ROME – Pope Francis Sunday marked the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, asking the world to pray for those forced to flee their homes at the close of a deadly week in which around 200 migrants seeking entry into Europe drowned in the Mediterranean.
Speaking during his Sept. 27 Sunday Angelus address, the pope waved and offered a special greeting to a group of migrants and refugees standing next to the “Angels Unaware” statue in a rainy St. Peter’s Square.
A group of around 50 people were standing next to the statue, some of whom were holding banners for the Italian Sant’Egidio community, known for its charitable social work.
Pope Francis, who has made the issue of migration a cornerstone of his papacy, blessed the statue by Timothy Schmalz – which depicts 140 migrants ranging from a Jewish man escaping Nazi Germany to a Syrian refugee fleeing war, as well as Mary and Joseph, the parents of Jesus – during last year’s World Day of Migrants and Refugees.
This year, the day was marked throughout Italy with Masses, photo exhibits, special soup-kitchen lunches, conferences, and prayer events.
In his remarks to pilgrims, Francis noted that like the parents of Jesus, migrants, refugees and the internally displaced are also “forced to flee.”
“This is the same for migrants and the displaced,” he said, adding, “They, and those who assist them, in a special way receive our remembrance and our prayer.
Francis’s remarks come after a particularly deadly week for migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean, which the pope has often likened to a “cemetery” due to the number of people who drown attempting to escape violence and poverty.
In the past week alone, nearly 200 migrants traveling from Libya to Europe died in five separate incidents at sea. While migrants in distress are often helped by passing boats or NGO rescue vessels, no Italian ships were in the waters to come to their aid at the times the incidents occurred due to restrictions on civil sea rescues.
According to Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, one migrant ship sunk Sept. 21, leading to the death of 111 people. Only nine of the boat’s passengers survived thanks to a fishing boat which found them only after several days at sea and brought them aboard.
Among the deceased was a family of six – a mother, father and four children – all drowned as a result of the incident, the details of which rescuers are trying to piece together through the stories of those who survived.
Some 120 migrants who were brought back to Libya last week told representatives of the International Organization for Migrants that a separate incident took place sometime between Friday night Sept. 25 and Saturday morning Sept. 26, claiming 15 lives when the flimsy dinghy they were using began to deflate mid-passage.
According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, as of Sept. 23 around 8,247 people were registered as having been rescued at sea by the Libyan coast guard this year, most of whom were taken to prison camps upon their return to Libya.
In this year’s message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, dedicated to the internally displaced, Pope Francis noted that often “When we talk about migrants and displaced persons, all too often we stop at statistics. But it is not about statistics, it is about real people!”
“Almost every day the television and papers carry news of refugees fleeing from hunger, war and other grave dangers, in search of security and a dignified life for themselves and for their families,” he said.
“In the faces of the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, strangers and prisoners, we are called to see the face of Christ who pleads with us to help,” he said, adding, “If we can recognize him in those faces, we will be the ones to thank him for having been able to meet, love and serve him in them.”
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For years, the topic of immigration has been a contentious issue in Italy, which in recent months has been the scene of fierce debate over the closure of migrant centers and ongoing sea rescues without an effective distribution plan, placing strain on cities that are points of entry.
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Several NGOs, including Open Arms and Sea Watch, have spoken out about the failure to rescue stranded migrants and to draft legislation that would facilitate their protection and safety.
In a Sept. 23 open letter to Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, the Sea Watch NGO, which has been responsible for several sea rescues, voiced disappointment the U.N. Pact on Migration does not include rescue operations, despite von der Leyen’s assurances during a recent State of the Union speech that “saving lives at sea is not optional.”
“The safety and equipment of our vessels as well as the transparent way of exchanging information and communicating to national authorities should not be the focal points of the European Commission’s attention when speaking about the current situation in the Mediterranean,” they said.
The focus should be on saving lives, they said, insisting that “people rescued at sea should be taken to the nearest place of safety where the rescued persons’ safety of life is no longer at risk and basic human needs can be met.”
“Rather than supporting life-saving search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean, European governments are putting undue pressure on the civil society organizations, making unfounded allegations against them and preventing search and rescue vessels from entering and leaving their ports,” the organization said, and urged the E.U. to take concrete steps to help them and other similar NGOs to continue their “life-saving work.”
These steps include establishing a European search and rescue program, supporting civil search and rescue operations, ending the return of migrants to Libya – a country “torn apart by war, where refugees and migrants are regularly detained in horrific conditions that violate their basic human rights” – and to facilitate an automatic redistribution system that would end the practice of making disembarkation conditional to redistribution agreements.
Eritrean Father Mussie Zerai, also known as “Abba” Mussie Zerai, a well-known migrant activist who was born in Asmara, Eritrea before gaining asylum in Italy at 14, also wrote a lengthy open letter to von der Leyen insisting on the need to address the root of the migration problem and protect them in their home countries.
Zerai also pressed the “immediate and urgent” need to open proper and safe legal channels for migrants and refugees to enter Europe, insisting that “small gestures of goodwill by some States, such as humanitarian corridors” are good, but they “are not enough.”
In a statement released on the occasion of the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Catholic charity organization Caritas International highlighted the plight of some 45.7 million people who have not yet braved the waters of the Mediterranean, but are internally displaced worldwide as a result of conflicts in countries such as Syria, Colombia, Ukraine, or natural disasters and famines in places such as Somalia, Burkina Faso and Mali and the Philippines.
They urged governments to offer internally displaced people unconditional access to basic services as well as a “dignified and safe return home.”
Aloysius John, secretary general of Caritas, noted that internally displaced people throughout the world are often “left to their own devices and deprived of conventional legal protection.”
“We want to echo their cry for justice by calling for immediate and timely action,” he said, noting that the numbers are currently the highest they’ve ever been.
John argued that the plight of the internally displaced has not been adequately addressed by the international community, insisting that they are “victims of undemocratic political systems and environmental disorder which leads to hunger, war and violence. They are among the most vulnerable people on the planet, yet they are denied their basic right to live a dignified life.”
“We cannot continue to close our eyes to this tragedy,” he said, and urged international governments to ensure that internally displaced people have access to water, food, and other services; that those who wish to return home can do so safely, and to facilitate a global ceasefire.
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