By Alvise Armellini
ROME (Reuters) -Albania will hold a maximum of 3,000 migrants at any one time under a deal announced this week allowing Italy to build two migrant reception and detention camps there, official documents showed on Wednesday.
The scheme is the first example of a non-EU country accepting migrants on behalf of an EU nation, and is part of an bloc-wide drive to clamp down on irregular immigration.
“Parties agree that the total number of migrants present at the same time on Albanian territory cannot be more than 3,000,” an Italo-Albanian protocol states, according to a copy seen by Reuters and other media.
The figure compares with the more than 145,000 sea migrants who have arrived in Italy so far this year, a sharp increase from 2022 which Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing government is keen to contain.
Announcing the deal on Monday, Meloni said as many as 36,000 migrants per year could pass through the Albanian camps, but hitting this target depends on how quickly Italy can process asylum applications.
Meloni said the aim is to examine cases within 28 days, but experts have pointed out that, despite government efforts to streamline them, procedures remained engulfed in red tape.
Experts also noted that repatriating failed applicants is hard, given the lack of return deals with migrants’ home nations. In the year to date, Italy has repatriated just under 4,000 people.
NO DEAL ON EU ACCESSION
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said on Wednesday it was “ridiculous” to suggest that his country agreed to the initiative in return for Italy’s sponsorship of Albania’s EU membership bid.
“Accession to the European Union does not work like this, it’s not that Italy says ‘you take 3,000 migrants and we let you into the European Union'”, he told Italy’s RAI public broadcaster.
The camps will operate under Italian jurisdiction, and should open in spring 2024. The protocol states that Italy will shield Albania from any costs from court action against the legally contentious plan.
Human rights organisations have criticised the scheme.
“The concrete application of this agreement is very controversial,” Serena Chiodo, senior migration officer for Amnesty International Italy, told Reuters. “We expect a cancellation of this agreement.”
Italy is planning one facility at the Albanian port of Shëngjin for disembarkation and identification, and a second inland one for detention. They are due to be staffed by Italian personnel.
The facilities are more than 1,000 kilometres from Lampedusa, the island where most Italy-bound sea migrants currently land. Transferring them to Albania by sea would take at least two or three days.
Meloni said pregnant women, minors and other vulnerable people would not be sent to Albania, but it is not clear if this could result in adult men being separated from the rest of their families.
(Additional reporting by Oriana Boselli; editing by Christina Fincher)