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Could Albania help keep Merkel in power?

Adelheid Feilcke | Volker Wagener
June 22, 2018

Albania is reportedly open to hosting reception centers for individuals seeking asylum in the EU. The plan could help keep embattled German Chancellor Angela Merkel in power and placate her hard-line interior minister.

Albanian police near the border with Greece
Image: DW/A. Topi

Albania may be set to serve as a temporary reception country for asylum-seekers headed for the European Union. Indeed, European Council President Donald Tusk and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz recently suggested establishing reception centers within Europe, albeit outside of EU territory.

Austria's government spokesman Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal told DW that talks about such centers are, in fact, underway with Albania and other countries.

"After being saved, illegal migrants are to be halted and taken care of on the [EU] outside border, and then brought back to their countries of origin as soon as possible," the official told DW via email. "If this is not possible, then they should be offered temporary protection in safe third-party countries."

But Endri Fuga, who advises Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and heads the government's communications department, denied any such negotiations were taking place. Albania's interior minister, Fatmir Xhafaj, also denied any talks about hosting rejected asylum-seekers or refugees.

Albania's opposition, meanwhile, alleges the government wants to open reception centers in the hope that it will speed up the country's EU accession process.

The status quo

Currently, asylum-seekers are still migrating along the so-called Balkan route towards the EU. Nowadays, however, most try to reach the bloc via the Mediterranean Sea, although Italy, Malta and Greece have grown reluctant to take in large numbers of asylum-seekers. And EU members, including Germany, are keen to see rejected asylum-seekers swiftly repatriated. So, where does Albania come into the picture?

Balkan migration route map

What speaks for Albania

Albania is situated along the Balkan migration route and on the Mediterranean, where most asylum-seekers arrive. The port of Durres has the capacity to register and house large numbers of individuals who attempt to cross the sea and are then escorted to Albania by ships from Frontex, the EU's border agency. Once in Albania, individuals who are not entitled to asylum could be repatriated, while those in need and those likely to be granted asylum would then be distributed throughout the EU.

Read more: Albania's political system plagued by murky financing

The country has several advantages from an EU perspective. It is not a member of the bloc, meaning Schengen rules guaranteeing open borders do not apply. And similarly, Albania is not a party to the EU's Dublin agreement that sets guidelines for the asylum process. It is, however, a NATO member, and a NATO antiterror center is currently being set up there. Moreover, northern Albania is very mountainous, and thus a natural frontier to EU territory.  

Is Albania ready?

Albania has ample experience in housing and caring for refugees. It took in up to 1 million Kosovars in 1998 and 1999 during the Balkan wars. And following the influx of refugees into Europe in 2015, Albania significantly increased its capacity to take in migrants. Yet so far, those reception centers remain largely unused. Albanian media have reported that only several thousand asylum-seekers are presently housed in the country.

Read more: EU asylum policy: Chances for consensus seem slim

Neven Crvenkovic, the UN refugee agency's (UNHCR) spokesman for southeastern Europe, confirmed that since 2017 Albania has doubled its capacity to house and process asylum-seekers. As an EU hopeful, Albania already meets many of the bloc's humanitarian standards. Indeed, the UNHCR reports that Albania treats asylum-seekers well.

Refugee camp in Greece
Many asylum-seekers make their way to northern Europe via the BalkansImage: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

Xhafaj is presently touring European capitals for bilateral meetings on, among other things, the question of migration. On Thursday, Xhafaj was in Berlin for talks.

How would Merkel profit from the deal?

At his last meeting with Austrian Chancellor Kurz, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, a member of the Christian Social Union (CSU), said he supports the idea of reception centers outside of EU territory. However, the spokesman for Germany's government, Steffen Seibert, refrained from commenting on the matter in light of Sunday's EU summit in Brussels.

Read more: Asylum benefits in the EU: How member states compare

A possible deal with Albania could help ease tensions between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Seehofer. It would meet the interior minister's demand that asylum applications could be filed outside the EU, yet they would remain under EU oversight. His conservative CSU party could capitalize on such a deal in Bavaria's upcoming state elections, where it is trying to fend off the insurgent far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). And Germany's coalition government made up of Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), the Bavarian CSU, and the Social Democrats (SPD) would regain stability.

While possibly healing the rift between Merkel and Seehofer, the idea could cause fresh friction between the conservative CDU/CSU union and the SPD, the junior partner in Germany's grand coalition.

Croatian-born German lawmaker Josip Juratovic, a well-known Balkans expert for the SPD, warns that his party would not back refugee centers in Albania.

"For us, the humanitarian standards for people seeking protection need to be upheld, and everyone knows that this is not the case in most countries," Juratovic told DW.

Leaving German politics aside, Albania would also benefit from such a deal. By opening EU reception centers, it could curry favor with the bloc's more conservative forces, who are skeptical of initiating EU accession talks with the country.

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