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194 migrants of different nationalities departed from Tunisia are rescued by the Spanish NGO Open Arms near Lampedusa, Italy, on 3 August 2023. (Photo by Valeria Ferraro/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Italy, Albania Announce Agreement to House Migrants Prior to Processing

Leaders from Italy and Albania announced an agreement yesterday designed to help Italy manage a surge in migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Africa.

As part of the agreement, Italy will build housing and processing structures in two Albanian ports. The compounds will be designed to house up to 3,000 migrants while Italy processes their asylum claims. Those granted asylum will be allowed into Italy while those denied will be repatriated. Albania will be responsible for securing the compounds.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni from the right-wing Brothers of Italy party made anti-immigration policies a key part of her platform when she was elected to the position in 2022. In describing the agreement, she said only migrants intercepted at sea would be sent to the facilities, and that pregnant women, children, and other vulnerable people would be excluded. She also said that if Italy is able to process the asylum requests in a month or less, that the compounds could temporarily house as many as 36,000 migrants each year.

Migration to Europe has increased sharply in recent years. The Associated Press reported that 145,000 migrants have surged into Italy by sea this year—a 65 percent increase compared to last year and a number that threatens to surpass the 181,000 who made the passage in 2016.

Flotillas from Tunisia inundated small islands off Sicily’s coast in August and September. The resort island of Lampedusa, which is 120 miles from Tunisia—closer to Africa than to mainland Italy—was struggling to deal with 10,000 migrants who had landed on its shores.

A distinction that marks the migration to Italy is how deadly it is. Migrants primarily from northern Africa mass onto unseaworthy vessels in Tunisia. A United Nations report from earlier this year on the deadly migration route said more than 26,000 people have died crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Africa to Europe since 2014. News reports, such as this one from CBS in August, of capsized boats loaded with migrants have become common.

Several European charities have formed to try to rescue migrants trying to make the dangerous crossing. They purchase fishing vessels or similar boats, and patrol the waters looking for migrants in less seaworthy crafts. But these charities themselves have generated controversies.

Italy developed rules for boats carrying rescued migrants, forcing them to carry the migrants to specific Italian ports far from the migrant routes for processing. Most recently, Italy has demanded that a new EU migration pact being negotiated include a rule that NGO charities rescuing migrants must take the migrants to the country out of which the NGO operates.

Italy has clashed in the past with its European allies over the charity ships, including a major falling out with France last November when it refused to let a ship operated by a French NGO bring 230 people ashore, Reuters reported. “The boat eventually brought the migrants directly to France.”

The charities are vocal critics of the plan Italy and Albania announced, which has several entities wary. As reported by The Guardian, “Giorgia Linardi, a spokesperson for the rescue NGO Sea-Watch, said the ‘agreement with Albania represents a new frontal attack by the Italian government to international and EU asylum law, exploiting the desire of international recognition and the fragility of third countries to evade its responsibilities on asylum.’” The string of cited reactions includes other NGO criticizing the announcement and a skeptical EU.

Italy is not the only European country dealing with what is becoming an intractable problem for the continent. “Currently, it’s difficult to identify within the EU’s various actions and activities a clear thread that corresponds with a common European migration policy,” Andrew Geddes, director of the Migration Policy Centre, told Carnegie Europe. “Rather, there seems to be a conglomeration of paradoxes and contradictions.”