Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni of Italy on Tuesday heralded an agreement she had struck with Albania, a non-European Union nation, to outsource the processing and containment of migrants as a breakthrough for one of the continent’s most defining challenges.
“I believe it could become a model of cooperation between E.U. and non-E.U. countries in managing migration flows,” Ms. Meloni told the Rome-based daily newspaper Il Messaggero. “I think this agreement features a bold European spirit.”
But Italian politicians caught by surprise by Ms. Meloni’s announcement in Rome on Monday questioned whether the agreement — struck earlier this week with the nation across the Adriatic Sea — was legal, ethical, practical or even real.
“Before further commenting, we need to understand what exactly they want to do,” Anitta Hipper, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, said on Tuesday.
While the details of the deal remain murky, Italy’s motivation could not be clearer. In the past year, the country has seen migrant arrivals from Tunisia and Libya increase to more than 145,700 from 88,400 last year, according to data from the Italian Interior Ministry. While the European Union struggles to modernize and overhaul the migration system and herd its members states into a consensus, migrants keep coming, and leaders like Ms. Meloni feel the urgency of the issue.
Ms. Meloni — who rose to power in part on anti-migrant vitriol, including threats to impose naval blockades against migrant boats — knows that fear of migrants is a powerful political issue. She has struck deals with Tunisia and renewed agreements with Libya, argued for European Union partners to share the burden and sought to impose harsh penalties on migrant smugglers, casting the issue as a crime of human trafficking.
She has introduced rules against rescue ships operated by nongovernmental organizations, which Italy has accused of working with human traffickers, forcing them to put migrants off in far-off northern ports.
But this week’s deal — Italy’s Interior Ministry said it had no details about it — was Ms. Meloni’s latest attempt to jury-rig a solution for a system that often seems to be broken and to hit Italy hardest. But Italy is not alone in seeking to outsource the problem.
The British government has sought to fly asylum seekers to Rwanda, which it wants to pay for the assessment of migrant claims, as well as relocation costs if the migrants stayed in Rwanda. British courts have rejected the proposal as unlawful. But it is a top priority of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and he is appealing.
Greece also receives billions of euros from Brussels to keep migrants at bay and has all but turned some of its islands into high-security reception centers.
The deal Ms. Meloni announced would essentially turn Albania, a source of hundreds of thousands of migrants heading to Italy since the 1990s, into a Greek island for Italy.
Italy, which has received less money from Europe than Greece and faces intense domestic opposition to new migrant centers, has for years paid to help Libya patrol its coast to prevent migrant departures. That has drawn intense scrutiny from critics who say the Italian government is complicit in the human rights abuses, including rape, that take place in the camps where migrants are detained.
This year, Ms. Meloni’s government passed an immigration package to create more government-controlled centers and detention facilities to house migrants as they wait on the results of asylum applications. But Italy’s regions opposed the building of detention and repatriation centers in their territory. Some conservative governors did not want the centers in their backyards, while progressives opposed putting migrants in prisonlike conditions.
“Everyone has the fundamental right to apply for asylum — regardless of where they are from, or how they arrive,” Imogen Sudbery, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Europe, said in a statement. “This latest decision by Italy is part of a concerning trend that undermines this right.”
“The process of offshoring is beset with numerous flaws on moral, legal and practical grounds,” she added.
Prime Minister Edi Rama of Albania, which is a candidate for E.U. membership, said his country was receiving no money from Italy and had agreed to the deal out of the goodness of its heart.
“If Italy calls, Albania will be there,” he said, speaking fluent Italian and standing next to Ms. Meloni on Monday evening at the prime minister’s palace in Rome. He said Albania was forever in Italy’s debt for accepting thousands of Albanians during the 1990s; he said they had fled “hell and hoped for better lives.”
According to the agreement, Italy will finance the construction of two centers on Albanian territory that will be under Italian jurisdiction and host up to 3,000 migrants at a time, Ms. Meloni told reporters. She said Italian officials would offload migrants to a center in the Albanian port of Shengjin, identify them and transport them into another center inland, where migrants are expected to stay for about 28 days, though asylum applications usually take months, if not years. Children and pregnant women are exempt from the Albanian centers.
She added that Albania would provide police officers for security and external surveillance of the two centers. And if Italy rejects the migrants’ asylum bids, Albania will expel them to their home countries. Ms. Meloni said that if asylum applications were swiftly processed, as many as 36,000 migrants could be processed on Albanian territory annually.
But experts said that Albania would have to expropriate parts of its territory to put them under Italian jurisdiction. It was not clear how Italy could guarantee the proper functioning of an asylum system in which judges in one country weigh the asylum applicants’ cases in another.
Usually, judges speak to migrants and hear their appeals. Moreover, to detain migrants in such centers, an Italian official has to justify the decision in writing and another judge has to validate that decision. Experts said it was not clear whether the decision to take migrants to Albania would occur on a ship, after already reaching Italy.
“These are all measures and practices that are good for propaganda, but less so for real, political solutions,” said Guido Savio, an immigration lawyer with Italy’s Association for Law Studies on Immigration.
“It has a symbolic value,” he added, “but, from a numerical point of view, it’s like emptying the sea with a bucket.”