Pope blasts European leaders' 'lack of humanity' for migrant crisis

Pope Francis blasts European leaders’ ‘terrible lack of humanity’ for migrant crisis as he condemns a ‘fanaticism of indifference’ towards asylum seekers

  • Europe currently faces record migrant crossings, up 13 per cent year-on-year
  • The Pope described the ‘cruelty’ surrounding the recent arrivals on Lampedusa 

Pope Francis today blasted the ‘fanaticism of indifference’ for migrants fleeing poverty and war, as he arrived in the French port city of Marseille.

Francis opened the visit by leading a moment of prayer dedicated to sailors and migrants lost at sea, surrounded by the city’s faith leaders and rescue organisations.

The Pontiff is in Marseille to preside over the closing session of a gathering of Mediterranean-area Catholic bishops. But he took the opportunity to also remark on European leaders’ response to migrants crossing the sea in search of a better life.

Speaking to reporters en route to Marseille about the recent situation on the Italian island of Lampedusa, which was last week overwhelmed by 7,000 migrants arriving in 24 hours, Francis could only acknowledge: ‘Cruelty. A lack of humanity. A terrible lack of humanity’.

The pope’s position on migration is an increasingly lonely one in Europe, where some countries are emphasizing border fences, repatriations and the possibility of a naval blockade to keep a new influx of would-be refugees out. 

Europe is currently facing record crossings, up 13 per cent year-on-year, with Italy among the countries most affected. More than 123,800 irregular migrants and asylum seekers have arrived in Italy this year, including more than 8,000 this week. 

Pope Francis and Cardinal Jean Marc Aveline, centre right, arrive for a moment of reflection with religious leaders next to the Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica in Marseille, France, Sept. 22

Arriving earlier today, the Pope was met at Marseille airport by French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne and four children in traditional dress.

The Vatican and French anthems were played for the arrival ceremony, commencing a two-day visit in which Francis will preside over the closing session of a gathering of Mediterranean Catholic bishops.

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But the visit to Marseille – itself a historic multiethic and multicultural melting pot – is aimed at sending a message well beyond the Catholic faithful to Europe, North Africa and beyond. 

Bells rang out from Marseille’s Notre Dame de la Garde basilica today as the Pope headed there to lead a prayer, before holding an interfaith prayer at a nearby monument dedicated to those who have died at sea.

The U.N.’s International Organization for Migration estimates that more than 28,000 Europe-bound migrants have died since 2014 while attempting to cross the Mediterranean.

The modest commemorative plaque stands on a rocky outcropping overlooking Marseille and the Mediterranean Sea, which was bathed in sunlight Friday ahead of the Pope’s arrival.

Above the monument rises the cross of Camargue, a symbol composed of a Christian cross, an anchor and a heart embodying faith, hope and charity. 

The words ‘to those who perished and disappeared at sea, victims of illegal immigration’ were added to the memorial in 2010, after some migrants were saved from a shipwreck by a French ship.

Francis, who has long lamented that the Mediterranean Sea has become ‘the world’s biggest cemetery,’ confirmed his visit to Marseille months ago, but it comes as Italy is again seeing an increasing number of migrant arrivals, and amid resurgent political tensions about how to manage migration more widely.

Italy has taken a harder stance on migrants since the appointment of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni last October.

Her pledges came under new strain last week as some 120 boats of 6,800 migrants arrived on the shores of Lampedusa in a 24-hour period starting early Tuesday.

The figure is a few hundred higher than the island’s full-time population.

Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni resurrected calls for a naval blockade and announced new centers to hold those who don’t qualify for asylum until they can be sent home.

As Italy has clamped down on migrant arrivals, Germany in turn then backed out of a voluntary agreement to accept refugees from Italy last week.

Berlin cited perceptions Rome has failed to meet its obligations to take back migrants under an EU resettlement plan.

On Wednesday, President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said that the EU’s determination to manage migration ‘needs endurance and patient work with key partners’.

In a speech to the European Parliament, she also spoke of the need for unity within the EU on migration.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also met Ms Meloni at the G20 Summit in India earlier this month to forge Rwanda-style solutions to the migrant crisis. 

There, he said his controversial Rwanda policy was vindicated after Austria urged the EU last week to use the UK model of processing claims in countries outside Europe.

Denmark has also expressed interest. 

Pope Francis attends a moment of reflection with religious leaders next to the Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica in Marseille on Friday, September 22, 2023

France, for its part, beefed up patrols at its southern border with Italy, a few hours’ drive from Marseille, and increased drone surveillance of the Alps to keep newcomers from crossing over. 

With a European Parliament election set for next year and France’s far right challenging the centrist government’s policies, French government officials stood firm.

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‘France will not take in migrants from Lampedusa,’ Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said this week on French TV network TF1. 

‘It’s not by taking in more people that we’re going to stem a flow that obviously affects our ability to integrate’ them into French society, he said.

Marseille’s archbishop, Cardinal Jean-Marc Aveline, who was born in Algeria and moved to France as a child, said such ‘aggressive’ measures weren’t the answer. 

But he said ‘naive’ and peacenik speeches about everyone living together happily ever after weren’t helpful either.

‘The church must measure these evils well and find a path that is neither naively irenic nor aggressive out of special interests, but prophetic’ by being close to migrants and living among them, Aveline told reporters in Rome before the visit.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the maritime rescue organization SOS Mediterranee, which operates a ship that assists migrants, issued Friday an ‘urgent call for all actors to dignify the lives of children, women and men survivors of rescues at sea.’

SOS Mediteranee co-founder Sophie Beauer said ‘the unfathomable death toll in the Mediterranean this year could have been prevented if the political will was there,’ according to the humanitarian groups’ joint statement. 

‘As a prominent moral and global figure… Pope Francis will use his visit to Marseille to recall the moral imperative underlying the laws and conventions that apply at sea: no one in distress should be left to drown.’

Marseille is one of the most multicultural, multireligious and multiethnic cities on the shores of the Mediterranean, a place long characterized by a strong presence of migrants living together in a tradition of tolerance.

Data from France’s National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies, or INSEE, shows the city of 862,000 residents had more than 124,000 immigrants in 2019, or about 14.5% of the population. 

The immigrant population included almost 30,000 Algerians and thousands of people from Turkey, as well as from Morocco, Tunisia and other former French colonies in Africa.

‘The pope is proposing a path, as others do, whether you’re a believer or not, whether Muslim, Jew, atheist or Catholic,’ Marseille Mayor Benoit Payan said. 

‘He’s telling us that we have something in common, and that this Mediterranean must be preserved in its biodiversity, of course, but also in its human relationships.’

The Pope leaves after the moment of reflection near the Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica, amid a trip expected to focus largely on migration, on Friday September 22, 2023

About 350,000 Catholic faithful were expected in the city over the weekend, including 100,000 to attend the pope’s parade on Marseille’s major avenue ahead of a Saturday Mass at the Velodrome stadium. 

The city was put under high security, including through kilometers (miles) of barriers and dozens of surveillance cameras deployed along Francis’ route.

His trip comes on the eve of the Catholic Church’s annual celebration of migrants and refugees. The theme this year notes the internationally recognized right to migrate but also the right to not migrate, and to live at home safely and securely.

‘They choose to leave, but because they did not necessarily have the choice to stay,’ Aveline said of the intended message. 

‘You seldom leave your country with joy in your heart.’

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