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Albanian Parliament approves controversial deal to hold migrants for Italy

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albania’s Parliament voted Thursday to approve a deal for the country to hold thousands of asylum seekers for Italy, despite protests from opposition lawmakers and human rights groups.
Lawmakers of the ruling Socialist party vote in Tirana, Albania, Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. Albania’s Parliament on Thursday approved a deal for the country to hold thousands of migrants rescued in international waters by Italy while their asylum applications are processed, despite protests from opposition lawmakers and human rights groups. (AP Photo/Armando Babani)

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albania’s Parliament voted Thursday to approve a deal for the country to hold thousands of asylum seekers for Italy, despite protests from opposition lawmakers and human rights groups.

Under the five-year deal, Albania would shelter up to 3,000 migrants rescued from international waters at any one time. With asylum requests expected to take around a month to process, the number of asylum seekers sent to Albania could reach up to 36,000 in a year.

Albania is not a European Union member, and the idea of sending asylum seekers outside the bloc is controversial. The deal was endorsed by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen as an example of out-of-the-box thinking, but has been widely criticized by rights groups.

The agreement, signed in November between Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, is part of Meloni’s efforts to share the burden of addressing migration with other European countries.

The Parliament, dominated by Rama’s left-wing Socialist Party, quickly voted 77-0 to approve the deal while opposition lawmakers sat out the vote and tried to disrupt it with whistles.

Rama was not in Parliament for the vote but said afterward that it shows Albania is standing with Italy and acting like an EU state by “agreeing to share a burden that Europe should face united, as a whole family, in the face of a daring challenge that transcends traditional left and right divides.”

After the vote, Meloni thanked Rama and the Albanian people “for their friendship and collaboration.” In a post on X, Meloni described the agreement as cooperation “against clandestine immigration and human trafficking.”

Migrants have been a sensitive issue for EU member countries in the Mediterranean — not just Italy but also Spain and Greece.

Migration is set to be a hot issue in Europe-wide elections on June 6-9 and EU members and institutions are trying to push long-awaited asylum and migration reforms through the bloc’s parliament before the polls. Mainstream parties hope the new rules will allow them to counter anti-migrant arguments espoused by populist and far-right groups.

Italy’s center-left opposition has called the deal an expensive exercise in propaganda ahead of European elections and a shameful bid to turn Albania into Italy’s “Guantanamo.”

Albania's conservative opposition has regularly tried to disrupt parliament since October to protest the Socialists' refusal to create parliamentary commissions to investigate alleged cases of corruption in the Cabinet.

A group of 30 opposition lawmakers earlier went to the Constitutional Court in an unsuccessful effort to block the Italy-Albania deal on the grounds of human rights.

Italy’s lower chamber of parliament approved the deal in January, followed by the Senate earlier this month.

Two processing centers are to be set up in Albania at a cost to Italy of more than 600 million euros (about $650 million) over five years. The facilities would be fully run by Italy while it fast-tracks their asylum requests. Meloni has said she expects them to become operational by the spring of 2024.

Italy would remain legally responsible for the migrants throughout the process, and would welcome them if they are granted international protection or organize their deportation from Albania if refused.

Those picked up within Italy’s territorial waters, or by rescue ships operated by non-governmental organizations, would retain their right under international and EU law to apply for asylum in Italy and have their claims processed there.

Rama has said that Albania stands beside Meloni in a sign of gratitude on behalf of Albanians who found refuge in Italy and “escaped hell and imagined a better life” following the collapse of communism in the 1990s Albania.

Italy has sought help from other EU nations to handle the increasing number of arrivals. Data from its Interior Ministry showed that migrant arrivals in Italy jumped 50% in 2023 from the previous year. About 155,750 migrants reached Italian shores last year, including more than 17,000 unaccompanied minors, compared to 103,850 in 2022.

Elsewhere, Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is trying to overcome a U.K. Supreme Court ban on his signature migration policy, a plan to send asylum-seekers who reach Britain across the English Channel on a one-way trip to Rwanda. The plan was announced almost two years ago, but no flights have taken off amid political and legal opposition.


Associated Press writers Lorne Cook in Brussels, Aritz Parra in Madrid and Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.


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Llazar Semini, The Associated Press