ROME – Four years have passed since Pope Francis, while visiting the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, threw a flower garland into the waves that had already claimed thousands of innocent lives.
Lampedusa, which is only 70 miles from the coast of Tunisia, is usually the first landing place for immigrants braving the Mediterranean Sea.
On October 3, Italy commemorates the ‘Day of Memory and Welcome’ that has the double intention of remembering the countless people who died as a result of the migrant crisis and promoting plans that ensure that such things no longer happen.
“Before this sea of Lampedusa there are 30,000 dead, not considering those we haven’t counted; but there are just as many who are not counted,” said Italian Cardinal Francesco Montenegro, archbishop of the Sicilian town of Agrigento and president of Caritas Italy.
“We want to and must stop counting the dead. We must take down the walls and barbed wires that cage in people as well as hearts, and continue to kill. We must strongly say ‘No more dead!,’ ‘All must survive and have hope.’ This tired and weak Europe must change.”
Montenegro spoke these powerful words before the ‘Door of Europe,’ a monument in Lampedusa symbolizing the gateway that every day welcomes hundreds of immigrants escaping war, famine, poverty from Africa and the Middle East and who have been rescued at sea.
His speech took place after a quiet march through the tiny island honoring the victims. “Protect people, not borders,” and “Europe begins in Lampedusa,” are only two examples of the banners held by the many who took part in the march, which included survivors, first responders, and young people.
The event marked the anniversary since 368 people, mostly young men from Eritrea, died tragically only one mile away from the coast of Lampedusa on October 3, 2013. An accident was caused when a small, overpacked vessel caught fire leaving its passengers trapped. Only 150 people were saved and almost 200 bodies were found, though many more would wash up on the shores later. Less than a week after, 100 more bodies were found trapped within the boat.
The event marked a profound change in Europe’s perspective on immigrants and effectively started the conversation regarding the welcoming, integrating and rescuing of lives in the Mediterranean. Francis, only recently elected at the time, chose the island for his first trip outside Rome and prayed for the victims.
Italy answered by launching ‘Mare Nostrum,’ an initiative aimed at saving and monitoring migrants as they made their way over the perilous seaway. The tragedy also in many ways signaled the beginning of the Church’s international campaign for immigrants and refugees, which continues to this day. On September 27, Francis launched the ‘Share the Journey’ initiative aimed at promoting an encounter between welcoming countries and immigrants. The Italian Episcopal Conference also promoted several programs such as safe human corridors to welcome migrants from Eritrea and the campaign ‘Free to leave, Free to stay.’
“I was here to take the bodies when the shipwreck happened,” Montenegro said at the International Conference ‘Living and Witnessing the Frontier,’ the day before the commemoration. “Many of those dead people had a cross or medal around their neck. They died in communion with God, encountering Him. They were our Christian brothers.” The cardinal also spent the afternoon on October 3 with leaders of the Protestant Church in Lampedusa in an ecumenical commemoration honoring the victims.
“This Door of Europe must remain open, some may want to close it, but we must stop them,” Montenegro said, especially to the students present after the march.
Many patrol boats and fishing boats, often the first to be present when fatal accidents happen to the migrant vessels at sea, surrounded the place where the tragedy occurred four years ago, with people praying and throwing flowers in the waters.
“What was once a beautiful sea has become a liquid tomb,” Montenegro had said the day before. “We are talking about human rights… but we take them for granted. In fact, they are not recognized always and everywhere.”