Former Albanian navy port to take in migrants sent on from Italy

By Florion Goga

SHENGJIN, Albania (Reuters) - An Albanian port that was once home to the country's navy is set to receive African, Asian and Middle East migrants sent on from Italy as part of a deal that has drawn criticism from human rights groups.

The deal, expected to be ratified by Albania's parliament on Thursday, will allow Italy to build migrant-processing centres on the territory of the western Balkan nation, one of Europe's poorest and least developed.

It is the first example of a non-European Union country accepting migrants on behalf of an EU nation, and is part of an EU-wide campaign to clamp down on irregular immigration that has fuelled a rise in the popularity of the far right.

Migrants who arrive in Italy would be taken by boat to the ex-navy port of Shengjin, now a popular tourist destination on Albania's scenic northern Adriatic seacoast.

"I welcome this agreement. I feel a spiritual obligation because my children were raised in Italy," said Mhill Marku, an Albanian ex-military officer whose four children live in Italy.

"Italy was there for us in the most difficult days of our history in the '90s, it became Albania's door and window," Marku, who lives in Shengjin, told Reuters. He was alluding to many compatriots who emigrated to Italy to flee economic collapse in Albania after the fall of communist rule.

From Shengjin, migrants will be taken inland to Gjader, a small town about a 15-minute drive away, where they will be accommodated until their papers are processed. Both facilities in Shengjin and in Gjader will be staffed by Italian personnel.

The total number of migrants present at one time in Albania cannot be more than 3,000 under the deal.

The European Commission in Brussels has declared that the Italian-Albanian scheme does not breach EU law.

Albania's Constitutional Court ruled on Monday that the deal was "in accordance with the constitution" and said it could now go on to be ratified in parliament.

However, rights experts warn it might be hard for Italian courts to promptly process asylum requests or appeals against detention orders from people hosted in another country, and that lengthy procedures could put an unjustified burden on migrants.

The U.N. high commissioner for human rights chief said last week the plan raised concerns about arbitrary detention and living conditions for migrants.

The accord has drawn comparisons with the British government's plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda in East Africa as a deterrent to further migrant journeys in small boats across the Channel from France organised by human traffickers.

The Rwanda scheme was declared unlawful in November by non-EU Britain's Supreme Court and the government has introduced legislation it hopes, when passed, will override human rights concerns.

(This story has been refiled to correct the byline)

(Reporting by Florion Goga; writing by Ivana Sekularac; editing by Mark Heinrich)