Italy will build centres in Albania to host migrants arriving in Italy by sea, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni says as she unveiled a new scheme to try to bring down numbers that have nearly doubled in the past year.
Meloni said the Albanian centres would initially host about 3000 people when they are due to open in the northern hemisphere spring in 2024.
She said the Italian government then hoped to scale up their capacity to process 36,000 migrants a year.
More than 145,000 people have come ashore in Italy so far in 2023, compared with about 88,000 in the same period in 2022.
Meloni's administration has already toughened jail terms for human smugglers and ruled to increase the number of detention centres around the country to hold migrants ahead of their possible repatriation.
Meloni's populist Brothers of Italy party has long called for such facilities to be set up outside the European Union, proposing for example northern Africa, but no country from that region had accepted.
"I consider this as a truly European agreement, and I want to say that it shows that it is possible to work together on the management of migratory flows," Meloni said, speaking in Rome alongside her Albanian counterpart Edi Rama.
"They (the migrants) will stay in these centres for the time necessary to quickly process asylum applications and, if necessary, for repatriation," she said.
The Italian leader said minors, pregnant women and other vulnerable groups would not be taken to Albania.
Few other details of the project, including the cost, have been disclosed.
A source in her office said the pact would apply only to migrants rescued at sea by the Italian coastguard or navy, and not by charities.
The same source denied Italy would pay any money to Albania to host the centres.
Meloni said Italy would build a migrant identification facility at the Albanian port of Shëngjin and a repatriation centre inland.
Both facilities will operate under Italian jurisdiction, she said.
Speaking in Italian, Albanian Prime Minister Rama said he felt a duty to help Italy due to the special relationship between the two countries, linked by geographical proximity and colonial history, among other things.
"Lending a hand, in this case, means helping to manage a situation that everyone sees it is difficult for Italy," Rama said.
The main countries migrants have arrived from in Italy in 2023 were Guinea, Ivory Coast and Tunisia, official data shows.
"This is extremely repressive towards foreign nationals who have a kind of lower-category status on personal freedom because they are not European Union citizens," Maurizio Veglio, a lawyer and expert in immigration law, told Reuters.