The EU is watching Albania’s deal to hold asylum seekers for Italy. Rights activists are worried

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MILAN (AP) — Albania has agreed to host two migrant processing centers on its territory that will be fully run by Italy, under a deal that worries many human rights activists. The European Union, however, sees the agreement as a possible template for the future.

Italy has long complained about not getting enough help from its EU partners in dealing with migrants arriving on its shores from northern Africa. Italy’s right-wing Premier Giorgia Meloni is keen to show she is taking action as arrivals spiked 55% this year, to nearly 160,000 — though still well below the levels reached during the 2015 crisis.

In January Italy’s lower chamber of parliament approved the novel deal with non-EU member Albania, followed a month later by the Senate.

Also in January, Albania’s Constitutional Court rejected a legal challenge that could have blocked the deal. Albania’s parliament approved the deal with 77 votes to zero on Thursday, while 63 lawmakers were marked not present as the opposition refused to participate. The president also will issue a decree as the final step of approval.

Migrants from Africa seeking a better life in Europe have been a sensitive issue for EU member countries in the Mediterranean. It is set to be a hot issue in Europe-wide elections in June. EU members and institutions are trying to push long-awaited asylum and migration reforms through the bloc’s parliament before the polls. Mainstream parties hope the new rules will allow them to refute anti-migrant arguments espoused by populist and far-right groups.

WHAT’S KNOWN ABOUT THE DEAL

Under a five-year agreement announced in November, Albania will shelter up to 36,000 migrants a year as Rome fast-tracks their asylum requests.

Those picked up within Italy’s territorial waters, or by rescue ships operated by non-governmental organizations, would retain their right under international and EU law to apply for asylum in Italy and have their claims processed there.

Italy has agreed to take back any migrants whose requests have been rejected, and they will likely be repatriated. Children and pregnant women will not be covered by the plan.

One of the processing centers will be located in the port of Shengjin, one of the main tourist areas on the Adriatic Sea, about 75 kilometers (46 miles) south of the Albanian capital, Tirana.

The second facility will be 20 kilometers (12 miles) north at a former military airport in Gjader. Italy will spend nearly 600 million euros ($650 million) over five years for the construction and operation of the two centers under Italian jurisdiction. Up to 3,000 migrants at a time can stay at the two facilities. Outside security will be provided by Albanian guards.

The facilities are expected to be operational by spring.

WHAT ITALY GETS OUT OF IT

The deal could help relieve chronic overcrowding at initial asylum processing centers in Italy, where hundreds of thousands of migrants are held after risky sea voyages across the Mediterranean Sea from Libya, Tunisia, Turkey and other countries.

Italy has sought more help from its fellow EU nations.

Many of the migrants are ineligible for asylum as they leave due to poverty, not persecution or war. While waiting for a final decision on their asylum applications, many make their way to northern Europe, hoping to find family or jobs.

Italy has sought help from other EU nations to handle the increasing number of arrivals. Data from its Interior Ministry showed that migrant arrivals in Italy in 2023 were about 155,750, or about 55% more than the previous year, including more than 17,000 unaccompanied minors.

WHAT’S IN IT FOR ALBANIA

When the deal was announced, Meloni said Albania “behaves as if it’s one” of the EU member states. Albania “is not only a friend of Italy, but also a friend of the European Union,” she said.

Many in Albania see it as quid pro quo for Italian hospitality when thousands of Albanians fleeing poverty after the fall of communism in 1991 found refuge in Italy.

Albania, a small west Balkan country, does not belong to the EU but is seeking membership, beginning talks with Brussels last year. Despite poverty, it has a history of accepting refugees, including members of China’s Uyghur ethnic group, Afghans and dissidents from Iran, as well as taking a million ethnic Albanians from neighboring Kosovo during wartime in 1999.

But members of Albania’s center-right opposition opposed the deal on human rights grounds. Thirty opposition lawmakers went to the Constitutional Court in an unsuccessful bid to block ratification.

HUMANITARIAN AND LEGAL CONCERNS

Migration experts say the agreement follows a worrying trend of EU nations looking beyond the bloc’s borders to manage migration. Denmark has floated the idea of sending asylum seekers to be held in African nations.

The Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights has expressed a range of concerns, including whether migrants would have access to adequate legal aid.

The European Commission, which supervises the application of EU laws, left the door open for the agreement, as long as it’s only applied to migrants picked up in international waters.

The Migration Policy Institute Europe says the deal fails to describe what migration procedures would be followed, leaving open questions as to how exactly the process would work.

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Semini reported from Tirana, Albania. Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield contributed from Rome.

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Follow AP’s coverage of migration issues at https://apnews.com/hub/migration

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