Italy's government is hailing as "historic" a plan to send seaborne migrants to Albania, but experts and opposition politicians warn that it could face significant bureaucratic and human rights obstacles.
The move is part of an EU-wide drive to clamp down on irregular immigration. Other countries, including Germany, are toughening their policies, amid negotiations within the bloc to overhaul asylum rules and reduce arrivals.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni announced the initiative on Monday with her Albanian counterpart Edi Rama, saying her country would build two centres to host up to 36,000 migrants per year on Albanian soil.
The centres, one on the coast for identification and another inland for detention, would be paid in full by Italy and operate under its jurisdiction, meaning they would be covered by European Union asylum rules.
"Big questions loom over the application of Italian jurisdiction in Albania, as it remains unclear how people on the move could access asylum and exercise their basic rights in a non-EU territory," Susanna Zanfrini of the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian group, said.
A source in Meloni's office said the deal was sealed during her summer holiday in Albania and was aimed at deterring seaborne migrants, who would no longer be assured of access to EU territory after setting off from North Africa.
"This is a historic achievement. For the first time, a non-EU country will help a member state in handling illegal flows," top Meloni aide and government undersecretary Giovanbattista Fazzolari told daily Corriere della Sera.
COMPLEX PLAN, FAIRLY MODEST OUTCOMES
Experts warn it might be hard for Italian courts to quickly process asylum requests or appeals against detention orders from people hosted in another state, and lengthy procedures could place an unjustified burden on the migrants.
"If people's rights are to be respected, this (plan) looks highly complex and bound to produce fairly modest outcomes," Ennio Codini, a legislation expert at Ismu Foundation, a think-tank specialized in migration issues, told Reuters.
He said that, despite efforts to streamline procedures, asylum requests in Italy remained engulfed in red tape, and warned that failed applicants would be hard to repatriate given the lack of return deals with migrants' home nations.
"Countries (of origin) are not keen to take them back," Codini said.
In the year to date, Italy has repatriated just under 4,000 migrants, while more than 145,000 arrived by sea on its shores. Albania's Rama said migrants would have to go to Italy if they could not be repatriated straight from his country.
Chiara Cardoletti, head of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Italy, said the Albanian scheme might be acceptable as long as it fully respected the UN Refugee Convention and did not result in Italy shifting asylum responsibilities on to Albania.
"We are not saying these transfer arrangements cannot happen, what we are saying is that they are only appropriate if certain standards are met," she told Reuters.
'GUANTANAMO MADE IN ITALY'
Meloni said the Albanian facilities should be operational in Spring 2024, but the European Commission has yet to say whether the initiative is in line with EU law. A spokesperson said Brussels wanted more details before passing judgement.
The spokesperson added that, based on first information, the Italian plan seemed to be different from a British government bid to send thousands of asylum seekers to Rwanda, which has been mired in the courts since it was agreed.
Christopher Hein, a migration law expert at Rome's Luiss University, said the main difference between Albania and Rwanda was that people in Albania were protected by the European Convention on Human Rights.
"Migrants will be brought straight to Albania without disembarking in Italy, while the British plan applies to people who are already on its soil," Hein noted.
Italian opposition parties have denounced Meloni's plans as a deportation, with Riccardo Magi, a lawmaker with the centrist +Europa group, evoking the notorious extrajudicial camps used by the US in Cuba to detain terrorism suspects.
"The Guantanamo Made in Italy that Giorgia Meloni wants to build in Albania is just another cruel propaganda move," Magi said.