“It will be a kind of Italian Guantánamo outside international standards, outside of any control, with thousands of people locked up for an indefinite period,” according to the newspaper Politico, is how the general secretary of the Italian center-left Piú Europa party (in translation More Europe) Riccardo Magi characterized the Monday memorandum signed between the leaders Albanian and Italian governments regarding refugee relocation.
Italian MEP Brando Benifei, a member of the opposition Democratic Party, said it was a “bad deal that doesn’t solve anything” and announced that his party was submitting an inquiry to the European Commission.
There was excitement in Albania as well, according to the opposition it was a “lightning out of the blue”. “There was no discussion in parliament, no public hearing, no details are known,” Belind Kellici, from the presidency of the Albanian opposition Democratic Party, shared his reservations with Euractiv.
The essence of the agreement is that (mainly African) refugees caught in the international waters of the Mediterranean Sea by ships of the Italian Navy or Coast Guard could be transported to two reception centers on the coast of Albania. Entry identification formalities and asylum procedures would then take place there.
According to a memorandum signed on Monday by Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, the system should start operating in the spring of 2024. The agreement does not apply to refugees caught by NGO boats and does not apply to minors or pregnant women.
Many unknowns remain in the deal
The news about the Albanian-Italian agreement in Brussels caused surprising reactions. A spokesperson for the European Commission (EC) admitted that the Commission “has been informed”, but that the EC “expects more detailed information so that the matter can be evaluated”.
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According to the EC, any agreement must respect European and international law. European law on migration issues grants every refugee who has entered EU soil or arrived in the sovereign waters of a member state the right to an asylum procedure in the EU. Refugees caught in international waters (which is supposed to be the case in the recent Albanian-Italian agreement) must not be transferred “to locations where they could find themselves in danger”. Albania is not a member of the European Union.
Far harsher reactions came from human rights organizations. According to The Guardian, Giulia Spagna, regional head of the humanitarian organization Danish Refugee Council, pointed out that “this is a transparent attempt to get rid of the migration problem by moving it outside the EU borders in exchange for money (…) It brings many risks for migrants, including violations of basic human rights, it is not clear what will happen in case of denial of asylum and so on”.
From the beginning of 2023, the Italian authorities register about 145,000 people who arrived on Italian shores via the Mediterranean Sea. For the entire year 2022, it was “only” 85 thousand people. These are mainly refugees from North and West African states, such as Guinea, Ivory Coast, Egypt and Tunisia.
Britain’s “Rwanda Plan” is on ice
The agreement between Albania and Italy comes shortly after attempts at similar arrangements between the EU on the one hand and one of the North African countries on the other failed. Most recently, the topic was discussed with Tunisia, which, however, in June – despite a generous financial offer from the European Union – rejected an agreement on the “processing” of refugees on its territory.
In the recent past, an agreement between the EU and Turkey worked in a certain way, on the basis of which Ankara hosted (or suffered) a large number of refugees from the Syrian civil war on its territory, who would otherwise have headed for Europe. According to various estimates, up to 4 million of these people live on Turkish territory. However, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tried several times to use the refugee card to blackmail the EU when he wanted to get political concessions or an increase in financial performance.
The UK government’s plan to “return” failed asylum seekers to Rwanda in Africa has just been put on hold. In June 2023, the Court of Appeal overturned the decision of the lower instance, stating that Rwanda is not a so-called safe country, and therefore not a single plane with refugees flew to Africa. The case is now at the British Supreme Court, a decision is expected in a matter of months.