Days before last month’s EU decision on the future of Albania’s and Macedonia’s path toward union membership, news broke that Albania could become a ‘regional disembarkation platform’ for processing asylum seekers outside the EU. In return for taking a large number of asylum-seekers, news articles stated that Albania’s accession process was likely to be accelerated.
In the days before the decision to open formal accession negotiations with Tirana and Skopje was ratified, an Austrian government spokesman, Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal, told DW that talks on Albania hosting would-be EU asylum seekers were already underway with Albania and other countries.
The EU Council, however, has denied that specific plans for Albania — or any other named country — to host such camps either existed or were being discussed, while Tirana has repeatedly denied that a conversation has taken place.
“Building camps for immigrants is neither a matter under discussion nor under negotiation,” was the official response of Albania’s Ministry of Internal Affairs. “Nobody has requested it until now and nobody has offered anything similar.”
But with EU borders increasingly closing, and with the bloc’s leaders agreeing at their migration-focused Brussels summit on June 28 to “swiftly explore the concept of regional disembarkation platforms” — in close cooperation with relevant third countries as well as the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) — the possibility that these ‘platforms’ could be established in the region is growing.
Another external agreement?
The detail behind the concept is not yet clear. The conclusions from the recent Brussels summit state that, “in order to definitively break the business model of the smugglers, thus preventing tragic loss of life, it is necessary to eliminate the incentive to embark on perilous journeys.”
They add that cooperation with, and support for, partners in the Western Balkans region “remain key to exchange information on migratory flows, prevent illegal migration, increase the capacities for border protection and improve return and readmission procedures,” concluding that they are determined to “prevent a return to the uncontrolled flows of 2015 and to further stem illegal migration on all existing and emerging routes.”
When it comes to migration in the Balkans, to date the EU has been helping Serbia, where a large number of asylum seekers were concentrated for a period. But, since the beginning of this year, the migration route has changed and more and more people have been coming through Greece, then Albania and Montenegro, before heading toward Bosnia and Herzegovina, and further on to Croatia, the first EU member state along this part of the route.
According to IOM data, since the beginning of 2018, over 57,000 people have arrived in Europe. At the same time, the so-called Balkan route has once again become busy, with May seeing 7,900 people arriving in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Albania in May, attempting to continue toward the EU. Although the overall number of migrants entering Europe is down compared to the same period in the past two years, a combination of factors — not least domestic politics — has prompted the governments of some member states to increase border controls.
Germany recently announced the establishment of ‘anchor centers’ at the border with Austria in an attempt to prevent people from entering into Germany from other EU countries, while similar measures have also been announced by Austria, with Chancellor Sebastian Kurz saying that “the Austrian government is ready to take action, especially to protect our southern border.”
While these measures — and those such as Hungary’s decision to erect a 4-meter border fence — are being taken by individual member states, the still vague idea of ‘regional disembarkation platforms,’ is the latest attempt by the bloc as a whole to tighten its borders.
Previous measures, such as a deal signed with Turkey in March 2016, have been met with outspoken criticism.
Having long strived to become an EU member, Turkey agreed to take back people who arrived in Europe after March 20 that year if their asylum applications were rejected. In return, the EU promised 6 billion euros in financial aid to finance projects for Syrian refugees and to speed up negotiations on Turkey’s membership of the union. Currently, Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees worldwide, with an estimated 3.9 million people, most of them coming from Syria.
A similar deal was made in February 2017 between the EU and Libya, under which the bloc agreed to give 200 million euros to the Libyan government to step up efforts to stop migrant boats attempting to cross the Mediterranean. The agreement also involved providing support for setting up refugee camps and boosting training and equipment to the Libyan coastguard.
The arrangement was called inhuman by the UN Human Rights chief, as the facilities hosted “thousands of emaciated and traumatized men, women and children piled on top of each other, locked up in hangars with no access to the most basic necessities, and stripped of their human dignity.”
Both agreements are highly criticised by different human rights groups, which claim that the deals were used by the governments to close the migration routes. In a published statement, Human Rights Watch said that the EU-Turkey deal has set a dangerous precedent “by putting at risk the very principle of the right to seek refuge.”
If any future deal to temporarily host would-be EU asylum seekers in Albania were to be negotiated, it would also likely be controversial, not least because — just like with other countries throughout the Western Balkans — the EU itself has acknowledged ongoing issues in Albania with the rule of law.
Frontex data places Albanian citizens as second worst offenders when it comes to facilitating others to illegally cross borders into the EU, while in recent years Albania’s police have reported many cases of Albanians being arrested for trafficking clandestine people through its borders.
Former general director of Albania’s Border and Migration Department, Pëllumb Nako, recently noted in an interview that wilfully increasing the numbers of migrants in Albania would be a risk. “If the refugees were to come, they’d be able to move freely,” he said, adding that the criminal offer in Albania for trafficking is well known and that it could pose a threat to the country and to the EU. “That’s why I see it as highly unlikely that a camp will be set up here at the request of the EU.”
An unpopular idea
After the first media speculation about Albania as a country where future centers will be established, Prime Minister Edi Rama said that his government will never accept the idea of hosting EU refugee camps.
“No country is able to manage the current refugee crisis on its own. Turning Albania into Europe’s wave-breaker for Europe’s refugees would be a dangerous solution,” Rama told German tabloid BILD.
The idea was also met with strong reaction from the public on social media, with opinion seemingly overwhelmingly against the idea. Many fear that the country is not able to absorb thousands of refugees, either culturally or economically.
“It’s practically impossible to integrate a thousand people into society when they are living isolated in groups,” 23-year-old journalist Genta Dobra told K2.0.
“I think it would take years to learn our language and blend in both culturally and with the workforce. If it works for other larger countries it’s because there are already established groups of a foreign nationality that help newcomers transition better into the new society. In Albania they would have to begin from scratch. I don’t think we have the resources needed to wait that long.”
Altin Hoxha, an expert on the Middle East and Islamic community relations in Albania, believes that hosting refugees largely from Middle Eastern countries could mean “importing their internal conflicts.”
“The civil war [in Syria] has made enemies of many Syrians during this seven year long armed conflict,” Hoxha told K2.0. “There are not just families struggling to survive inside the country who are fleeing now. Everybody is on the run. The conflict is also complicated by different divisions of secular and religious fighters, and by different ethnic groups.”
He believes that the risk of creating instability in Albania if it were to accept large numbers of migrants would be high. “If they come here, they’ll bring a part of the conflict with them,” he suggested.
Others have different reasons for being sceptical of any future proposal to house migrants and refugees in Albania, pointing to Albania’s issue with re-integrating its own citizens, some of whom have also taken to the Balkan route, trying to reach the EU.
One of them is Naldi Hyseni, who left Albania and lived for two months in a camp in Germany as an asylum seeker. “I’ve experienced the miserable conditions of refugee camps in countries far more advanced than Albania,” Hyseni told K2.0.
“We’ve seen the images coming from overcrowded camps in Greece and Italy. I believe in Albania they would live even worse. If there’s something we should be doing to help the refugees, it’s to help our own refugees abroad come back home by giving them a chance to get a job and an education.”
But not all Albanian citizens would be against the prospect of potentially hosting people trying to reach the EU. Majlinda Qato, 34 from Durrës, told K2.0 that Albania should be more open to asylum seekers and that the country has plenty to offer.
“Even if they [refugees] do come, what’s the problem? Tirana has grown to 1 million people, while the rural areas have been emptied,” she said. “Let them go to the villages and escape death. Let them grab hold of life. Claims that ‘our country will be destroyed’ are just nonsense.”
Feature image: Nidzara Ahmetasevic / K2.0 (photo taken in Bosnia and Herzegovina).