On November 6, Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni met with her Albanian counterpart in Palazzo Chigi, Rome. Recently, meetings between the representatives of both countries—including informal ones—have increased. Meloni and Rama share a friendly bond together, despite coming from two political parties that theoretically would differ from one another, as Edi Rama is the head of the Socialist Party of Albania, and Giorgia Meloni is the leader of the Italian far-right “Brothers of Italy”.
Italy and Albania have a close partnership together prompted by shared historical events, as well as geographical proximity. Amicable and diplomatic relations notwithstanding, Monday’s meeting drew both leaders into signing another official agreement which has sparked criticism on both sides of the Adriatic.
The “Memorandum of Understanding” or simply the “Protocol on the Management of Migration” as the Albanian government has referred to it, was made accessible by the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Albania only a day after its signing.
Albania’s perspective of accession to the European Union, as well as what is stated to be both countries’ “common interest and aspirations” which involves “the problems and prevention of irregular migration” are marked as important grounds of the protocol, defined in its preamble among other bilateral agreements signed between Italy and Albania in the past.
In its entirety, the protocol grants jurisdiction to the Republic of Italy over parts of the territory of Albania for building the so-called “migration processing centers” for a period of five years, with the possibility of extension. Italy, which takes on the financial burden for the project, claims to manage the structures in accordance with EU law. However, as the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) observes, “with no information on how these obligations will be respected” as well as on what precisely their functionality and purpose will consist of. According to ECRE what the agreement legally refers to as the “staying” of migrants in the centers might be interpreted as an “automatic use of detention” which is illegal. Moreover, the agreement clearly discloses that refugees will not be allowed to trespass the extraterritorial areas and enter in Albanian territory, even when their processing would be finalized. Furthermore, the document does not take into consideration possible outcomes and further procedures related to people’s return to their country of origin or elsewhere. It also disregards the fact that extraterritorial processing is not allowed.
Prime Minister Edi Rama has been criticized for signing an agreement without prior consultation with the parliament of Albania and without informing the Albanian public and media about it. What’s more, the head of the Albanian government is not liable to sign protocols on behalf of the Republic of Albania without the approval of the Parliament and the President of the Republic of Albania.
However, it is not the first time that Edi Rama behaves as the private owner of the republic by deciding entirely by himself, regardless of the rule of law, without public consultation or debate, on giving jurisdiction over parts of the territory of the Republic of Albania to Italy for a project which the Amnesty International has deemed “illegal” and “impractical”. In response to the signed protocol UNHCR has stressed the importance of respecting international migration law, while waiting to discuss further details with the representatives of both Albania and Italy. Lastly, the European Commission seems to not have been informed of the deal beforehand.
Additionally, recognizing Italy’s jurisdiction over parts of the Albanian territory constitutes a grave violation of Albania’s sovereignty. Not only is the agreement unlawful and xenophobic but also invasive in such a way that it replicates Italy’s former colonial tendencies towards Albania. The last time Italy had jurisdiction over Albania was when Benito Mussolini was in power.
Prime Minister Rama and those close to him are attempting to portray the agreement between the two countries as Albania’s return of the “favor” for Italy’s hosting of Albanian migrants during the ‘90s and for Albania securing another ally to vouch for its EU integration while dismissing any voices that criticize this decision by portraying them as “xenophobic”.
It is important to note that Italy’s attitude towards immigrants has not changed much compared to the ‘90s when boats carrying Albanians sailing towards Italian shores were the ones being pushed back or drowned by Italian authorities. Such was the case of the Otranto tragedy where the Italian corvette ‘Sibilla’ drowned the Albanian ship “Kateri i Radës”, resulting in the death of 84 Albanians, including infants. The family members of the victims, to this day, continue to demand justice from the Italian state.
Secondly, this bilateral project must not be treated as an indirect condition for Albania’s path towards the EU or be used as leverage from Italy concerning its support for Albania’s accession process. Above all, Albania’s EU integration process is carried out by the EU Commission, not Italy. Moreover, Albania’s possible integration to the EU, as that of the rest of the Western Balkan countries, must not be perceived as a favor that the EU and EU member states can do for Albania and the Western Balkans. Furthermore, Albania’s path towards the EU should not include breaking international law and undermining Albania’s territorial sovereignty, especially when this happens in cooperation with an EU member state.
What’s more, Prime Minister Rama has agreed to sign a bilateral protocol not solely with the Prime Minister of Italy but with the far-right leader that the Prime Minister of Italy is, thus being directly engaged in enabling the forced displacement of migrants and asylum seekers. This is in contradiction not only to the 1951 Geneva Convention, but also to the ideology that the Socialist Party of Albania pretends to follow—the façade of socialism behind which Edi Rama has built up his entire propagandist image as a progressive while in reality, his actions expose him for the semi-authoritarian leader with conservative tendencies that he actually is.
To play the devil’s advocate, even if the agreement between Prime Minister Meloni and Prime Minister Rama would have been legal and ethical, Albania does not have the capacity to engage in a project that requires great responsibility. Albania is a semi-authoritarian country which lacks rule of law and has one of the poorest economies in the region. Not only migrants that pass through Albania but even a majority of Albanians themselves do not want to stay in Albania for the country does not meet even the basic requirements for a decent standard of living.
Ultimately, Italy and the EU have a migration problem that needs solving, but deporting migrants to developing countries like Albania or third state countries is not the solution. Albania cannot be treated as Europe’s ‘ghetto’ where the latter throws its way any problem it does not want to deal with. Albania deserves to be treated with respect and dignity and not to be dragged into the EU’s appeasement strategy towards another semi-authoritarian leader in the Balkans, and all of on the back of a real humanitarian crisis.