LAMPEDUSA ISLAND, Italy, July 8 (UNHCR) – Pope Francis, during a highly symbolic visit to Italy’s Lampedusa Island on Monday, called for understanding and solidarity for the thousands of people who risk their lives every year on the high seas to reach Europe and prayed for those who lost their lives in the attempt.
Pope Francis talks to migrants from Africa at the pier where they stepped ashore onto Italy’s Lampedusa Island. © ANSA/A.Tarantino
Hours before his arrival, a small boat carrying 166 people of various nationalities had reached the island, 74 miles from Tunisia. The Italian coastguard reportedly rescued another boat carrying 120 people, including a pregnant woman, on Sunday.
The Pope met a group of 50 recently arrived migrants, mainly young Somali and Eritrean men, during his first pastoral visit outside Rome since being elected as pontiff in March. “Let’s pray for those who did not make it,” he told them.
One man from Eritrea told Pope Francis why he had left his home and described his ordeal during the crossing. He asked that Europe give him assistance. Migrants arriving on Lampedusa are normally taken to reception centers on the mainland to ease the burden on the island, whose resident population is just 6,000 people.
Before meeting the migrants, Pope Francis had boarded an Italian coastguard vessel and cast a floral wreath into the sea off Lampedusa in memory of those who have died during the attempted crossing from North Africa. He then visited the pier where the boatpeople reach land after their arduous and dangerous journey.
The Pope next held an open air mass attended by thousands of locals, tourists and migrants. A small wooden fishing boat served as the altar, a ship’s wheel was on the lectern and the cross held by the Pope had been fashioned from wood taken from a run-down boat that had brought one group to Lampedusa.
He told the congregation that he had been moved to come to the island after learning that at least 10 people had died when their boat foundered on June 17. He thanked the local population for their solidarity and also thanked associations and authorities who work to assist migrants.
The Pope called for more understanding for those who flee their homes in search of hope and a better place for their families, and while doing so put their lives at risk and often in the hands of smugglers. Pope Francis cautioned against the indifference shown towards the suffering of migrants.
UNHCR Regional Representative Laurens Jolles said the Pope’s visit had significant humanitarian and symbolic value. “During his first months as Pope, we have had the chance to appreciate his attention towards refugees and migrants,” he said, adding: “We are glad that he could meet a group of migrants, who explained the reasons why they were forced to flee and the dangers of their journey.”
The Pope has long been a strong advocate for the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers. On June 19, the eve of World Refugee Day, he called on people and governments to give special consideration to the situation of refugee families.
“We cannot be insensitive to these families or towards our refugee brothers and sisters. We are called to help them, opening ourselves to understanding and hospitality. May there be no lack of people and institutions around the world to assist them,” he said.
UNHCR estimates that approximately 8,400 migrants and asylum-seekers landed on the coasts of Italy and Malta in the first six months of this year. The majority, 7,800, arrived in Italy. Most making the journey left from North Africa, principally Libya (around 6,700 people). The remaining 1,700 crossed from Greece and Turkey, landing in southern Italy’s Apulia and Calabria regions.
Countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are the main places of origin of these migrants and asylum-seekers, particularly Somalia and Eritrea. Other countries of origin include Afghanistan, Egypt, Gambia, Mali, Pakistan and Syria.
UNHCR has recorded some 40 deaths in the first six months of 2013 by people attempting to cross to Italy from North Africa. In 2012, almost 500 people were reported dead or missing at sea. The decrease in deaths so far in 2013 is thanks in part to the efforts of the Italian and Maltese authorities
The UN refugee agency engages with all the world’s major religions in the cause of protection of the forcibly displaced and stateless. UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres last year held a dialogue in Geneva on faith and protection. Those attending included faith leaders, representatives of faith-based organizations, inter-faith experts and academics.