November 8, 2023 - 11:00am

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni struck a deal with her Albanian counterpart Edi Rama this week to build two centres in Albania to host migrants attempting to reach Europe by the Mediterranean Sea. The deal is intended to outsource the increasing number of asylum applications being processed in Italy, as the country is the closest destination for migrants, mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa, attempting to reach Europe through North Africa. 

More than 145,000 migrants have arrived on Italy’s shores since the start of 2023, compared to 88,000 people making the same journey the previous year. Meloni faces rising pressure from her supporters to end mass migration as numbers continue to soar, while Brussels sets roadblocks for her to achieve her aim. 

Consequently, Meloni has opted for a lighter solution with Albania in an attempt to appease both sides. “Mass illegal immigration is a phenomenon that EU member states cannot tackle alone. Collaboration [with] non-EU states can be decisive,” Meloni said at a press conference alongside Rama. But Albania’s Right-wing opposition party has criticised the decision, claiming that there is already an exodus of Albanian citizens seeking better opportunities abroad, and that it cannot afford to become a migrant processing centre for Europe. 

Nonetheless, the deal is being described by Meloni as “innovative”, since it is the first time that an EU country is redistributing migrant applications to a European country not yet part of the bloc. While the agreement has been compared to the UK’s attempted settlement with Rwanda to outsource asylum requests, there are key differences that make Italy’s choice to use Albania a riskier option.  

Unlike the UK, Italy needs final approval from the EU to reach a decision without risking punitive measures. But the European Commission remains hard to persuade about halting the rising number of migrants entering the bloc, reacting sceptically to the arrangement reached by Italy and Albania. This, even though the deal is a diluted version of the naval blockade Meloni had promised her electorate before becoming prime minister. 

A commission spokesperson said that “it is important that any such arrangement is in full respect of EU and international law.” While Brussels has attempted to punish Right-wing governments in the EU, such as Hungary and Poland, for sealing their borders, Meloni has taken a different approach by attempting to win Brussel’s approval. 

Yet Meloni will suffer significant electoral losses if she fails to keep the key promise she made to stop illegal migration by blocking entries. If migrants can disembark in Europe, it wouldn’t be hard for them to cross borders and enter the bloc through Albania. The Albanian community in Italy is the largest in the EU, representing 11% of non-citizens in the country with working permits, according to the Italian Ministry of Labour. 

The number of illegal Albanian immigrants are hard to quantify because they remain unregistered, but many Albanians attempt to reach Italy for work opportunities. It is unclear how the Albanian government can hold migrants in its facilities, or how it can repatriate those whose applications are rejected. The deal also appears to stipulate that only the migrants rescued by the Italian coastguards will be taken to the port of Shëngjin, in northern Albania, raising questions as to where the migrants rescued by NGO boats will disembark, given that their closest port of entry remains in southern Italy. 

Meloni is attempting to avoid alienating the EU while simultaneously signalling to her base that she is making strides in tackling an issue she has pledged to resolve. With this agreement, though, she might find herself failing to appease either side.

Alessandra Bocchi is a journalist.