Italy, Albania and the myth of a European migrant crisis

One sunny Sunday morning in March 1997 in Durrës, a middle-aged Albanian schoolteacher took her 11-year-old son to the beach. They paddled in the sea, wrote their names in the sand and later sat on the seafront, where she unwrapped the snacks she’d brought from home: black bread, chunks of feta, cucumber and tomato, folded in an old newspaper.

They were having a little argument — the boy insisted he was not hungry, and the woman said without the snack she’d take him straight home — when they heard a loud explosion, similar to the noise of fireworks ignited during weddings. “Albanians never stop celebrating,” the woman smiled, “even when they’re strapped for cash.”

Yet the sounds grew louder and more frequent. The south of the country had been in chaos that week: many families lost their savings because of the collapse of fraudulent financial companies, and the protests often deteriorated into violent fights between armed gangs.

In Durrës, life continued as usual, indifferent to decline, uncontaminated by hope. But now the woman realised that what she mistook for fireworks were AK-47 shots. She grabbed the child and started to run barefoot along the beach.

That woman was my mother. She and my brother did not return home that night.

An old boat crowded with people
Albanians flee from Durrës to Italy in 1997, drifting on an abandoned cargo boat with no engine, using plastic sheets as improvised sails © Eric Cabanis/AFP

Over the course of the month, the entire country descended into anarchy. There was shooting everywhere, as if pulling the trigger could convert bullets into the cash people had lost. There was a curfew and a military state of emergency. At home in Durrës, I wondered if my mother and brother were among the dead.

A few days later, the telephone rang. While they were running for shelter, a commandeered ferry had approached one of the piers, and my mother and brother had jumped in. They had found refuge at a centre near Fasano, in the south of Italy.

Back then, such centres were called “refugee camps”: the church ran most of them. Now they are subcontracted to private companies, and divided into “centri di prima accoglienza” (centres for first reception) and “centri di permanenza per il rimpatrio” (centres for residence before repatriation), where migrants are held in “administrative detention”.

My mother does not remember if their centre was guarded but she remembers they sneaked out in the dark, to catch the first train to Rome. She is certain there were no gates, no barbed wire and no surveillance cameras.

I remembered this story last week when Italy signed an agreement with the Albanian government to open two such centres in Albania, one for the administrative processing of migrants rescued by Italian military vessels, and the other for detention. I thought about the thousands of migrants who, like my mother and brother, flee war, poverty and persecution to seek refuge in states increasingly hostile to their presence, increasingly indifferent to their plight.

A man stands against a concrete barrier
The port of Shëngjin in north-west Albania, where, under the new agreement, migrants rescued at sea by the Italian coast guard will disembark . . .  © AP
A woman rides her bike on an empty road
. . . and Gjadër, 20km from the coast, where an expulsion and detention facility is planned © AP

“Administrative detention” is a technical term, coating in the neutral language of bureaucracy a harsh reality of coercion. Already traumatised from the journey, migrants wait in isolation for a decision on whether they will be released or expelled, cramped in degrading conditions, with deteriorating mental health including suicidal thoughts and self-harm. There is also a less diplomatic but perhaps more accurate definition: imprisonment without trial.

There have already been agreements enabling wealthy liberal states to process migrants extraterritorially: for example between Australia and Nauru, and between the UK and Rwanda (in a plan for removing asylum claimants that on Wednesday was declared unlawful by the UK Supreme Court). In the 1990s, the US used Guantánamo Bay to detain Haitian asylum seekers. According to the latest agreement with Italy, the Albanian state temporarily cedes territorial sovereignty in the area where the centres are to be built, enabling Italian personnel (police, medical, administrative, judicial) to exercise their functions.

See also  Brussels curbs imports of Chinese green technology

Migrants can expect some assistance from the Albanian state, but only once they are dead: article 9, for example, allows the use of an Albanian morgue for up to 15 days. Expenses will be covered by Italy, but the land is offered free of charge, in a spirit, so Albanian prime minister Edi Rama explained, of gratitude to Italy for welcoming Albanians when they “escaped hell” throughout the 1990s.

In the case of my mother and brother’s own escape from hell, hospitality had a face and an address: the disabled elderly Signora Caterina who lived in north Rome, in an affluent area known for its far-right sympathies. She had three sons who no longer lived at home, and a large flat in which my mother and brother occupied a small room.

Two of the sons had trouble memorising my mother’s name, so she was introduced to visitors as the “Albanian badante” (carer), emphasising “Albanian, but very honest”. She cooked, cleaned, washed and dressed Signora Caterina, as well as taking the dust off a little statuette of Mussolini that lay by her bedside. She reported being “very well paid”: one million lire a month, which, adjusted for inflation today, makes £700.

“How many hours a day?” I asked when preparing this article. “24 su 24 [24/24], but I could go out on Sundays.” “Did you have a contract?” “I had trust.”

My mother was fond of Signora Caterina. They had bonded over their unanimous condemnation of the horrors of communism and their qualified respect for il Duce, “a good politician who did everything for the good of Italy”, the old woman said. My brother went to the local school, and on his morning commute walked past a long grey wall with black graffiti: “Fuori gli Albanesi” (“Albanians out”). He did his homework alone, watched cartoons, played on a second-hand Nintendo console he had been given, and looked forward to Sundays, when his mother could take him out for ice cream. He considers himself fortunate.

A few days after they’d left Albania, another boat transporting more than 100 migrants, mainly women and children, was hit by an Italian military vessel in the Strait of Otranto. The majority of them drowned. The Albanian government had just signed a deal authorising Italy to use force to prevent boats from accessing its territorial waters. On that occasion, the authorities had also expressed gratitude for Italy’s hospitality.

I went to Rome on a study visa later that year. I remember the time I helped an elderly woman carry her suitcase at Termini station: thank God for youngsters like me, she said: “It’s full of Albanians around here.” The time a patient in a doctor’s queue started a conversation about how Albanian violence “is in their blood”. The time I eavesdropped on some bus passengers expressing concern that their child had made an “Albanian” friend at nursery. And I remember a journalist’s words that the first question her editor asked when a house had been burgled, an elderly person murdered or a woman raped was if the suspects were Albanian. There was not much of an audience otherwise.

Albanians, once depicted as “barbarians”, “criminals” and “thieves” by Italian media, are now the good migrants. Several have made careers as pop singers, dancers and TV celebrities. They are integrated, as all migrants tend to be a few years down the line, when advancement reflects social class more than ethnicity. Many went back to Albania to invest their savings. As studies of circular migration emphasise, migrants often return to their country of origin when the conditions are right. 

Men wrapped in blankets lean over a boat in the open sea
People arriving at the Sicilian port of Messina on board an Open Arms Uno rescue boat last year © Reuters

Every Albanian family carries memories like mine, of being introduced as “Albanian but hardworking”, of trying to hide their accent, of lying about their nationality to be able to find a job or rent a flat.

See also  Global lessons from inflation’s rise above the UK target

Everyone is reluctant to share their stories. Perhaps it would seem ungrateful. Perhaps in a meritocratic culture that divides the world into winners and losers, into born criminals and honest people, to emphasise one’s individual effort requires internalising the narrative of collective failure. Perhaps because, as naturalised citizens of EU member states, their integration is more complete if they support prime minister Giorgia Meloni’s rightwing coalition. And as aspiring members of the EU, their commitment is more sincere if they volunteer to open detention centres. Perhaps it’s simply too painful.

The “barbarians” are now others. In the pages of Il Secolo d’Italia, the newspaper of Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, the headlines resemble the ones from my days in Italy. But the target is different: “Muslims are ‘invading’ Italy”; “‘Islam is dangerous and only idiots fail to understand this’”; “Italy is already invaded by Muslims, soon they will represent half of the population”.

The majority of Albanians are of Muslim descent (I used to hide that too about my family). But their European credentials seem secure. Last year Albania opened EU accession negotiations. But what is Europe? “Not a club,” Meloni said. Perhaps she had in mind a civilisation. Perhaps even a superior one, judging by the headlines of her own party’s newspapers. “As you know,” she declared on signing the agreement with Albania, “I don’t like to call it enlargement, I like to call it reunification.”

A man and woman sign documents on a table. There is an Albanian flag in the background
Edi Rama and Giorgia Meloni sign the agreement on November 6 to open two Italian migrant centres in Albania © Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images

But reunification is a legal term. It presupposes the reconstitution of a previously disrupted sovereign body (think about German reunification after 1989). Technically, the only time in history when the state of Albania and that of Italy belonged to the same jurisdictional structure was 1939 to 1943, when Victor Emmanuel III was officially “King of Italy and Albania”, following Mussolini’s invasion.

“Albanians and Italians are one and the same race,” declared an article in November 1941 (complete with scientific evidence based on cranial measurements). It was published in La Difesa della Razza (“The Defence of the Race”), a biweekly magazine, whose editorial secretary was Giorgio Almirante, later chief of staff to the minister of culture during the Nazi-fascist republic of Salò and leader of the neo-fascist “Italian Social Movement” (MSI), where one young Giorgia Meloni started her political life.

When the Italian prime minister emphasised that, in the case of Albanians, the question was not enlargement but reunification, was she addressing, yes, the enlightened European public, but perhaps more subtly her nostalgic militant base?

Conveniently for Meloni, Albanians are too traumatised by the recent communist past to open the wounds of the remote colonial one. Throughout history, how colonial centres frame a political crisis shapes its reception in the periphery. In Albania, many seem to have bought into the idea that immigration is a problem, when their only concern should be emigration (Albania’s loss of its own citizens).

The public criticism of the deal, even among intellectuals, has offered a sorry sight of wilful distortion of the facts (“Africans are going to ‘invade’ Albania”), grandiose celebration of the country’s Greco-Roman-Christian heritage, embarrassed silence about the Ottoman and communist periods and, well, plain racism. But while in EU states such debates are fuelled by office-holding politicians, in Albania at least they were confined to social media.

The Albanian prime minister, on the other hand, signed the deal but preferred not to take a stance on its political merits, a perplexing position since, just two years ago, when discussing a possible agreement between Albania and the UK, the stance was made abundantly clear: “Albania will never be that place where very rich countries establish camps to dump migrants,” he said. What changed?

“Friendship”, apparently. But friendship is based on reciprocity, and it is interesting to imagine how Meloni would have responded had Albania asked for “help” to outsource administrative detention by ceding portions of its own territory. Since last year’s election, the sharp rise in migrants arriving in Italy has led to increasingly draconian measures, including the opening of more centres and the extension of detention times. Was there another way to help?

Some weeks ago, Meloni wrote a letter to the German chancellor Olaf Scholz to confess her “astonishment” at his country’s decision to financially support NGOs engaged in rescue missions in the Mediterranean. Her government’s position is that such missions encourage human trafficking — a statement that, according to many studies, including a recent one from Harvard University, is not supported by empirical evidence.

See also  Putin abandons hopes of Ukraine deal and shifts to land-grab technique

The EU, Meloni claimed, needs to concentrate its efforts on “building structural solutions” to migration. But structural solutions require an adequate diagnosis of the problem and a coherent reflection of the alternatives.

Migration is not an emergency: on the contrary, it helps to counter demographic decline, and sending states also benefit from circular migration down the line. But even if it were, Meloni’s position is logically flawed. Her electoral slogan was “Italians first”, a selfish principle that cannot be generalised. If national interest constantly trumps international solidarity, her “structural” solution perpetuates the problem that it is trying to solve.

Perhaps this is exactly the aim: not to reform Europe but to dismantle it from within. Not to create a new framework for cosmopolitan justice but to simply assert nations’ will to power, not Kant but Nietzsche. It’s a coherent vision, even if not a desirable one: a civilisational narrative that distinguishes between natives to be protected and barbarians to be deported, “a structural solution” that aims to explode the structure. This is why the only concrete proposals concern the physical removal of “the other”. Administrative detention already makes migrants invisible behind bars; with extraterritorial processing, the bars themselves can disappear from sight.

Children on a bus
Children rescued in the Mediterranean travel by bus after arriving in the port of Taranto in southern Italy last year © AP

Unfortunately, it works. German and Austrian authorities recently announced that they are studying extraterritorial migration management. The new UK home secretary James Cleverly reacted to the Supreme Court’s Rwanda decision by emphasising that “there is an appetite for this concept”. But there are also many concerns. The plans are often legally controversial (there is a question of compatibility with international legal and humanitarian norms), administratively inefficient (processing times tend to lengthen rather than shorten), economically wasteful (states continue to cover all expenses) and morally abhorrent. They violate what Kant called a “cosmopolitan” right, the “right of citizens of the world to try to establish community with all”. 

The trouble is that such projects continue to destroy even when they fail, indeed because they fail. This too is “structural”. If scaremongering about migration becomes the condition for winning elections, adversaries can challenge parties in office by campaigning for tougher measures, at an even higher humanitarian cost, increasing hostility to courts that overturn problematic decisions. Even if Meloni’s party emerges more moderate from her time in office, the race to the bottom is not going to stop. The Rwandan deal may be rejected by the UK courts, but Suella Braverman’s letter to prime minister Rishi Sunak after her sacking this week as home secretary already anticipated the next fight.

Authoritarianism is not all or nothing, it’s a process. Framing migration as a problem is the Trojan horse that will burn democracy. The right has established a European vanguard of destruction: trying to replace a forward-looking project of integration with the dangerous myth of past organic unity, hiding the ongoing exploitation of migrant labour behind the persistent criminalisation of the foreigner.

The alternative is not to tinker with the margins but to reject the frame, shifting the focus from exclusion to injustice, the injustice of a global economic order that forces people to leave their countries. And campaigning for more, rather than fewer rights for immigrants (both political and social) so as to enable them to fight.

Signora Caterina died in my mother’s arms a few months after they met. My mother and my brother eventually returned to Albania. When my mother heard of the recent deal with Italy, she was enthusiastic. “Of course Albania should accept migrants,” she said, “they are desperate, just like we were.” Then I explained “administrative detention”, and how it enabled Italy to deny other migrants what it had once reluctantly offered her. “No solution then,” she said, “Just propaganda. We’ve seen that one too before.”

Lea Ypi is a professor of political theory at the London School of Economics and author of ‘Free: Coming of Age at the End of History’

Follow FTWeekend on Instagram and X, and subscribe to our podcast Life and Art wherever you listen