Unlock the Editor’s Digest for free
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Albania’s top court has approved a controversial deal for Rome to send asylum seekers trying to reach Italy to the western Balkan nation instead — an unprecedented move in the EU.
The pact had been challenged by Albanian opposition politicians, who questioned its legality and impact on human rights. But in a ruling issued on Monday, Albania’s chief justice Holta Zacaj said it was “in line with the constitution”.
Under the agreement — unveiled by Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama in November — Rome plans to open two centres in Albania to house migrants who are picked up in the Mediterranean while attempting to reach Italy.
The asylum claims will be processed by Italian officials while applicants are confined to the centres in Albania, and those whose claims are rejected will be held until they are repatriated to their home countries. Successful applicants will be allowed to enter Italy.
Monday’s court judgment clears the way for the deal to be considered by the Albanian parliament, where Rama’s socialist party holds a comfortable majority. It has already been approved by Italy’s lower house of parliament.
Meloni’s rightwing government has struggled to fulfil its campaign pledge to reduce the number of migrants arriving in Italy without permission, with more than 155,750 irregular migrants reaching the country last year, a rise of 50 per cent compared with 2022.
But the Italian prime minister has hailed the deal with Albania as an “innovative solution” that will help take the pressure off local communities unhappy with accommodating foreign migrants while their asylum applications are processed. It was announced just weeks after Italy’s tiny southern island of Lampedusa was overwhelmed by more than 12,000 migrants arriving in a single week.
Under the arrangement, Italy will build two migrant holding centres in Albania, with a capacity of about 3,000 people, to take pressure off the Italian system while their asylum requests are pending. Rome hopes to process 36,000 people a year through the two sites by accelerating their asylum claims.
The first facility — to be built at the seaside resort of Shëngjin — is intended to hold people for initial processing, while a second site inland, at the site of a disused cold war-era airfield, will house applicants while they await decisions on their claims.
Neither Rama nor Meloni made any initial comment on the ruling.
“If we reach an agreement with a country like Italy, we do it as a common effort, not as a third country on which to transfer the problem,” Rama said in December, according to Italian news agency Ansa. Italy “is not transferring the problem, but trying to broaden the space to manage this course while dealing with the problem itself”, he added.
Rome is expected to pay €16.5mn to Albania in return for hosting the migration centres. Italy will cover the building and operating costs — estimated at about €53mn for this year.
Gazment Bardhi, the Albanian opposition lawmaker who submitted the constitutional court challenge, told the Financial Times his Democratic Party saw several problems with the arrangement, including a lack of public consultation and possible human rights violations.
“The problem of immigration is larger than Albania,” he said. “The best way to deal with it is not individually but collectively . . . [but] we can’t accept that our country is used to instil fear in people who want to come to Europe.”
He said that if migrants wanted to come to Albania because they were at risk at home, “we will . . . offer protection as applicable by law. We can’t be in favour of transferring people against their will.”
The European Commission has welcomed the deal despite the criticism. In a letter to EU leaders in December, commission president Ursula von der Leyen said it was an “important initiative” and “an example of out-of-the-box thinking, based on fair sharing of responsibilities with third countries”.
The commission declined to comment on the ruling itself.
Driven by violence and economic hardship, many migrants see Europe as offering the chance of peace and prosperity. However, the continent remains ill-prepared for large inflows, and its anti-migrant parties are making gains ahead of EU elections due in June.
Other EU countries including Germany have said they will examine the feasibility of similar arrangements.
“I think when this begins . . . this will be the starting point for other European countries to do the same or to try to get an agreement with Western Balkan countries,” Michael Spindelegger, head of the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD), told the FT before the ruling. “This will be seen as maybe a model for offshore asylum procedures.”
Additional reporting by Giuliana Ricozzi in Rome
Read the full article here