Perspectives | Migration

Italy should not outsource migration management to Albania

By - 22.12.2023

The Rama-Meloni deal is part of a worrying trend of border externalization. 

The number of forcibly displaced people around the world reached a record of 108.4 million at the end of 2022, a result of climate breakdown, new and protracted conflicts and other forms of political violence. This overall increase, combined with fortification and surveillance of European Union borders, has led to more interceptions of attempted irregular entries on the bloc’s Mediterranean borders. 

The EU has intensified its efforts toward controlling migration flows in reaction to a perceived crisis of irregular migration. Some EU members are attempting to offshore migration management to non-EU states through bilateral agreements. The deal signed on Nov. 6 by Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni means that Albania may join the list of EU neighbors subjected to and complicit in EU border externalization. 

On Dec. 13, Albania’s Constitutional Court accepted the parliamentary opposition’s request to review the Rama-Meloni deal, temporarily suspending its ratification. A public hearing is scheduled to take place on Jan. 18, 2024, to assess whether the deal is compatible with Albania’s constitution

The agreement would allow Italy to construct two detention centers in Albania, one in Shëngjin and one in Gjadër. The centers will accommodate migrants brought on board Italian ships in non-EU waters. Migrants who reach Italy or who are rescued by humanitarian groups will not be detained in Albania. The centers are expected to host migrants by spring 2024

One of the centers will process migrants brought to Albania by Italian authorities. Once basic identification procedures are completed, most migrants will apply for asylum and move to the second camp, which will accommodate asylum-seekers waiting for their claims to be processed. What will happen to detained individuals who do not qualify for asylum remains unclear. Italian personnel will be in charge of processing applications and Albanian authorities will be responsible for external security and surveillance. This agreement marks the first time an EU member will conduct asylum procedures in an EU candidate country. 

This agreement marks the first time an EU member will conduct asylum procedures in an EU candidate country.

The agreement was slammed by several international human rights groups shortly after its announcement. According to Amnesty International, the agreement breaches the principle of non-refoulement, a core tenet of EU asylum law. Refoulement means forcibly sending anyone to a country where they are at risk of serious human rights violations. Given that EU asylum law cannot be applied outside the EU, transferring asylum-seekers to a third country is unworkable, illegal and undermines international and EU law. Moreover, the parliamentary opposition in Albania has questioned whether the deal is compatible with the Albanian constitution. 

Under international law obligations on non-refoulement, individuals picked up at sea by Italian authorities are under Italian jurisdiction and cannot be forcibly transferred to another country before their asylum claims are resolved. Even though Meloni pledged that detainees would remain under Italian jurisdiction if transferred to Albania, immigration experts have raised concerns about the possibility of the deal circumventing national, international, and EU law, given that extraterritorial application of EU law is not possible. But most importantly, is Albania ready to host migrants and asylum seekers? 

Migrants, asylum-seekers, refugees, people on the move

The terms “refugee,” “asylum-seeker,” and “migrant” are sometimes used interchangeably, but should not be, as they all have different meanings.

- A refugee is a person who has fled their country due to war, violence, or persecution, as defined by the U.N.’s 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol. The definition has been broadened in specific regional contexts in Africa (1969 OAU Convention) and Latin America (1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees).
- An asylum-seeker is a person who has left their country and seeks international protection, but who has not yet been legally recognized as a refugee and is waiting to receive a decision on their asylum claim.
- There is no internationally accepted legal definition of a migrant. The term refers to individuals outside their country of origin who are not asylum-seekers or refugees.
- People on the move is an all-encompassing term meant to cut through limiting legal definitions and emphasize the basic need to protect the rights of people in transit, whichever legal category they might fall into.

Albanian authorities and border violence 

Sending asylum-seekers to Albania, a state with endemic corruption in its justice system, weak law enforcement and well-grounded trafficking gangs, raises questions about prospects for compliance with security safeguards. According to the United States Department of State’s “2022 Trafficking in Persons Report: Albania,” Albania “fails to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.” Vulnerable populations — such as people on the move — passing through Albania remain disproportionately exposed to trafficking, exploitation and forced labor. 

The Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), a group of Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs) that monitor human rights violations at EU external borders, has recorded numerous instances of Albanian and Frontex (The European Border and Coast Guard Agency) personnel using violence against people on the move irregularly crossing into Albania. In May 2020, a group of eight individuals from Algeria, Egypt, and Morocco was threatened with guns by local authorities and pushed back to Greece. One of the respondents from the group recalled that one of the officers warned: “Next time if you run, we can shoot on [sic] you; if we said ‘stop,’ you stop [sic].” 

Other accounts of abuse and mistreatment reveal Albanian Border and Migration Police’s violent practices, which include beating people with metal batons and confiscating personal belongings. According to testimonials recorded in 2021, one Algerian man was caught during an Albanian police raid in a hotel in Durrës, an informal lodging site known among people on the move transiting through Albania as a cheap place for accommodation. “When they were beating, they said: ‘We are the Albanian police, it’s good, yeah?,’ and beat him, ‘you think the Albanian police is good, yeah!?’ and beat,” he recalled. After the raid, he and about 40 others were transferred to the police station. Some were released only after harming themselves. 

In another recorded mistreatment, a 19-year-old on crutches due to his broken leg was pushed back by Albanian border authorities despite his disability. Various testimonies gathered by BVMN reference the deaths of three Moroccan men who attempted to cross the Albanian mountains around February 2021. Albanian authorities have still not made any public statements about these deaths. 

This pervasive state violence illustrates Albanian structures’ weakness in handling people on the move without depriving them of their fundamental human rights. Therefore, outsourcing infrastructures of migration control to a country with a poor record of law enforcement like Albania puts asylum-seekers’ lives in jeopardy. 

Immigration diplomacy and offshoring immigration detention 

Migration management has become central to western Balkan countries’ EU accession talks. In his recent book “White Enclosures: Racial Capitalism and Coloniality Along the Balkan Route,” scholar Piro Rexhepi critically examines the growing enterprise of EU border security and the trend of constructing migrant carceral camps across the Balkan route. “Recent ‘rapid border intervention’ agreements with countries aspiring to become EU member states have sought to negotiate their freedom of movement within the EU at the expense of policing the movement of migrants along the Balkan route,” argues Rexhepi. 

Under Frontex scrutiny, Albania is expected to strengthen border management and actively combat irregular border crossings. In 2019, Albania became the first non-EU country to host a joint Frontex operation on its borders.

There is a worrying global trend of offshoring immigration detention. Western countries increasingly resort to border externalization to prevent people on the move from reaching their legal jurisdictions. Transferring and detaining asylum-seekers through safe-third country agreements is a concerning practice that risks trapping individuals placed in detention camps in limbo, without permanent legal status and unable to return home. 

Increasingly, Western countries resort to border externalization to prevent people on the move from reaching their legal jurisdictions.

Individuals fleeing war or dire economic environments while embarking on dangerous journeys to reach Europe should not be treated as matters of administrative regulation. Nor should politicians like Rama accept the role of EU border guard and weaponize asylum-seekers to score in front of the international community, even if the deal is ultimately deemed constitutional by Albania’s Constitutional Court and ratified in parliament. The airlines, immigration detention centers and other private companies part of the border security industry should stop treating people on the move as tradable commodities for their own profiteering. As a signatory state to the U.N. Refugee Convention, Italy must respect non-refoulement and protect those seeking to reach its shores.

Feature Image: K2.0.

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