SHENGJIN, Albania — When the leaders of Albania And Italy announced a controversial deal earlier this week to jointly process some asylum applications from migrants arriving by sea, some in the Western Balkan country saw it as reciprocity.
Monday, Albania said it agreed to shelter thousands of migrants while Rome accelerated their asylum applications by Italy, up to 36,000 per year. A memorandum between the countries says Italy would agree to expel migrants whose applications are rejected. The European Commission has requested more details.
The agreement, which must be approved by Albaniathe country’s parliament, has already been criticized by rights organizations and other groups, and this could backfire. Albania as he aspires to EU membership. ItalyLeft-wing opposition parties are protesting the deal.
Meanwhile, ordinary Albanians are divided.
Bib Lazri, 66, a resident of the village of Gjader in northern Albania, where one of the two accommodation centers is to be built, said he welcomed the decision given the historical links between the two country.
“All my children are abroad. They (Italians) have been welcoming us for 30 years now,” Lazri said. “It’s up to us to say a good word, keep it and show our open hearts.”
In 1991, around 20,000 Albanians arrived aboard a dangerously overcrowded ship that reached the Puglia region in southeastern Italy. It has been less than a year since political pluralism was announced in Albaniawhich for decades under communism was closed to much of the world, and only months after the first democratic elections.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama announced the five-year agreement in Rome on Monday alongside his Italian counterpart Giorgia Meloni. Rama expressed his gratitude on behalf of the Albanians who found refuge in Italyand “escaped hell and imagined a better life.”
But for many other Albanians, confusion, even anger, is the main feeling sparked by this surprise announcement.
Albania will offer two facilities, starting with Shengjin Port, a main tourist site about 75 kilometers (46 miles) south of the capital Tirana, which has attracted almost a million tourists this year to the surrounding area.
Many fear that the shelter will have a negative impact on the country. Albania has become a major tourist attraction this year, attracting more than 9 million tourists to its pristine coastline so far.
“A refugee camp in the port is not compatible with the government’s idea of elite European tourism,” said Arilda Lleshi, a 27-year-old human rights activist, speaking from Tirana.
Many people were upset that “such an agreement, with considerable social impact, was reached without broad social consultation,” Lleshi said. “It seems our prime minister is continually taking over to solve global problems in order to gain some international credit, without consulting people first.”
Those who are deported will be sent to Gjader, 20 kilometers north of the port of Shengjin, to a former military airport.
Italy has committed to funding the construction of two centers that can accommodate up to 3,000 migrants at a time.
Albania would also ensure the external security of the two centers, which would be under Italian jurisdiction. While the memorandum proposes Albania broad security and financial assurances, it does not describe the migration procedures that would be followed inside, experts noted.
“It was not written by a migration expert,” said Hanne Bierens of the Migration Policy Institute Europe. “We have a lot of questions about how this would work.”
However, it does not specify how they will be repatriated, which is often a long and difficult process. It also does not specify where migrants will be checked before being transferred to Albaniawhether at sea or on Italian soil.
The head of the port where the migrants will be processed, Sander Marashi, supports the government’s agreement, saying the facility will not pose a problem for the normal operation of the port.
“Such an agreement shows that… Albanian hospitality is not only in words but also in deeds,” Marashi said.
But some Albanians were surprised and did not quite understand what this 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 remain in Albania while waiting to move to the United States or other Western countries.
Rama also mentioned how Albanians welcomed Kosovo Albanians to escape the massacres carried out by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in 1999. Albania also sheltered Jews and hid them from the Nazis during World War II.
Associated Press requests to interview government officials at the central and local levels about the new deal with Italy were refused.
The agreement must be approved by Parliament before entering into force. AlbaniaThe political opposition asked the Prime Minister to report to Parliament before the bill is voted on. A vote has not yet been scheduled.
Rama’s ruling socialists have 74 seats in the Parliament of 140 seats, so in theory the government should have no problem adopting it. But the agreement has caused such consternation among some sectors of the population that its adoption could become problematic.
Albert Rakipi of the Albanian Institute of International Studies called the deal “ridiculous,” “misleading and unsustainable” and “unreasonable.”
“None of the thousands of people who risk their lives to reach Europe dream of a future in which they are placed in camps in a small, poor country just outside” Europe’s borders. European Union country, Rakipi said.
Colleen Barry, Associated Press writer in Milan, Italycontributed to this report.
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