YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – Stories of African migrants perishing in the Saharan desert or on the Mediterranean Sea in a desperate bid to escape poverty, famine and violence have become all too common, with one international agency recording almost 4,000 such deaths last year alone.

Against that backdrop, Pope Francis has selected “Free to choose whether to migrate or stay” as the theme for the Church-sponsored World Day of Migrants and Refugees set for Sept. 24, one day after the pontiff is scheduled to return for a trip to Marseilles, France, to discuss the fate of the Mediterranean region.

While affluent societies often see the arrival of large numbers of migrants as a problem, Monsignor Robert Vitillo, Secretary General of the International Catholic Migration Commission, says they also deliver precious contributions.

Given current realities, Vitillo told Crux, migration in many cases is not a choice, but the only “hope of survival.”

The following are excerpts from Crux’s exclusive conversation with Vitello, a New Jersey native and a former official both with Caritas, the Vatican-based confederation of Catholic charities around the world, and with the U.S. bishops’ conference Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

Crux: Pope Francis has called on governments to urgently help migrants in North Africa, who he said are undergoing “unspeakable suffering”. How relevant is that appeal in view of the prevailing circumstances?

Vitillo: I was deeply grateful to the Holy Father for raising this tragic situation during his Angelus prayer and blessing. I was joining him remotely in prayer on that day, as I do on every Sunday. He often calls attention to the suffering of forced migrants and refugees in many “hot spots” in the world.

Too often, the pope represents the “voice of the prophet crying in the desert” but, hopefully, his voice will continue to awaken consciences – both of world leaders, but also of the general population of Catholics and all people of good will so that we can be more sensitive and responsive to the marginalized people, including migrants and refugees, despite today’s ego-centric and “throwaway” culture.

In my opinion, the challenges faced by migrants and refugees passing through North Africa in efforts to reach Europe and beyond are little known by most people and do not receive adequate attention in media coverage of such situations.

The International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) is a global network of Catholic Episcopal Conferences that respond to needs of refugees and migrants. We have been convening remote regional meetings of these ICMC national Member Episcopal Conferences and, in our meetings of the Middle East/North Africa Region, we often hear of the church’s response to these people. Even though the church represents a very small minority in these countries, it is actively engaged in providing humanitarian assistance and protection to the migrants who seek their help.

The Holy Father also spoke about the “unspeakable suffering” the migrants experience. Can you give a sense of how deep the suffering is, and what the likely impacts could be for their

Significant numbers of migrants seek to reach Europe because of the lack of access to the basic necessities of life and enjoyment of their God-given human dignity in their home countries that often are plagued by conflict, violence, corruption, discrimination, structural injustices and abject poverty.

When they are blocked at borders, they become vulnerable to unscrupulous traffickers and smugglers. They often spend all their money to be loaded on unseaworthy vessels or be led through deserts. In the course of such dangerous journeys, they often are physically and sexually abused; some are subjected to forced removal of kidneys by organ traffickers. They also are deeply fearful of retaliation toward their family members who have been left behind in their countries of origin, since these trafficking rings are linked to networks of organized crime and corruption in many parts of the world.

Others are placed in prison or detention centers and are subjected to inhuman living conditions, lack of clean drinking water, poor nutrition, and they too often face physical and sexual abuse. ICMC staff has worked with the survivors of such abuse and have reported on the challenges of providing trauma treatment and inspiring hope for a new future among them.

Other migrants are forced to live in intolerable conditions just waiting for the chance to enter Italy (this remains the first country of destination – so far, this year 84,000 migrants have arrived there), Spain (so far, this year, 14,000 migrants have arrived), or other European countries.

I once visited a North African country with a delegation of Catholic bishops from the countries of origin of some of the migrants who were living in a forest, just waiting for the chance to cross the border into Spain. The bishops tried to convince especially the young people to return home, [but] they made it very clear that they represented the hope of survival for their families at home. Only if they are able to find jobs in Europe will their families at home be able to access even basic education, medical care, adequate nutrition. They could not turn their backs on their families who live in such poverty or in the midst of war.

Our organization deploys experts to work with the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in these countries. These experts try to identify regular routes for the most vulnerable refugees, especially for the survivors of sexual and other forms of violence, the disabled, and unaccompanied minors. However, it is difficult for these persons to be permanently resettled in Europe or North America, or other high-income countries.

It also is difficult for them to receive permission to join family members who are seeking to welcome them in places where they have migrated previously, where they have jobs and have integrated into the host society, and where they want desperately to welcome their family members who may be escaping war, violence, ethnic and religious persecution.

Regrettably, even though many higher-income countries are suffering from negative growth rates and increasing numbers of elderly and vulnerable people, national governments refuse to grant work visas to migrants who already have other family members in these respective countries.

How can African and European governments work collaboratively to address the problem?

There are many initiatives among African and European governments to work collaboratively in this regard. But too often, these efforts are built on control and on blocking migrants and refugees, even for those who are fleeing violence, absence of the rule of law, persecution, lack of access to decent and dignified work.

Then there are the efforts to “externalize” applications for asylum. Even though many countries have signed the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees, they now are preventing people from making an application for asylum, but instead are seeking to pay another country, often a country with its own human rights or conflict issues, to process claims for asylum in high-income and peaceful countries.

Inter-country collaboration needs to go beyond expensive meetings in five-star hotels and reach the communities most affected. High-income countries need to make available more practical aid to advance development in low-income territories so that people could make migration a choice rather than the only alternative for safety and/or survival.

Do you think that the desperation is a result of failed leadership in Africa, or a consequence of an unjust global system?

I believe an element in forced migration and flight of refugees is failed leadership, not only in Africa, but in many parts of the world. Until the leaders (and the citizens!) in many countries are willing to commit the resources for integral human development in all parts of the world, we will continue to see desperation among many people in Africa, in many other low-income countries, and in low-income populations even in the so-called “wealthy Europe and America” as you refer to them.

We also need to re-define wealth and recognize that migrants and refugees bring much wealth to welcoming host country – through their youth, their willingness to engage in hard work, their intellectual curiosity and abilities, and their right culture and faith in God.

What policy changes do you think are necessary in Africa to stem the tide of migration?

We already have the policy frameworks for these changes with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the Geneva Convention on Refugees, the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and the Global Compact on Refugees, [as well as] many conventions and global
agreements on work. But we need to develop the will to put their frameworks into practice.

We need to change the narrative on migration – to no longer define it as a problem to be
“managed” but as an opportunity to develop global fraternity and solidarity.

As a humanitarian, faith-based organization, what has the ICMC been doing to offer respite to African migrants bent on reaching the West?

I already mentioned ICMC’s deployment of experts to the Offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to help identify durable solutions for refugees, including resettlement and other complementary pathways for regular migration, with permission to work and a clear path to citizenship in the host country. We also deploy experts to UNICEF, focusing on child protection.

In Turkey and Lebanon, we facilitate applications for resettlement to the USA and to the European Union countries. In Malaysia, we assist refugee survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (some of them coming from Africa and many other countries, but most coming from Myanmar).

In the European Union, we are working with municipalities and national governments to promote regular pathways for migration and integration of migrants and refugees into local communities, especially in rural areas.

ICMC also convenes civil society participation in an annual meeting of governments and civil society in the Global Forum for Migration and Development, including non-governmental organizations, businesses, and diaspora and migrant/refugee groups from all parts of the world, including from Africa.