Pope Francis along with two Orthodox leaders declared on Saturday during an outing to the Greek island of Lesbos that “Europe today faces one of its most serious humanitarian crises since the end of the Second World War,” and the latest numbers regarding refugees trying to make their way to the Old Continent bear that out.
The European Union’s border agency said on Monday that the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Italy, one of the primary points of entry for refugees attempting to reach Europe, more than doubled last month.
Frontex said in a statement on Monday that almost 9,600 migrants attempted the crossing in March 2016, one of the most perilous sea voyages for people seeking sanctuary or jobs in Europe. Conventional estimates are that over the last two decades, more than 2,000 people have lost their lives attempting to reach Europe across the Mediterranean.
The new figure is more than four times the 2,283 people who set out in March 2015.
Frontex said most of those attempting the trip were from sub-Saharan Africa, and there is little evidence that migrants from the Middle East or Asia are changing routes.
The agency says the number of entries into Greece from Turkey slowed significantly in March from February, but at 26,460 people, that figure remains three times the number from a year ago.
In their joint statement on Saturday, the three Christian leaders urged Europe to adopt “inclusive” policies for these new arrivals.
“We urge the international community to make the protection of human lives a priority and, at every level, to support inclusive policies which extend to all religious communities,” said the declaration.
In addition to Pope Francis, the other two signatories were Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, traditionally considered “first among equals” in Orthodox Christianity, and Archbishop Ieronymous II of Athens, leader of the Greek Orthodox Church.
“The terrible situation of all those affected by the present humanitarian crisis, including so many of our Christian brothers and sisters, calls for our constant prayer,” they said.
At a Lesbos port, the three religious leaders said prayers and threw laurel wreaths into the sea, where thousands of migrants have lost their lives.
“World opinion cannot ignore the colossal humanitarian crisis created by the spread of violence and armed conflict, the persecution and displacement of religious and ethnic minorities, and the uprooting of families from their homes, in violation of their human dignity and their fundamental human rights and freedoms,” the declaration said.
The declaration said their meeting aimed to demonstrate their “profound concern” at the tragic situation of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers who flee conflict and threats to their own survival. The crisis calls for solidarity, compassion, generosity and “an immediate practical commitment of resources.”
“As leaders of our respective Churches, we are one in our desire for peace and in our readiness to promote the resolution of conflicts through dialogue and reconciliation,” the pope and the Orthodox leaders said.
They encouraged political leaders to use every means to ensure that individuals and communities, including Christians, “remain in their homelands and enjoy the fundamental right to live in peace and security.”
They called for a broad international consensus to defend the rule of law and fundamental rights, to protect minorities, to develop safe resettlement procedures and to eliminate unsafe routes. They said the Aegean Sea and the entire Mediterranean were among these unsafe routes.
“In this way we will be able to assist those countries directly engaged in meeting the needs of so many of our suffering brothers and sisters,” they said.
The Associated Press and the Catholic News Agency contributed to this report.