“Behaving Like a Member-State”: The Italy-Albania Migration Deal

Rome, 06/11/2023 – The President of the Council of Ministers, Giorgia Meloni, and the Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama, signed a Memorandum of Understanding between Italy and Albania on the management of migration flows - Photo credit: Italian Government, Presidency of the Council of Ministers

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has long created an image of herself as being a “champion” of the Italian far-right when it comes to issues of migration. Having campaigned and won, in part, because of her harsh rhetoric on immigration in the 2022 Italian general election, Meloni has since found it difficult to deliver on her campaign promises to “fermare l’immigrazione illegale.”[1] According to government reports, the number of illegal immigrant arrivals has nearly doubled in 2023 to approximately 106,000 from 53,000 in 2022. Additionally, in early September 2023, the Italian island of Lampedusa just off the coast of Tunisia saw the arrival of more than 7,000 migrants, surpassing the island’s own population and overwhelming local authorities. These migrants, who arrived from North Africa on dangerously flimsy boats, have long been a major political target for the Italian far-right, with Deputy Prime Minister (and leader of Meloni’s second-largest coalition partner Lega) Matteo Salvini calling the situation in Lampedusa “the death of Europe.”

The small Mediterranean island quickly drew the attention of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who traveled there with Meloni, and called for a “European answer” to the migration crisis, while Meloni pledged to take “extraordinary measures.” This sharp rise in illegal immigration and spotlight on Lampedusa has put Meloni in a politically challenging place, leading her to pursue what she has called a “European agreement” and an “innovative solution.” (see following sections).

The Italy-Albania Migration Deal

On November 6, 2023, Meloni and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama signed a joint memorandum of understanding to manage the flow of illegal migration to Italy. The deal states that asylum seekers rescued in the Mediterranean by Italian ships are to be offshored to Albania. Italy is to build and manage two detention centers on Albanian soil, holding a total of 36,000 people per year, which would process asylum applications. Additionally, Meloni stated that this deal would not “concern vulnerable people.”

The Italy-Albania deal, coupled with the various EU/Italian-African deals on stopping migration at its source, has become Meloni’s strategy for stemming the flow of (illegal) migrants, and, with the apparent support from von der Leyen, a potential model for EU migration policy at large. While the agreement does state that the detention centers would be under Italian legal jurisdiction, there are still concerns about the risks of violations so far away from the eyes of the Italian and other EU media. Amnesty International released a public statement that identifies several risks posed by this agreement, including risks of prolonged and automatic detention, possible human rights violations, and potential international, EU, and Italian law violations. But what does Albania get from this deal?

Albania, which was granted EU candidate country status in 2014 and began negotiations with the European Commission in 2022, is not an EU member state and is not subject to the same EU laws and regulations that Italy is. Polling indicates that the Albanian public is strongly in favor of joining the EU, and this has been reflected in Albanian foreign and domestic policy. With this deal, Meloni has taken full advantage of Albania’s EU aspirations, stating that by agreeing to this deal Albania is behaving like a “de facto EU Member State.” Additionally, she highlights the “historical friendship” and “deep cooperation” between the two countries, noting that trade between Italy and Albania comprises approximately 20% of Albania’s GDP and that Italy is its largest trading partner. Earlier this year, the Albanian government ratified the deal, with Prime Minister Rama stating that “Albania is standing together with Italy by choosing to act like an EU member state.”

By leveraging Albania’s EU aspirations and telling the Albanian government to “act like an EU member state,” (despite the fact no EU member state would agree to this — imagine, for instance, the possibility of Italy reaching a deal like this with France or Germany), Meloni is demonstrating a power imbalance that calls back to the Italian-Albanian colonial past. It is important to remember that, while short-lived, Albania was an Italian colony from 1939 to 1943. This dynamic reflects a postcolonial narrative that is important to consider when looking at third-party migration or asylum offshoring deals.

What Next?

While the Italy-Albania deal is the first third-party deal for an EU member state, it is not the first to exist. The infamous UK-Rwanda deal is another third-party migration deal that has received a large amount of media attention. Similar to the Albania deal, this deal calls for migrants who enter the UK illegally to be sent to Rwanda and have their asylum claims processed there. The UK-Rwanda deal has been criticized for numerous reasons, including concerns about cost (estimated to be more than £370 million over five years), safety, and human rights and international law violations. The UK Supreme Court even ruled that the deal was unlawful due to safety concerns. The UK government disregarded this ruling by passing legislation declaring Rwanda to be a “safe country.” As with the Italy-Albania deal, echoes of colonialism run through both deals, as Italy and the UK attempt to offshore their own domestic problems to their former colonies instead of abiding by international law and accepting their responsibilities. In addition to reviving these colonial power structures, there is a real risk of egregious human rights violations, as can be seen with Australia’s long-standing policy of offshoring asylum seekers to processing camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. As stated by Human Rights Watch, “Australia’s abusive offshore processing policy has caused immeasurable suffering for thousands of vulnerable asylum seekers,” and “[o]ther countries should learn from these horrors, rather than repeating them.”

With Meloni’s growing influence within the EU and the real risks posed to migrants by her policies, it is important to see these neocolonial, third-party offshoring policies as they really are. The threat of broader EU acceptance of deals like Meloni’s is something that should worry many in the EU and should be a wake-up call for those who value human rights.

[1] To stop illegal immigration

Branson Gillispie

Branson Gillispie is a second year Master of Arts in International Relations (MAIR) student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), with a Bachelor of Arts in International Affairs and Writing Rhetoric and Communications from Transylvania University in Lexington Kentucky. His research interests concern the intersection between conflict resolution, nationalism, identity, migration, and society, across Europe and Eurasia.

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