Last week, the Italian prime minister left Brussels perplexed when she announced a new protocol with her Albanian counterpart, Edi Rama, aimed at outsourcing the processing of up to 36,000 asylum applications a year to that country of the Balkans.
The procedure will apply to migrants rescued at sea by Italian authorities and then disembarked in the Albanian coastal town of Shëngjin, where two centers will be built at Rome’s expense and managed exclusively by Italian officials.
Migrants housed in the hubs will not be allowed to leave the premises while awaiting the examination of their file, which should not last more than 28 days. According to Meloni, pregnant women, children and vulnerable people will be excluded.
The launch date has been set for spring 2024, although the protocol still needs to be translated into appropriate legal acts and submitted for ratification to the Albanian parliament.
“I consider this to be an agreement of European scope,” declared Meloni, alongside Prime Minister Rama. The two leaders smiled broadly as they shook hands.
Meloni’s enthusiasm is, however, still being digested in Brussels.
A week after this announcement, the European Commission, which as the bloc’s executive branch is responsible for overseeing the implementation of European legislation, has yet to publish an assessment or opinion.
Instead, the Commission issued generically worded warnings about the need to comply with European and international law.
For all intents and purposes, the Italy-Albania agreement is revolutionary, in that no member state has ever concluded an agreement with a third country to outsource part of its asylum responsibilities. But its existence should not be interpreted in isolation.
In fact, Meloni’s initiative, although bold in nature, is part of the latest approach adopted by the EU to strengthen its common migration policy: the so-called “external dimension”.
This term refers to partnerships with other countries intended to prevent the irregular arrival of asylum seekers, crack down on human trafficking and speed up the expulsion of rejected asylum seekers. Strengthening the “external dimension”, it is estimated, will facilitate the management of the “internal dimension” of migration, namely the reception, accommodation and relocation of people entitled to international protection.
This approach has been pushed to the top of the political agenda due to the post-pandemic increase in asylum applications across the bloc, which reached 519,000 in the first half of this year and could exceed 1 million ‘here December.
“The external aspects of migration are essential for the successful implementation of our policy,” Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said in a letter to EU leaders last month.
Von der Leyen’s letter contained a detailed list of 15 “action points” (some still in progress) to strengthen the “external dimension”, such as enhanced search and rescue cooperation with Maghreb countries, a pilot project to accelerate the registration of applicants and mutual recognition of return decisions (expulsions).
So far, the most tangible result of this strategy has been a memorandum of understanding with Tunisia, a country which for several years has been the main departure point for migrants arriving on Italian shores. But the memorandum, signed with great fanfare in mid-July, in the presence of Meloni, has been plagued by setbacks, controversies and even an extraordinary reimbursement of 60 million euros.
Egypt is now being touted as the next candidate for a tailor-made deal, even though the country is frequently criticized for human rights violations committed under the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sis.
Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Senegal and Mauritania are also mentioned in von der Leyen’s letters as countries with which the EU should work more closely. But none of them are envisioned as an outpost of expanded sovereignty to process asylum requests, an idea that remains deeply controversial in Europe, as evidenced by the negative reaction to the plan between the Kingdom -United Kingdom and Rwanda.
Under the UK plan, migrants who enter the UK irregularly will be flown to Rwanda and remain there while their applications are processed. If successful, applicants will be granted permanent residency in Rwanda and prohibited from returning to the UK.
The initiative immediately sparked discord and has been stuck in a legal battle since June 2022, when the European Court of Human Rights intervened at the last minute to prevent the first flight to Rwanda from taking off.
Denmark, a socialist-led EU country with a zero-refugee strategy, took steps to replicate the deal with the African country but suspended the plan earlier this year. More recently, Austria, another hard line, expressed its desire to establish a “Rwandan-style” system. And Germany’s ruling coalition, after adopting a series of tougher migration measures, said it would at least examine the possibility of outsourcing.
It is too early to say whether these draft ideas could emulate the Italy-Albania deal. Nonetheless, Meloni’s determination to prove theory can actually be put into practice will resonate across the bloc.
“I think that (the agreement) could become a model of cooperation between EU countries and third countries in the management of migratory flows,” the Prime Minister said in an interview with Il Messaggero.
Test the law
Yet Meloni’s project is plagued by questions of legality and practicality.
The main one is the apparently extraterritorial application of European law that Rome intends to pursue in the centers that will be built on Albanian soil. As part of the agreement, Tirana effectively cedes its sovereignty and agrees that the two poles will be governed “in accordance with relevant Italian and European regulations”, rather than national law.
“Disputes that could arise between the above-mentioned authorities and the migrants hosted in the above-mentioned premises are subject exclusively to Italian jurisdiction,” specifies the text, leaked to the Italian media.
This particular distribution of responsibilities appears to be in conflict with the European Directive on Asylum Procedures, which applies to “all applications for international protection lodged on the territory, including at the border, in territorial waters or in transit zones” of the Member States. apparently excluding applications filed in neighboring countries.
The European Commission has yet to clarify how the Italy-Albania Protocol will work within the current – or future – legal framework. Meloni’s office, Palazzo Chigi, did not immediately respond to emailed questions.
But humanitarian NGOs have expressed their opposition.
Calling the protocol “illegal and unworkable”, Amnesty International said it would have “devastating consequences for asylum seekers, who could be subjected to prolonged detention and other violations, outside the control of Italian judicial authorities.
In a preliminary assessment, the European Council for Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) said the agreement appeared to envisage “automatic recourse to detention”, as asylum seekers will not be allowed to leave the centers while their applications are being considered, and warned against cessation. The scope of jurisdiction was “not sufficient” to allow the application of EU law outside the territory of a member state.
“There are multiple ways in which the protocol is likely to violate EU law, but it is not as immediately and blatantly illegal as the proposal touted by Austria,” the organization said.
Alberto Horst Neidhardt, a senior policy analyst at the European Policy Center who studies migration policy, said extraterritorial processing of asylum applications was “certainly not a new idea” but had in the past been hampered by “legal” and “political” issues. moral and practical concerns.
According to him, the main objective of the agreement with Albania – namely to alleviate the overwhelmed Italian asylum system – will ultimately be undermined by Italy’s international obligations: Rome will have to take responsibility for the applicants, whether they win their case – through their relocation – or they fail – through deportation.
“For me, it is above all a political coup. This is a deal sought by a government that was elected on the assumption that it would limit irregular arrivals and, to the contrary, has seen the number of people arriving irregularly double since it took power . office,” Horst Neidhardt told L’Observatoire de l’Europe in an interview.
“This type of agreement will likely be considered and encouraged again in the future. But I wonder if they will be implemented due to these issues. But I also wonder about their practical effects and whether they will benefit the countries that offer them. »
This article is originally published on observatoiredeleurope.com