A year after taking office, Giorgia Meloni dared to break a long-standing taboo in the European Union’s migration policy.
Last week, the Italian Prime Minister left Brussels perplexed when she announced a new protocol with his Albanian counterpart, Edi Rama, to outsource the processing of up to 36,000 asylum applications per year to this Balkan country.
The procedure will apply to migrants rescued at sea by Italian authorities and then disembarked in the Albanian coastal town of Shëngjin, where two centers will be built at Rome’s expense and managed exclusively by Italian officials.
Migrants housed in the hubs will not be allowed to leave the premises while awaiting the examination of their file, which should not last more than 28 days. According to Meloni, pregnant women, children and vulnerable people will be excluded.
The launch date has been set for spring 2024, although the protocol still needs to be translated into appropriate legal acts and submitted for ratification to the Albanian parliament.
“I consider this to be an agreement of European scope,” declared Meloni, alongside Prime Minister Rama. The two leaders smiled broadly as they shook hands.
Meloni’s enthusiasm is, however, still being digested in Brussels.
A week after the announcement, the European Commission, which as the bloc’s executive branch is responsible for overseeing the implementation of EU legislation, has yet to issue an assessment or opinion.
Instead, the Commission expressed generically worded warnings on the need to comply with European and international law.
For all intents and purposes, the Italy-Albania agreement is revolutionary, in that no member state has ever concluded an agreement with a third country to outsource part of its asylum responsibilities. But its existence should not be interpreted in isolation.
In fact, Meloni’s initiative, although bold in nature, is part of the latest approach adopted by the EU to strengthen its common migration policy: the so-called “external dimension”.
This term refers to partnerships with other countries intended to prevent the irregular arrival of asylum seekers, crack down on human trafficking, and speed up the expulsion of rejected asylum seekers. Strengthening the “external dimension”, it is estimated, will facilitate the management of the “internal dimension” of migration, namely the reception, accommodation and relocation of people entitled to international protection.
This approach has been propelled to the top of the political agenda due to the post-pandemic increase in asylum applications across the bloc, which reached 519,000 in the first half of this year and could exceed 1 million by December.
“The external aspects of migration are essential for the successful implementation of our policy,” Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said in a letter to EU leaders last month.
Von der Leyen’s letter contained a detailed list of 15 “action points” (some still in progress) to strengthen the “external dimension”, such as enhanced search and rescue cooperation with Maghreb countries, a pilot project to accelerate the registration of applicants and mutual recognition of return decisions (expulsions).
So far, the most tangible result of this strategy has been a memorandum of understanding with Tunisia, a country which for several years has been the main departure point for migrants arriving on Italian shores. But the memorandum, signed with great fanfare in mid-July, in Meloni’s presence, has been plagued by setbacks, controversies and even an extraordinary reimbursement of 60 million euros.
Egypt is now being touted as the next candidate for a tailor-made deal, even though the country is frequently critical for human rights violations committed under the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sis.
Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Senegal and Mauritania are also mentioned in von der Leyen’s letters as countries with which the EU should work more closely. But none of them are envisioned as an outpost of expanded sovereignty to process asylum requests, an idea that remains deeply controversial in Europe, as evidenced by the negative reaction to the plan between the Kingdom -United Kingdom and Rwanda.
Under the UK plan, migrants who enter the UK irregularly will be flown to Rwanda and remain there while their applications are processed. If successful, applicants will be granted permanent residency in Rwanda and prohibited from returning to the UK.
The initiative proved divisive from the start and has been locked in a legal battle since June 2022, when the European Court of Human Rights intervened at the last minute to prevent the first flight to Rwanda from taking off.
Denmark, a socialist-led EU country with a zero-refugee strategy, took steps to replicate the deal with the African country but suspended the plan earlier this year. More recently, Austria, another hard line, expressed his will to establish a “Rwandan-style” system. And the ruling coalition in Germany, after adopting a series of stricter migration measuressaid it would at least look into the possibility of subcontracting.
It is too early to say whether these draft ideas could emulate the Italy-Albania agreement. Nonetheless, Meloni’s determination to prove the theory may be In fact put into practice will find an echo throughout the bloc.
“I think that (the agreement) could become a model of cooperation between EU countries and third countries in the management of migratory flows,” the Prime Minister said in an interview with Il Messaggero.
Test the law
Yet Meloni’s project is plagued by questions of legality and practicality.
Chief among them is the apparently extraterritorial application of European law that Rome intends to pursue in the centers that will be built on Albanian soil. As part of the agreement, Tirana effectively cedes its sovereignty and agrees that the two poles will be governed “in accordance with relevant Italian and European regulations”, rather than national law.
“Disputes that may arise between the above-mentioned authorities and the migrants hosted in the above-mentioned premises are subject exclusively to Italian jurisdiction,” specifies the text, leaked to the Italian media.
Albania will provide security and surveillance services in the “perimeter” around the centers but will not be allowed entry. Only in cases of emergency, such as a fire, or when an asylum seeker escapes, do Albanian law enforcement intervene inside the premises.
This particular distribution of responsibilities appears to be in conflict with the principles of the bloc Directive on Asylum Procedureswhich applies to “all requests for international protection made on the territory, including at the border, in territorial waters or in transit zones” of member states – apparently excluding requests made in neighboring countries.
The European Commission has not yet clarified how the Italy-Albania protocol will work under the current framework – or future – legal framework. Meloni’s office, Palazzo Chigi, did not immediately respond to emailed questions.
But humanitarian NGOs have expressed their opposition.
Describing the protocol as “illegal and impractical”, Amnesty International said this would have “devastating consequences for asylum seekers, who could be subject to prolonged detention and other violations, outside the control of Italian judicial authorities.”
In a preliminary assessmentThe European Council for Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) said the agreement appeared to envisage “automatic recourse to detention”, as asylum seekers will not be allowed to leave centers during examination of their requests, and warned that the cessation of jurisdiction was “not sufficient” to allow the application of EU law outside the territory of a member state.
“There are multiple ways in which the protocol is likely to violate EU law, but it is not as immediately and blatantly illegal as the proposal touted by Austria,” the organization said.
Alberto Horst Neidhardt, a senior policy analyst at the European Policy Center who studies migration policy, said extraterritorial processing of asylum applications was “certainly not a new idea” but had in the past been hampered by “legal” and “political” issues. moral and practical concerns.
According to him, the main objective of the agreement with Albania – namely to alleviate the overwhelmed Italian asylum system – will ultimately be undermined by Italy’s international obligations: Rome will have to take responsibility for the applicants, whether they win their case – through their relocation – or they fail – through deportation.
“For me, it is above all a political coup. It is an agreement sought by a government which was elected under the assumption that he would limit irregular arrivals and instead he has seen the number of people arriving irregularly double since he took office,” Horst Neidhardt told Euronews in an interview.
“This type of agreement will probably be considered and encouraged again in the future. But I wonder if they will be implemented because of these problems. But I also wonder about their practical effects and whether they will benefit to the countries that offer them.”