An Albanian court on Monday gave the green light to an agreement allowing Italy to send migrants who are rescued in the Mediterranean by Italian ships to detention centers in Albania while their asylum claims are considered.
The deal is part of the Italian government’s multipronged efforts to stem migration, in particular Mediterranean Sea crossings, sending the message that many undocumented migrants will not be allowed directly into Italy, even temporarily.
The agreement was signed in November by the leaders of the two countries, but challenged by opposition lawmakers in Albania, who argued that it violated the country’s Constitution.
On Monday, the Albanian Constitutional Court ruled otherwise, clearing the way for the deal to be taken up by Parliament, where Prime Minister Edi Rama’s Socialist Party holds 75 of the 140 seats.
In Italy, the agreement has already been approved by the lower house of Parliament and has been sent to the Senate, where Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing political allies maintain a controlling majority.
In presenting the deal last year, Ms. Meloni called it a “model of cooperation between E.U. and non-E.U. countries in managing migration flows,” and said it was in a “bold European spirit.’”
The deal would allow for two centers to be built around the port of Shengjin that can accommodate a maximum of 3,000 migrants at once.
At one, migrants intercepted at sea would register for asylum and plead their cases remotely to Italian judges. At the other, they would wait for the responses to the applications, which can often take months. Migrants whose asylum bids are rejected would be expelled by Albania to their home countries.
Children, pregnant women and others labeled “vulnerable” — including the ill and disabled — would not go to the centers, but would instead be taken directly to Italy for processing, the government has said.
In exchange for the Albanian prime minister’s support on migration, Ms. Meloni has said she will do everything in her power to support Albania’s entry into the European Union.
More than 157,000 migrants landed on Italy’s shores last year, most of them from Africa or Asia, up from 105,000 in 2022, according to Interior Ministry data. Countless migrants die trying to make it to safety.
On Monday, the International Organization for Migration said that nearly 100 people had “died or disappeared” in the Mediterranean since the beginning of 2024, more than twice as many as those who died in the same period last year. In 2023, more than 3,000 lives were lost in the Mediterranean, the group said.
Apart from the agreement reached with Albania, Ms. Meloni has also struck deals with Tunisia and Libya to limit migration. But she has argued that the European Union should share in the burden of managing migrants landing in Italy.
On Monday, Ms. Meloni met with African leaders in Rome to promote economic development in Africa and discourage young people from emigrating.
The deal with Albania recalls one that the British government has sought in which it would fly asylum seekers to Rwanda before their claims have been assessed, paying for their relocation costs should the migrants remain there. British courts have rejected the proposal, but the approach remains a top priority for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
When the Albania deal was announced in November, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatovic, warned of “a worrying European trend towards the externalisation of asylum responsibilities.”
“Externalisation measures significantly increase the risk of exposing refugees, asylum seekers and migrants to human rights violations,” Ms. Mijatović said in a statement. “The shifting of responsibility across borders by some states also incentivizes others to do the same, which risks creating a domino effect that could undermine the European and global system of international protection.”
The Italy-Albania deal has been endorsed by the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyden, who called it “an example of out-of-the-box thinking, based on fair sharing of responsibilities with third countries.”
But the proposed arrangement has been widely criticized by human rights groups.
Some critics have raised legal concerns about Italian jurisdiction in Albania, and have warned that it would be difficult to ensure that the migrants in Albania would be accorded the same rights as they would if they were in Italy.
Opposition lawmakers in Italy have criticized the estimated costs for building and managing the two centers in Albania. Matteo Mauri, a lawmaker with the opposition Democratic party, estimated that the accord would cost Italy 653 million euro — about $700 million — in the first five years, for what he said was a negligible number of migrants.
“Not only is the accord completely useless and of dubious legitimacy according to European Union legislation,” Mr. Mauri said, but it is also “immensely costly.” The money, he said in a telephone interview, could instead be spent in Italy on existing processing centers.
With European elections looming in June, Mr. Mauri called the deal an “operation of political propaganda by the prime minister” who has made curbing migration a political cornerstone of her party, the hard-right Brothers of Italy.
In hearings in the Italian Senate earlier this month, some experts said the accord could become a model that could be replicated in Libya and Tunisia. Others expressed doubts about the message Italy was sending Europe.
Stefano Manservisi, professor of Transnational Governance at the Florence-based European University Institute, called the deal a “baroque construction” that created a double reception system.
“Italy says that immigration has to be managed at a European level, and now subtracts a part of this problem from the European debate,” he said. “On one side Italy says that it receives little help from the European system, but on the other it creates a system that can’t benefit from any European support.”
Fatjona Mejdini contributed reporting from Albania.