Italy and Albania announced a migration agreement with possible effects on the entire European Union. They agreed on the establishment of refugee centers in this Balkan country, where they will take illegal refugees caught by the Italian side at sea. The European Commission did not comment on the convention in the first days. “If the project comes to fruition, it will be groundbreaking,” claims migration expert Vít Novotný from the Wilfried Martens Center for European Studies in Brussels. In an interview with Deník, he also talked about what is happening on the Balkan route or what is tying the governments’ hands in combating illegal migration.
Migrants on the Italian island of Lampedusa, illustrative photo.
| Photo: CTK
What makes the migration agreement between Italy and Albania so significant?
It is groundbreaking in its specificity. From the way the Italian government presents the agreement with Albania, including the places where the centers are to be built (Shëngjin and Gjader locations in the north of the country), I have the impression that the transfers of applicants from Italy to Albania are about to fall. I could be wrong though. If the transfers to Albania were to take place, it would be the first European case of a successful relocation of the asylum procedure from the country of first arrival to a non-EU country. If the project were to go ahead, it could have a deterrent effect given the speculative asylum applications that are currently plaguing both Italy and the whole European Union.
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Were there other attempts? And how did they turn out?
Denmark concluded an agreement with the African last year Rwanda, but for unknown reasons the collaboration fell through. The UK has also struck a deal with Rwanda, but no asylum seekers have been transferred there yet, as lawyers and activists have challenged the transfers to Rwanda in British and European courts.
Only part of the migrants who illegally sail to Italy by sea are to go to the newly established centers. Exceptions will be women, children and vulnerable groups. Won’t it just be a drop in the ocean?
According to my information, the transfers are supposed to concern healthy men (both states estimated the number at more than thirty thousand a year – editor’s note). Given that around 145,000 people have arrived illegally in Italy so far this year, the estimated number of more than 30,000 is not insignificant.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni described the project as the management of migration flows. Isn’t this just shifting the problem to the Balkans? Could the agreement not strengthen the Balkan route as a result?
According to the Italian government’s presentation of the project, the applicants will be held in Albanian detention. Those who are successful will get back to Italy after receiving asylum. Unsuccessful ones will be returned to their home countries. According to this ideal state, the Balkan route would not be strengthened.
Prime Minister Petr Fiala identified Africa as the key to solving illegal migration. How do you interpret that? Refugees from Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq tend to head to the West through the Czech Republic…
Yes, the mentioned agreement is a small contribution to reducing illegal migration from Africa. The project will only become a major solution to illegal migration if it can be implemented and then replicated for migration coming from the main source countries in Africa and Asia. But we are very far from such a state.
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How significant a problem can increasing migration from Africa be for the EU and the Czech Republic?
Italy is primarily concerned. In my opinion, they are justified. However, the vast majority of EU countries are located in the Schengen zone of free movement of people without passport controls, so the problem concerns the entire Union, including the Czech Republic. Therefore, more and more politicians are realizing the importance of effective measures against illegal migration. In Germany, because of uncontrolled migration, the far right is strengthening. The weakening of mainstream political formations, and thus the weakening of democracy, is a serious threat to the entire continent. Adding to the growth of extremism are fears of terrorism.
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The Central Mediterranean is the main route of illegal migration to Europe this year. But the Balkan route is still important. How has the situation changed compared to last year?
According to data from the European border and coast guard agency Frontex, the numbers on the Balkan route this year are lower than last year. The relatively high numbers recorded in Slovakia are a statistical fad, caused by the stricter measures introduced by the Austrian government and the neglect of the situation by the Slovak authorities. On the whole, the work of the Bulgarian and Greek border police shows itself better on the Balkan route. The Union has also pushed countries like Serbia to tighten overly generous visa policies.
Migration from the Mediterranean
• The latest agreement between Italy and Albania will allow refugees intercepted by Italian ships in the Mediterranean to be transported to two locations in Albania where their asylum claims will be assessed.
• According to the Italian opposition, the agreement openly violates the provisions of EU law. The European Commission did not comment in the first days, they wanted to know the details.
• Following this gesture of goodwill, Albania expects Italian support in the Balkan country’s efforts to join the European Union.
There is a lot of talk about a common European migration policy, but people do not really see effective solutions and results. Are the critics right?
A common policy to prevent and combat illegal migration is still in its infancy, partly because of the different interests of individual member states, partly because of the decisions of European and national courts that tie the governments’ hands. It seems, however, that people do not see much success, such as the agreement with Turkey to host millions of Syrians there (2016) and cooperation with Morocco or Niger to combat smuggling gangs. Without these measures, the migration situation in Europe would be much worse. The hard nut that has not yet been cracked is the agreement with Tunisia, from which the majority of arrivals now arrive in Italy. Although it was signed in rough outlines, the Union has not yet managed to convince Tunisian President Said to allow the Tunisian Coast Guard to effectively prevent sailing towards the island of Lampedusa.
So the ultimate solution is a more effective guarding of the EU’s external borders?
The Union still faces a major task, to agree with neighboring countries to more effectively prevent illegal migrants from crossing borders, both by sea and by land. More and more European politicians are realizing the importance of this, but there will have to be more.