Albania’s deal with Italy on migrants has been welcomed by many. But others are confused and angry
SHENGJIN, Albania (AP) — When the leaders of Albania and Italy announced a contentious agreement earlier this week to jointly process some asylum applications of migrants arriving by sea, some in the Western Balkans country saw it as reciprocation.
Italy had welcomed thousands of Albanians fleeing poverty after the fall of communism more than three decades ago, and Albania’s current government wanted to pay back the Italians’ hospitality.
On Monday, Albania said it agreed to shelter thousands of migrants while Rome fast-tracks their requests seeking asylum in Italy, up to 36,000 a year. A memorandum between the countries says Italy would agree to remove migrants whose applications are rejected. The European Commission has requested more details.
The deal, which must be approved by Albania’s parliament, already has been criticized by rights organizations and other groups, and it could backfire against Albania as it aspires to EU membership. Italy’s left-wing opposition parties are protesting the deal.
Meanwhile, ordinary Albanians are divided.
Bib Lazri, 66, a resident of the northern Albanian village of Gjader, where one of two accommodation centers is set to be built, said he welcomed the move given the historical ties between the two countries.
“All my kids are abroad. They (the Italians) have welcomed us for 30 years now,” Lazri said. “It is up to us to say a good word, to keep them and show our open heart.”
In 1991, around 20,000 Albanians came on one dangerously overcrowded ship that reached the southeastern Italian region of Puglia. It was less than a year since political pluralism was announced in Albania, which for decades under communism had been closed to much of the world, and only months after the first democratic election.
Poverty was widespread and basic goods, including bread, were in short supply. Albanians saw Italy as their “Western window.” Many of the Albanians settled in Italy, obtained work and raised families.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama announced the five-year deal on Monday in Rome standing beside Italian counterpart Giorgia Meloni. Rama expressed gratitude on behalf of Albanians who found refuge in Italy, and “escaped hell and imagined a better life.”
But for many other Albanians, confusion and even anger is the main feeling for the surprise announcement.
Albania will offer two facilities, starting with the port of Shengjin, a main tourist spot about 75 kilometers (46 miles) south of the capital Tirana that has attracted almost 1 million tourists this year in the surrounding area.
Many fear that the accommodation center will have a negative impact on the country. Albania has become a major tourism magnet this year, bringing more than 9 million tourists to its pristine coastline so far.
“A refugee camp at the port is not compatible with the government’s idea of a European elite tourism,” said Arilda Lleshi, a 27-year-old human rights activist, speaking from Tirana.
Many people were upset by the fact that “such an agreement with wide social impact was done without a wide social consultation,” Lleshi said. “It seems our prime minister continuously takes over to resolve the world’s issues to get some credit internationally, without consulting with people beforehand.”
Those who will be deported will be sent to Gjader, 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of the Shengjin port, at a former military airport.
Italy has committed to pay for the construction of two centers that can hold up to 3,000 migrants at a time.
Albania would also provide external security for the two centers, which would be under Italian jurisdiction. While the memorandum offers Albania broad security and financial reassurances, it fails to describe what migration procedures would be followed inside, experts noted.
“It was not written by a migration expert,’’ said Hanne Bierens of the Migration Policy Institute Europe. “We have a lot of questions about how it would work.”’’
Migrants will be brought to Albania on Italian ships, and Italy agrees to remove any whose applications for international protection have been rejected, under the memorandum.
However, it does not outline how they will be repatriated, which is often a long and difficult process. Nor does it say where migrants will be screened for transfer to Albania, whether at sea or on Italian soil.
The head of the port where the migrants will be processed, Sander Marashi, supports the government’s agreement, saying that the facility won’t be problematic for the port’s normal operations.
“Such an agreement shows that … Albanians’ hospitality is not only words but deeds too,” Marashi said.
But some Albanians were surprised and not clear about what the agreement meant.
Albania has a recent history of welcoming refugees fleeing conflict and poverty, temporarily hosting around 4,000 Afghans in 2020. A small number of Afghans are still in Albania waiting to move to the United States or to other Western countries.
Rama also mentioned how Albanians welcomed ethnic Kosovo Albanians to escape massacres by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in 1999. Albania also sheltered Jews and hid them from the Nazis during World War II.
Requests by The Associated Press to interview government officials at the central and local level about the new deal with Italy were declined.
The agreement must be approved in parliament before it takes effect. Albania’s political opposition has asked the prime minister to report to parliament before it is voted on. A vote hasn’t been scheduled yet.
Rama’s governing Socialists have 74 seats in the 140-seat parliament, so in theory, the government shouldn’t have any issues in passing it. But the deal has created such consternation among some sectors of the population that passing it could become problematic.
Albert Rakipi of the Albanian Institute for International Studies considered the deal as “ridiculous,” “deceitful and unsustainable,” and “unreasonable.”
“None of the thousands of people risking their lives to reach Europe dream of a future in which they are placed in camps in a small and poor country just outside” the borders of European Union countries, Rakipi said.
Associated Press writer Colleen Barry in Milan, Italy, contributed to this report.
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