Gresa Hasa

The Italo-Albanian Migration Deal

In November 2023, Italy and Albania signed a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’, also known as ‘The Protocol on the Management of Migration’. This bilateral agreement foresees the construction of the so-called ‘processing centers for migrants’ by the Republic of Italy in the territory of the Republic of Albania. To build the centers, the deal provides Italy with extraterritorial jurisdiction over parts of the territory of Albania for a period of five years with the possibility for extension. It’s worth mentioning that the last time Italy had jurisdiction over the Albanian territory was during the Italian colonization of Albania under the fascist government of Benito Mussolini.

Prime Minister of Albania Edi Rama has framed the deal not only as a success story of the historical relationship that exists between Italy and Albania, but also as a gesture of gratitude through which Albania is returning a ‘favor’ to Italy for hosting Albanian migrants during the 1990s crises in the region. On another note, leaders of both countries have highlighted the acceleration of Albania’s EU integration process with Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni leveraging the migration deal in this perspective. What’s more, Meloni has suggested that this agreement could, in the future, “be a blueprint for deals between the European Union and non-member countries”, somewhat a replica of Great Britain’s Rwanda model.

However, the deal has been strongly criticized at the international level. First of all, the preliminary assessments of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) pointed out the lack of clarity of the agreement, as well as its illegal nature by disclosing that what is foreseen as “staying of migrants” in the centers “could be interpreted as detention”. Furthermore, the agreement fails to provide other significant details. These would include the processing times and other technical aspects that involve the methods of how individuals who could be subject to detention and offshore processing could be identified or selected; as well as whether individuals will be moved directly from the Italian territory or waters to the Albanian ones (which would be in breach of the 1951 Geneva Convention) or the movement will take place firstly from international waters etc. Also, there is no provision on how the so-called ‘processing centers’ are supposed to function internally, including the provision on legal and medical assistance, as well as processing times etc. More transparency on how the deal is legally foreseen to be executed, could prepare domestic and international organizations with the right amount of information to accurately determine both the legal and political implications of the initiative.

Furthermore, Amnesty International has described the deal as “unworkable, harmful and unlawful” and has alleged that it is “[…] part of a broader international trend to move border control and asylum processing to third countries: a move that threatens the human rights of migrants and refugees and could lead to greater suffering”. Also, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) has warned of the agreement being “costly, cruel and counterproductive” and has “[called] on the EU and its member states to uphold the legal right to asylum, scale up safe routes, and guarantee that any migration partnerships with non-EU countries [be] conditional on upholding fundamental rights”. Moreover, Human Rights Watch has criticized the Italian government for trying to “offshore its responsibilities” and according to the organization, this move is just a “[guarantee] to violate people’s rights”.

In  addition, the deal has been criticized for having been signed without prior consultation in the parliaments of Albania and Italy, and for Italy’s failure to inform the EU beforehand. Besides, Albania’s semi-authoritarian regime, the lack of a functional rule of law in the country, as well as the structural corruption, and lack of freedom of speech and media freedom have been brought to attention regarding the migration deal. Despite several protests having taken place outside the Constitutional Court of Albania in Tirana, where members of civil society organizations have underscored the agreement’s alleged unconstitutionality and demanded the government withdraw from it, the court nevertheless ruled it constitutional.

On another note, there are those in  the country that perceive the agreement as “invasive” and in violation of Albania’s sovereignty. Moreover, the agreement has been criticized for  perpetuating Italy’s “former colonialist tendencies towards Albania”. Also, given Albania’s own legacy of migration, and the structural racism and discrimination that many Albanians have themselves faced within the Italian migration system, including the violent push-backs in the 1990s which more than often resulted in civilian deaths in the Adriatic—deaths which continue to remain unresolved, like the infamous Otranto tragedy—it is unsurprising that many Albanian citizens might not perceive any sense of indebtedness towards Italy. On top of everything else, hosting and standing in solidarity with refugees, offering a helping hand to people in need should not be considered either a sacrifice or a debt to be repaid for empathy constitutes a fundamental human obligation.

Nonetheless, Meloni’s idea, no matter how controversial, seems to have taken off in Brussels with EU migration Commissioner Ylva Johansson already having considered the deal as “[not being] in violation of EU law” since, according to the Commissioner, it “[falls] outside of EU law”. However, in a statement published by the European Parliament on 26 January 2024, Commissioner Johansson pledged that “[t]he Commission will remain in contact with the Italian authorities as regards such measures with a view to monitoring their compliance with the requirements of EU law”. Whether the Italo-Albanian agreement complies with EU law or falls outside of EU law, remains unclear, apparently for the Office of the Directorate-General for Migration and Home Affairs itself.

Moreover, the agreement seems to be positively received also by other EU top officials, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. In the meantime, some European leaders like Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz, have claimed that more similar deals might be considered to be signed in the future between EU member states and developing countries like Albania.

However, the Italo-Albanian migration deal does not constitute a novelty. The EU has already allowed for this method to take off before. In 2023, EU President Ursula von der Leyen praised the migration deal signed by the European Union and the Republic of Tunisia. Border management has been externalized also in the deal between Libya and Italy, deemed “abusive” by international non-governmental organizations.

Nevertheless, despite the human rights abuses, the questions regarding the legality of these agreements, and the structured xenophobia, racism and discrimination, refugees and asylum seekers are still predominantly seen through the lens of incarceration, portrayed as criminals, and subjected to inhumane treatment.

Through the accumulated knowledge from existing detention centers elsewhere in the world, valuable insights can be drawn so that the construction of similar schemes like the one in the Republic of Albania, is prohibited before more lives are destroyed or lost. The Australian offshore model, which represents one of the oldest modern migration detention systems in the world, having been built in 1992, might offer crucial information, as well as a solid standpoint which can challenge the Italo-Albanian recent initiative in the Mediterranean and Balkan region with more empathetic, sustainable, safe and legal alternatives.

Lessons from the Australian Model

 According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, “[s]ince 1992, Australia’s migration law has made it mandatory for any person [including children] in Australia without a valid visa to be detained until they are issued with a visa or removed from Australia”. Nonetheless, despite several existing detention centers within Australia, in 2001, the Australian government under the leadership of former Prime Minister John Howard introduced the so-called ‘Pacific Solution’. As a result, the Australian government managed to externalize its border processing by relocating immigrants to the Manus and Nauru islands in Papua New Guinea. Since the establishment of these extraterritorial detention centers (2001-2007; post-2007), major concerns have been raised regarding human rights violations.

First of all, the time limit for the individuals held in the offshore detention centers is not foreseen by the Australian migration law. Thus, a person could be detained for an indefinite period of time. According to the Refugee Council of Australia, as per 31 March 2023, “the longest time a person [has been] held in detention […] was 5,766 days – nearly 16 years”. Moreover, “[e]fforts to resettle them in third countries have been appallingly slow and difficult, with most countries rejecting Australia’s efforts to abuse human rights and keep out refugees”. Secondly, it is argued that “[d]umping people in such remote locations also means denying them proper legal support, medical services and contact with the Australian public”. What’s more, the psychological implications for persons, including infants, suffering under these conditions, have more than often had tragic outcomes. Children exposed to persistent abuse, in dozens of cases have attempted suicide or other forms of self-harm.

On another note, it must be brought to attention that not all people who migrate suffer the same degree of violations, as the intersection of gender, race, sexuality, age etc. determines one’s nature of precariousness. In the case of the Australian detention centers, the treatment of gay asylum seekers for example, has raised another issue because gay men were often “either shunned or sexually abused or assaulted and used by the other men”. This type of precarity also affects other LGBTQ+ individuals, women, children or differently abled people, as more than 2,000 leaked reports from these offshore detention centers revealed in 2016.

Besides, the dire hygienic conditions in these facilities have often led to the outbreak of diseases, infections and an unlivable environment. As stated by Amnesty International, the Australian-Pacific deal can be otherwise deemed as “offending to human dignity”.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as well as the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), and a Senate Select Committee, have perpetually criticized Australia’s migration system. However, the Australian government has failed to react to the critique and respective recommendations. As Anna Neistat, senior director for research at Amnesty International, carefully assesses: “Few other countries go to such lengths to deliberately inflict suffering on people seeking safety and freedom”.

The Human Rights Watch, satirizing Australian government’s offshore migration policy as ‘The Pacific Non-Solution’, has repeatedly requested that Australia adheres to international human rights standards, halts sending refugees to Papua New Guinea and “implements a refugee resettlement policy”. In the meantime, despite the offshore processing of migrants in Manus and Nauru islands having finally come to an end in June 2023, the concerns of the Australian migration system persist because “[t]he architecture and policy still remain” for Australia to allegedly (re)functionalize the centers at any time, as has happened before, for example, as was the case in 2012, after a certain period of suspension.

The Australian model of migration detention system should serve as a warning, and the lessons drawn from it must be taken into consideration in the European context when similar policies are currently being justified and pushed forward. Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, as well as her Albanian counterpart’s idea of an akin project in the Mediterranean/Balkans risks creating unnecessary suffering, especially when the agreement leaves outside the scope of law crucial particularities which could provide more clarity on the operationality of the so-called ‘migration processing centers’.

The failure of the Italo-Albanian migration deal to provide precise answers and coherence on what seems to be another similar type of a migration detention centers’ project, reflects the lack of rigor in upholding human rights, including anyone’s right to migrate, be safe and provided with dignified treatment. On the other hand, the thorough knowledge that the Australian model provides, including the mismanagement of these offshore facilities in Papua New Guinea by the Republic of Australia, as presented based also on first-hand testimonies from within these detention centers, raises the alarm in regards to the Italo-Albanian migration deal in the Mediterranean/Balkan peninsula.

A borderless world should not be a utopia

Time and again, projects like the offshore  Australian-Pacific agreement, have failed with long and lasting negative consequences for migrants and asylum seekers, traumatizing and retraumatizing individuals in severe lengths. Nevertheless, as philosopher, political scientist, and public intellectual Achille Mbembe observes, “[w]herever we look, the drive is towards enclosure, or in any case an intensification of the dialects of territorialisation and deterritorialisation, a dialectics of opening and closure.”

Rather than allowing the Italo-Albanian migration deal to be implemented, despite its lack of transparency and absence of crucial legal provisions, the EU and its member states should instead adhere to fundamental human rights principles and ratified international conventions. Therefore, the EU should ensure that human rights and the dignity of all are upheld when migration policies, akin to the Australian model, as exemplified by the Italo-Albanian agreement, are taken into consideration and endorsed, especially considering the dangers, ineffectiveness and illegality associated with such agreements, as it has already been proven in the past.

Furthermore, the EU Commission would garner greater credibility if it would demand more accountability from its member state Italy, currently led by a far-right government, as well as Albania—a designated future member-state-to-be. Moreover, the EU has the possibility to provide safe routes for migrants journeying towards its borders; guarantee incomers with safe shelter, just and decent conditions and treatment, as well as offer professional legal and medical assistance (lawyers, doctors, psychologists etc.), along with well-trained social workers.

There is a possibility towards an open, feminist and borderless world and that possibility lies precisely in the manner we ensure our systems operate, particularly regarding the treatment of refugees. The idea of a borderless world should not be considered an abstraction or utopia. Instead, it can manifest as a collective effort of radical care that can provide us with a peaceful and safe co-existence for refugees are not an abstract entity, as political persuasion or media framing might often make one believe. Refugees, fellow human beings and citizens, are individuals to whom basic human rights and international conventions apply equally. They are us, the majority of us, in less privileged conditions—in threatening precariousness.


Shënim i redaksisë: imazhi është krijuar me Midjourney. Ky tekst është një version i shkurtuar i një punimi akademik të autorës për Universitetin e Gracit, Austri. Versioni shqip do të botohet në vijim. 

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