Albania's deal with Italy on migrants has been welcomed by many. But others are confused and angry

Some in the Western Balkans country saw it as reciprocation 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

Llazar Semini
Thursday 09 November 2023 15:59 GMT

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 agreed to temporarily shelter thousands of migrants while Rome reviews their requests seeking asylum in Italy. Albania will reportedly take care of deporting them if their refugee status is denied by the Italians.

While the deal has already been criticized by rights organizations and other groups, ordinary Albanians were divided about the agreement.

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.

Italian authorities will handle the disembarkation and identification procedures of migrants rescued from the Mediterranean Sea by the Italian coast guard. One of the centers where the processing will take place is 5,000 square meters (6,000 square yards) and surrounded by a fence with razor wire at the Albanian port of Shengjin.

The location is around 75 kilometers (46 miles) northwest of Tirana, the Albanian capital.

Albania will offer two facilities, starting with the port of Shengjin, a main tourist spot 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 revolted 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 will pay for the construction of two centers that can hold up to 3,000 migrants at a time. Up to 36,000 migrants could be sent for processing on Albanian territory annually.

Albania would also provide external security for the two centers, which would be under Italian jurisdiction.

Under the deal, if Italy rejects the asylum bids, Albania would then deport the migrants. Children and pregnant women will be excluded from the plan. The accord as outlined so far also fails to address how Albania would manage to deport migrants back to their countries of origin when Italy has difficulty doing so itself.

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.


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