The ball is in the court of Albanian justice. Since Thursday January 18, the Albanian Constitutional Court has been examining the agreement concluded between Italy and Albania aimed at outsourcing the care of migrants arriving on the Italian coasts in this small country in the Western Balkans. The final decision, initially expected on March 6, should come sooner, a sign that this thorny issue is a priority for Albanian justice.
At the beginning of November 2023, the President of the Italian Council Giorgia Meloni and the Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, meeting in Rome, signed an agreement on the management of migrants between their two countries. The plan calls for the construction of two large refugee reception centers by spring 2024 north of the capital, Tirana. Each camp is designed to accommodate up to 3,000 asylum seekers at a time, or nearly 39,000 each year, while they await processing of their cases by Italy.
During the joint press conference with his Italian counterpart, Prime Minister Edi Rama praised a project that brings honor to his country. The head of government also highlighted the ties that unite Albania with Italy, recalling that the latter was a land of welcome for Albanian nationals after the fall of the communist regime in the early 1990s. Tirana hopes further strengthen Rome's support for its candidacy for the European Union.
But more than a month later, the ratification of the agreement was stopped dead in the Albanian Parliament. Critical of a plan that would undermine the sovereignty of the country, the opposition immediately seized the Constitutional Court to verify the conformity of the plan with the Constitution and international treaties. The migration agreement, suspended pending a legal decision, crystallizes tensions between the socialist government of Edi Rama and the center-right opposition. This, led by the former prime minister of the Democratic Party of Albania (PD) Sali Berisha, “is trying to use all the arguments to contest the project,” observes Teuta Vodo, political scientist and former Albanian deputy minister of Justice.
The thirty PD deputies first denounce the lack of public consultation upstream. Signed to everyone's surprise, the agreement received neither the consent of parliamentarians nor that of the Albanian population. But the opposition above all criticizes the government for the vagueness around the jurisdiction which applies in these migrant reception centers. If Rome takes care of the financing and management of these camps, would this place them de facto under the Italian legal regime? And if they are physically located in Albania, “how can Italian laws apply on Albanian territory?”, asks Teuta Vodo.
This is the heart of the case brought before the Constitutional Court. In the signed plan, Italy, a member country of the European Union, is responsible for the administration of these centers in a third country which is, in principle, not required to respect European standards in this area. On this conflict of jurisdiction, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson has already ruled. “Our legal department's preliminary assessment is that this is not a violation of EU law, but is outside EU law,” she responded. shortly after signing the agreement.
But for Teuta Vodo, “it is risky for Albania to engage in such a mission.” Because the Balkan country becomes legally responsible before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for the activities of these two camps. The European court plays a role of guard against potential human rights violations and, in this capacity, can “impose sanctions against Albania and not against Italy, which nevertheless administers these camps”, points out the teacher-researcher at Sciences Po Paris.
However, doubts about the installation of these centers go beyond just the benches of Parliament. The signing of the agreement surprised the 3 million Albanians for whom “the migration issue is a new theme in a country of emigration and not immigration”. Hence the questions about the country's capacity to welcome so many refugees in centers whose security is supposed to be ensured by the Albanian security forces. “The population is well aware that the local police are not sufficiently prepared to deal with this influx,” says Ms. Vodo.
The former Albanian Deputy Minister of Justice is especially concerned about the problems that can arise from the concentration of a predominantly male population in these centers. Giorgia Meloni's desire not to send pregnant women, minors and vulnerable people there will separate families and risks, according to the researcher, generating "stress, conflicts and violence inside the camps" . Not to mention the risks of individuals fleeing into Albanian territory.
Albania's reputation and, by extension, its tourist attractiveness are also at stake. “The opposition and part of the Albanian population are afraid that the country will be seen as a sort of “jailer” of migrants by the countries of the EU,” explains Simone Benazzo, Balkans specialist at the Free University of Brussels. He continues: “Locals fear that the presence of migrants could also harm tourism, which has been booming in recent years.”
But Albania is not the first country to set up such camps. Greece already hosts detention centers on its territory designed to study asylum requests from non-European migrants. With the notable difference that Albania “has never had to manage a migration crisis” unlike its Mediterranean neighbors, according to Teuta Vodo. The challenge is therefore significant for a small country which until now was only a “passing point” for refugees transiting the “Balkan route” to Western Europe.