Albania makes progress on Italy's migrant centres ahead of Meloni visit

By Fatos Bytyci and Florion Goga

GJADER, Albania (Reuters) - Construction workers in Albania are working hard to transform a former military air base into an Italian-run migrant centre ahead of a progress-check by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni this week.

Meloni is expected to visit the former air field in Gjader on Wednesday - days before elections to the European Parliament - as bulldozers are levelling the soil to accommodate new white containers arriving from Italy.

Italy agreed a deal with Albania to set up the centre in Gjader and another in the sea side town of Shengjin 20 kilometers away to host migrants rescued at sea by Italian boats while their asylum applications are processed.

"Someone has honored us before by accepting us as refugees and we now have to do the same," said Gjok Prenga, a pensioner from Gjader, where white containers can be seen from his house. "I see no problem from migrants arriving here."

It remains unclear when the centres will be operational. An initial deadline to open them in the spring has already passed.

The deal has drawn criticism from human rights activists who say it will be harder for Italian courts to promptly process asylum requests or appeals from people hosted in another country, and lengthy procedures could put an unjustified burden on migrants.

Many in Albania fear it could impact the country's security and its tourist industry.

The deal was challenged in Albania's Constitutional Court in January but the verdict was in favour of the government of Prime Minister Edi Rama.

While UN officials have criticised the Italy-Albania deal, the European Commission has said it does not appear to breach EU law as it falls outside its jurisdiction.

A similar deal between Britain and Rwanda has also been hotly contested. A UK government lawyer said on Monday that Britain intends to begin deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda on July 24.

(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Christina Fincher)