Albanian parliament approves controversial deal to hold migrants for Italy

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.

Under the five-year deal, Albania would shelter up to 3,000 migrants 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.

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

It was endorsed by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, but has been widely criticised by human rights groups.

The Albanian parliament, dominated by Rama’s left-wing Socialist Party, voted 77-0 to approve the deal even as conservative opposition lawmakers tried to disrupt the vote with whistles. The president will now issue a decree as the final step of approval.

A group of 30 lawmakers attempted to block ratification by appealing to the Constitutional Court, but the court ruled against them in late January, clearing the path for the deal could go ahead.

Conservative lawmakers have repeatedly disrupted voting since October to protest the Socialist government.

Escaping hell

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

Two processing centres will be set up in Albania at a cost of more than €600 million for Italy 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.

Lawmakers of Albania’s Democratic Party, left, look on as their colleagues of the ruling Socialist party vote in Tirana.

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

Those picked up within Italy’s territorial waters, or by rescue ships operated by non-governmental organisations, 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 Albania in the 1990s.

Italy has sought more solidarity from fellow European Union nations to help it handle the increasing number of arrivals. The number of migrants arriving in Italy by boat has nearly doubled to about 160,000 compared to the same period a year ago.

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