Fifteen countries ask Brussels to explore creating migrant centers outside the EU

The group, led by Denmark, supports Italy’s controversial model based on sending asylum seekers to Albania. The petition comes shortly before European elections at a time when immigration has become a hot button issue

Migrants Lampedusa
Migrants on a boat in the port of Lampedusa, September 18, 2024.ZAKARIA ABDELKAFI (AFP)
María R. Sahuquillo

A group of 15 countries led by Denmark is demanding that the European Commission come up with “new ways” to stop the arrival of migrants in Europe. They propose that the European Union sign new migration pacts, similar to those signed with Tunisia, involving European funds in exchange for that country preventing departures. They also suggest “exploring” the creation outside EU territory of centers to send asylum seekers rescued at sea, following a model similar to the controversial one that Italy wants to implement in Albania and which goes one step further along the path of outsourcing all aspects of migration management.

“We encourage the establishment of comprehensive, mutually beneficial and durable partnerships with key partner countries along the migratory routes,” says the group in a letter sent to the EU executive this Wednesday night and signed by interior and immigration ministers from Denmark, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Estonia, Greece, Italy, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, the Netherlands, Austria, Poland, Romania and Finland.

They also demand that formulas be established to accelerate the deportation of migrants who do not have the right to asylum, and argue that “the concept of ‘safe third countries’ in EU asylum law should be reassessed.” This solution would increase deportations and also open other avenues to send asylum seekers not only to their countries of origin, but also of transit. In addition, the letter asks for a European list of safe countries outside the EU to be drawn up.

“Our central responsibility and commitment are to uphold stability and social cohesion and avoid risking polarization in European societies and loss of unity in the family of EU Member States,” says the letter, in which the ministers defend that the number of irregular arrivals prevents resources from reaching those who have the right to asylum.

In recent months, Europe has been hardening its rhetoric on immigration, which has become a hot button issue ahead of upcoming EU elections in June. In 2023, 385,445 migrants in an irregular situation arrived in European territory, according to data from the EU border agency, Frontex. The figure is a far cry from the almost two million who arrived in 2015, in the midst of the refugee crisis sparked by the Syrian war.

The ‘Albania model’

The letter is the result of several months of debate by an informal working group of 19 member states that has raised the issue as a new EU parliamentary term approaches. Although the political right and, above all, the far right, will make immigration the core of many election campaigns, not all members of that group have finally signed the letter, which contains some controversial formulas such as the “Albania model.”

The signatories defend that this controversial model, devised by Italy’s far-right prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, can be expanded through new agreements with other countries. They defend that the Albania model is not like the one that the United Kingdom has approved in Rwanda, which contemplates the deportation of irregular migrants to that African country. The Italy-Albania Protocol, the letter argues, is based on an agreement with a “safe” country outside the EU where the European system will be followed, with personnel from an EU country (Italy) and measures in accordance with European legislation.

The Italian formula, which Meloni developed with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama in November, was extremely controversial and was examined by the Italian justice system. It was expected to be launched in the spring of this year, but has not yet been implemented. It provides for the creation in Albanian territory of centers with a capacity for up to 3,000 people — arrivals from rescues at sea by the Italian authorities — and where officers will conduct identification, control, asylum application management and repatriation procedures for individuals who do not qualify for asylum.

The formula has been harshly criticized by human rights organizations and groups specializing in immigration, which have warned that Europe is veering to the right on immigration matters and is shielding itself. These groups have also warned that agreements such as those signed with Tunisia or Egypt for those countries to stop departures in exchange for economic aid are tantamount to endorsing and whitewashing regimes with a disastrous human rights record.

The letter comes two days after the bloc completed the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, giving the definitive green light to start implementing a set of regulations and standards that hardens the conditions to take in refugees, facilitates deportations, and establishes, for the first time, that all member states must contribute to the management of migration and accept a quota of asylum seekers or else contribute to a common fund with €20,000 ($21,700) for each rejected migrant.

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