Knights of Malta chief: Migrant deaths represent 'greatest mass grave since WW2'

Knights of Malta chief: Migrant deaths represent ‘greatest mass grave since WW2’

Knights of Malta chief: Migrant deaths represent ‘greatest mass grave since WW2’

Albrecht Boeselager, Grand Chancellor of the Knights of Malta, answers questions during a press conference at the Foreign Press Club in Rome, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017. (Credit: AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis.)

Albrecht von Boeselager, Grand Chancellor of the Order of Malta, has said the number of migrant deaths is something Europe can’t ignore, and stressed the importance of seeking a multilateral solution to the issue as nations prepare to adopt the U.N. global compact on migration.

ROME – Albrecht von Boeselager, Grand Chancellor of the Order of Malta, has said Europe cannot ignore its high number of migrant deaths, and stressed the importance of seeking a multilateral solution as nations prepare to adopt the U.N. global compact on migration in Morocco.

“It has an effect on the soul of Europe if just across the border we have the greatest mass grave since World War II,” Boeselager said Dec. 5, speaking of the Mediterranean. “I cannot believe that it will leave the soul of Europe unaffected, and the situation, though there is less attention to it, has not become easier or less dangerous.”

Speaking to a small group of journalists, he said that while the total number of people crossing the Mediterranean has gone down, the number of those drowning has gone up, while other migrants are dying in the desert after being abandoned by traffickers fleeing police.

Noting how many European countries will not be signing the compact, he said “it’s a pity that Europe is so divided,” because the continent is losing credibility and influence on the global stage.

“Europe is taken less seriously by other parts of the world, and this is not positive,” he said, adding that migration “is one of the issues which cannot be tackled by one nation. It’s a multinational phenomenon and it has to be dealt with on a multilateral basis. Otherwise we will not be able to cope with it.”

Boeselager in late 2016 was at the center of a major internal conflict in the Order of Malta which resulted in weeks of a back-and-forth power-struggle with the Vatican after Boeselager was essentially kicked out, only to be reinstated by Pope Francis himself.

Francis then launched an investigation into Boeselager’s exit and, when former Grand Master Fra’ Matthew Festing refused to cooperate, he asked Festing to resign and ordered the group to undergo an in-depth internal reform, modifying their constitutions and focusing on how to gain new, younger members. He named then-Archbishop, now Cardinal, Angelo Becciu as his special envoy overseeing the reform, which is ongoing.

In May Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre was elected as the new Grand Master, and though the order continues to navigate their internal reform, they are moving forward on charitable projects, including the global migration compact to be adopted in Marrakesh during a Dec. 10-11 U.N. summit.

Boeselager will be present alongside representatives from over 140 nations to sign the compact, including Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, which has received heavy support from Francis.

In his comments to journalists, Boeselager stressed the importance of finding a multilateral solution to the migration phenomenon and engaging with faith-based organizations, saying Francis is “one of the very few, if not the remaining moral authority in the world, and I think people listen to his voice.”

Below are excerpts of Boeselager’s conversation with journalists.

Crux: We come together just before you and member states are due to sign the migration compact. What input has the Sovereign Order of Malta been able to give in drawing up the document?

Boeselager: I think we should at first be very satisfied that it was possible to draw such a compact in negotiations with almost all countries of the world. That’s a great achievement, and I’m quite confident that it will have an effect. You see already in some countries that they are already starting to implement some measures. For instance, resettlement, negotiating resettlement figures, which country could take how many people, and I think for many the negotiations about the compact have also been an eye-opener. The issues have become much more visible for many decision makers.

What is your opinion on the position of the Italian government? Our foreign minister, Matteo Salvini, made a statement not only about the global compact, but also about the decision to close our ports to the NGOs.

As you know the Order of Malta as such does not make political comments. But perhaps there are two remarks I can make. Our experience is that the behavior of migrants in a country depends very much on how they are treated. If you consider that the majority of these people will stay in the country and cannot be sent back, one should not risk creating a subculture or a group of people who are marginalized and even excluded from society and could pose a threat to society later.

It’s not a moral argument but a purely opportunistic argument, but I think that’s something one should have in mind.

The other point does not regard Italy alone, it regards Europe. I think it has an effect on the soul of Europe if just across the border we have the greatest mass grave since World War II. I cannot believe that it will leave the soul of Europe unaffected, and the situation, though there is less attention to it, has not become easier or less dangerous. The total numbers of people crossing the Mediterranean has gone down, but the percentage of people drowning has gone up. That’s one side.

The other is that since the efforts to better secure the southern border of Libya, from Niger or other countries the traffickers use more secretive but more dangerous routes, bypassing villages and there are increasing reports that people are dying in the desert, because if the traffickers see the police or a patrol they leave the migrants alone and they are lost in the desert. There are no concrete figures because nobody knows, but there are increasing reports of those happenings.

It’s a pity that Europe is so divided, because the weight of Europe is going down. Europe is taken less seriously by other parts of the world and this is not positive. Not regarding which policy as such, it is a negative signal. Migration is one of the issues which cannot be tackled by one nation. It’s a multinational phenomenon and it has to be dealt with on a multilateral basis. Otherwise we will not be able to cope with it.

Europe is not the only continent where there is an anti-migrant position. There is also the United States, continuing wars in Syria and other countries. Now there is the new crisis with Russia and nuclear weapons. Do you think this context, which is so different than two years ago, will make it more difficult to find a global solution to migration?

I think the real challenge is an egoistic attitude of our societies. These politicians don’t fall from heaven. You have short-term allies, but when you always put yourself first, then that’s the end of multilateral attitudes. And that’s due, of course, to fear of losing comfortable living standards. But it’s a short-term attitude. If we don’t talk about religion, we have to still observe the Golden Rule: how you wish to be treated, you should treat others, and if you don’t follow this rule, it will strike back sometime later.

Why is engagement between faith organizations and civil society important on these issues, and what can the Order of Malta contribute?

At least about 90 percent of the world’s population adheres to religion. That also means that most of them have regard for the authority of their religious leaders, so religious leaders have an important influence on the decision-making of people. I think there’s a growing understanding among politicians that this position of religions has to be taken into regard. Most of the basic, human values are shared by all religions, so they can have a positive impact on decisions. Also, in most religions the rule that a stranger has to be treated acceptably well is a basic value, so it’s important that these factors are taken into account.

Pope Francis has been a champion for the past five years in advocating for the rights of migrants. How important has his voice been and how has it been taken into consideration?

I think nobody can ignore his voice. Pope Francis is one of the very few, if not the remaining moral authority in the world, and I think people listen to his voice. Whether they then follow it is another question, but I’m sure he’s heard.

This is spoken about as a crisis, but some have criticized this terminology since the numbers are very different than two years ago. How would you describe the phenomenon now and what do you think are the misconceptions that lead people to have a more negative perception?

You’re right, if you talk about a crisis of the numbers that are arriving at the moment. The figures of people arriving now is low, so in this regard there is no crisis anymore. But there is still a crisis of people risking their lives, being trafficked, becoming slaves. There are more slaves in the world today than have ever been in history, more than 40 million. Many of these migrants become slaves because they are indebted to the trafficking organizations and then forced to slave labor. There is an increasing development that migrants pay with their organs for the trafficking, so there is an increasing criminalization, and in this regard the crisis is not at all over. And everybody says we will be faced with probably increasing migrant movements in the coming decades.

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