? What happens to people who cannot be “deported” for health reasons, for example? And what should stop people from trying their luck to the EU via the Balkan route again?
It cannot be ruled out that a large part of the responsibility for the refugees ultimately lies with Albania. The implementation of Italian sovereign rights on Albanian soil and the general compliance of the agreement with international law also remain open. Human rights organizations express strong criticism.
Strong links with Italy
In Albania, the project is received differently, as is often the case due to deep political polarization. The decision was unexpected because there was no prior discussion in Parliament or public debate. This procedure and the project have attracted strong criticism from the center-right opposition. She expresses herself mainly by referring to security risks: the first demonstrations with the slogan “Lezha is not Lampedusa” were organized in her region. The response from the population is also mixed.
Acceptance of refugees is generally high, many Albanians have their own refugee experience within their families, and the centuries-old, socially embedded obligation to protect still shapes their self-image. The connection with Italy is also strong and, with it, support for intensive cooperation. But many people also express concern about being overwhelmed by the expected increase in numbers.
A political victory for Meloni
The fact that Rama is now entering into such a deal is somewhat surprising. A few years ago, he spoke out clearly against EU asylum centers in Albania and against the rejection of desperate people “like toxic waste”. He now justifies his action by an attitude of solidarity towards Italy. And the political impact of this highly publicized initiative is in fact significant: this agreement will help its right-wing populist counterpart, who had made the fight against “illegal immigration” one of his electoral campaign themes and had not not yet managed to implement it. Meloni can view the move as a political victory.
The fact that she clearly came out in favor of Albania’s accession to the EU when announcing this agreement is interpreted by some observers as a quid pro quo. However, given that Italy has traditionally supported its membership application, this is unlikely to be the only reason. On the contrary, Italy’s great economic and political importance will have been relevant to its neighbor across the Adriatic. Rama himself said he would not do this for any other country, but that Albania was in debt to Italy after the country took in so many Albanian refugees following the collapse of communism in the 1990s. an argument which is not without a certain irony.
However, overall, the impact of the planned project beyond the political signal is questionable. Given the very long processing times for asylum applications so far, the capacity of the planned reception centers appears rather low. According to the Italian Interior Ministry, more than 100,000 refugees by boat arrived in Italy in the first eight months of this year alone. It is questionable whether the envisaged agreement represents a major relief for Italy.
Nor will it serve as a deterrent. The prospect of a possible detour through Albania will do little to deter people from fleeing to Europe; their level of suffering is far too high. However, Meloni might think that if in doubt, they could choose an alternative route to that to Italy or try to travel from the centers to other EU states after their application is rejected.
Attempts at extraterritorial asylum procedures have failed
However, outsourcing the processing of asylum applications – a human right – to other countries is not the only idea of Italy’s right-wing populist government. The declaration of intent comes at a time when the subject is the subject of controversy across the EU and asylum policy is taking a new direction. Last month, the EU presented its asylum reform. We are also talking about strict reception structures, but at the external borders of the EU and therefore within the EU.
Also in Germany, an agreement was reached this week at the federal-Länder conference to further tighten policy towards refugees. Until now, attempts at extraterritorial asylum procedures carried out by European states have failed because they were not compatible with European and international law. The controversial asylum deal between the UK and Rwanda is currently under legal review. As long as it is not possible to guarantee respect for human rights and the procedures can be carried out in an identical manner, extraterritorial asylum procedures are not possible.
Asylum procedures are not a call center
The European Commission has not yet commented negatively on the agreement; she simply warned that international and European law must be respected. Given the enormous challenges at the EU’s external borders, Italy’s unilateral approach to the issue of asylum procedures in third countries could be a clear reaction to the lack of unity and solidarity within the EU. EU. However, a lasting solution can only be a common European path which does not create a situation of competition between Member States. However, it is currently worrying to see the extent to which right-wing populist forces dominate this debate. Even though their anti-human motivation is by no means shared, the competition of ideas about isolation and outsourcing, which has erupted among all other political forces, still works in their favor.
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 other controversial migration partnership ideas. It is also not fair to entrust Albania with responsibility for this agreement: the partnership between the two states is too unequal. But this is a transfer of responsibility from Italy and therefore the EU to a third country supposed to do the “unpleasant work”. This may have worked well in the call center industry in recent years.
However, this does not correspond to the responsibility arising from the right to asylum enshrined in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. This challenge requires more effort than simply banishing the problem outside the EU’s borders, not least because it won’t work. Anyone serious about ending deaths in the Mediterranean is creating legal entry routes without infringing on the human right to asylum. An important start would be to promote your own solidarity and European ideas instead of following right-wing speeches about fighting symptoms..
Published in the Journal IPG on November 10