Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni visits Albania to thank country for hosting 2 migrant centers

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TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni is traveling to Albania to thank the country for its willingness to host thousands of asylum seekers and tour the sites of two migrant detention centers, a visit coming just days before local and European Parliament elections, where migration is a top campaign issue.

In November, Meloni and Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama signed a 5-year deal in which Albania agreed to shelter up to 3,000 migrants rescued from international waters each month while Italy processes their asylum claims. With asylum requests expected to take around a month to process, the number of asylum seekers sent to Albania could reach up to 36,000 in a year.

Meloni has defended the controversial plan as a necessary component of her crackdown on migration, aiming to deter would-be refugees from paying smugglers to make the dangerous Mediterranean crossing. Human rights groups and opposition lawmakers have warned that refugee protections could be compromised.

Meloni will kick off her visit to the tiny Western Balkan nation at Gjader, a former military airport, 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of the capital, Tirana, and where work for one of the two migrant centers has started.

Then she moves to the port of Shengjin, 20 kilometers (12 miles) southwest of Gjader, where an accommodation center is set in a rectangular area covering 4,000 square meters (4,800 square yards). Shengjin’s migrant reception center is ready to host migrants.

Meloni’s visit comes a day before the June 6-9 European elections in which migration has been a key campaign issue. Meloni and her right-wing allies have long demanded European countries share more of the migration burden, and have held up the Albania agreement as an innovative solution to a problem that has vexed the EU for years.

Meloni, of the far-right Brothers of Italy party, has also championed her so-called Mattei Plan to fund projects in African countries along migrant routes in exchange for better controls, while pressing ahead with plans to run migrant centers in Albania.

The two processing centers in Albania will cost Italy more than 600 million euros (about $650 million) over 5 years. The facilities would be fully run by Italy while it fast-tracks migrants’ asylum requests. They are expected to become fully operational later this year.

Both centers are under Italian jurisdiction while Albanian guards will provide outside security.

Italy would welcome the migrants if they are granted international protection or organize their deportation from Albania if refused.

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

Data from the Italian Interior Ministry show the number of migrants arriving in Italy is way down compared to the same period last year: As of Tuesday, 21,574 people had arrived in Italy via boat so far this year, compared to 51,628 during the same period in 2023.

Albania is not a European Union member, and the idea of sending asylum seekers outside the bloc is controversial. The deal was endorsed by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen as an example of “out-of-the-box thinking,” but has been widely criticized by rights groups.

Rama, of Albania’s left-wing governing Socialist Party, has said the deal is a sign of gratitude on behalf of Albanians who found refuge in Italy and “escaped hell and imagined a better life” following the collapse of communism in the 1990s Albania.

Tirana has refused other countries’ requests for deals similar to that of Italy, according to Rama.

Italy’s center-left opposition has called the deal an expensive exercise in propaganda ahead of European elections and a shameful bid to turn Albania into Italy’s “Guantánamo.”

A group of 30 Albanian opposition conservative lawmakers took the case to the Constitutional Court in an unsuccessful effort to block the Italy-Albania deal on the grounds of human rights.

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Follow Llazar Semini at https://x.com/lsemini

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

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