A Catholic diocese in northern Italy on the border with France has opened the doors of one its parishes to refugees and asylum seekers, mostly Muslims including 50 new arrivals who were blocked on Monday trying to enter France by train.
In an effort to cope with the tidal wave of migrants and refugees pouring through the region, Bishop Antonio Suetta of Ventimiglia-San Remo had already welcomed several hundred people to the local parish of Sant’Antonio, where they’re sleeping in meeting rooms, outside on parish grounds, and even inside the church itself.
With the beginning of Ramadan in early June, the Catholic charity Caritas has relaunched a collaboration with two French humanitarian groups of Islamic inspiration to provide 600 meals a night to migrants currently blocked at the Italian/French border.
On Monday, a new group of 50 people were detained by French security services aboard an early morning train, and then handed over to Italian authorities. Aid workers say the people detained are mostly refugees from Eritrea, Sudan and Syria.
Attorneys volunteering services for Caritas are meeting with the blocked migrants, explaining their rights as asylum seekers. For space reasons, two of the families among the new arrivals are presently staying in another local parish.
“Between Sunday night and Monday, we began registering everyone, and within the day we should have a clearer picture of the situation and everyone’s requests,” said Maurizio Marmo, the local Caritas director.
“Most want to go to France, but we also want to offer legal assistance to anyone who wants to stay [in Italy],” he said.
“Very few of these people know their rights,” Marmo said.
Marmo said the response from the local community has been gratifying.
“Doctors have come to help out, along with various associations and private citizens,” he said. “We’ve had donations, and persons who just showed up to bring food. We really haven’t had to buy anything.”
Marmo told Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, that among the volunteers are members of Islamic charitable groups as well as members of different local Catholic parishes.
In another parish, five migrants are currently receiving medical treatment for chickenpox, and one is presently hospitalized with a suspected case of tuberculosis. A local health association is providing free vaccinations for the rest.
The mayor of Ventimiglia has proposed creating a temporary center of welcome for migrants and refugees such as those currently staying in local parishes, but with the stipulation that they will have 48 hours to be identified and registered formally as asylum seekers or they’ll be expelled.
Some aid workers and church officials have objected to the plan on the grounds that 48 hours is not enough time to process requests properly, especially when migrants frequently arrive ill, exhausted, and without any documentation.
Last year, Pope Francis called on Catholic institutions across Europe to open their doors to provide shelter for migrants, as the continent struggles to cope with its largest refugee crisis since World War II, mostly fueled by arrivals fleeing war and chaos in the Middle East and northern Africa.