International News

Church Spars With Sicily Government Over Migrant Expulsion Order

Migrants, intercepted off the coast in the Mediterranean Sea, wait to disembark from a rescue boat in early March at the Spanish port of Malaga. (Photo:CNS/Jon Nazca, Reuters)

by Elise Ann Allen

ROME – Church leaders in Sicily have criticized the directive of a local political to expel all migrants in the region and close reception centers on the alleged basis of public safety amid the coronavirus, calling the move hypocritical, discriminatory and dangerous.

Earlier this month Nello Musumeci, the center-right president of the Italian region of Sicily, issued a decree closing all migrant welcome centers considered to be hotspots for the COVID-19 coronavirus on the ground of public health and safety, setting the deadline to comply to Aug. 14 at midnight.

Musumeci’s Diventera Bellissima party is an ally of the rightwing Lega party, whose leader. Ex-deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, pushed a hardline anti-migrant agenda during his June 2018-September 2019 term that met resistance from numerous Church authorities, including Pope Francis.

[Related: Church Leaders Urge That Migrants not be Forgotten During Coronavirus Pandemic]

In Musumeci’s decree, he insisted that “all migrants present in the hotspots and in each reception center must without exception be transferred and/or relocated to other structures outside of the territory of Sicilian region, as it is not currently possible to guarantee their safety on the island in compliance with the health measures to prevent contagion.”

This directive was immediately met with backlash from both left-leaning politicians and Catholic leaders in Sicily, including the Diocese of Palermo and the coadjutor Archbishop of Agrigento, Alessandro Damiano, who among others, have expressed their “strong concern and firm dissent.”

A statement from the Archdiocese of Palermo’s migrant office and the local Caritas insisted that Musumeci’s order “chooses the path of the umpteenth denial of the human right to mobility, the mystifying path of a new conscious discrimination.”

Musumenci, the statement said, has in recent months done nothing to implement nation-wide safety measures for the coronavirus outlined by the Italian government in May, “nor have security protocols been put into place to avoid gatherings or other forms of dangerous promiscuity.”

To crack down on migrant centers, then, is not only arbitrary, but it sends “an intimately wrong and anthropologically dangerous message.”

“Intimately wrong because it attributes to migrants the responsibility for the spread of the contagion which, if anything, is to be attributed to the lack of protocols and adequate measures to protect citizens of the island and anyone who comes to Sicily,” the Church organizations said, adding that it is dangerous because “it equates the poor with the infectors and once again divides humanity in two, unwittingly preparing and not avoiding the planetary catastrophe that will come from a disunited and inhumane world.”

Archbishop Damiano has also spoken out against Musumenci, asking him in a Facebook post not to “fan the flames of fear and anger,” adding that “those who play on the skin of the poor assume the responsibility of undermining social cohesion.”

Migrants, Archbishop Damiano said, “are people who have the right and duty to quarantine in safety and serenity, as all citizens do.”

In an Aug. 24 statement, the Palermo and Catania territorial headquarters of the Jesuit-run Centro Astalli refugee center also chimed in, expressing “serious concern for the situation of the migrants who recently arrived on the island and the welcome they received.”

Pointing to the fact they have been on “the front line” for years in caring for and welcoming migrants to Sicily, the Centro Astalli said the real emergency is not the potential spread of contagion in migrant centers, but “the people who die in the Mediterranean and the causes which prompt them to flee their countries oppressed by wars, humanitarian crises and grave social injustices.”

“Every day, in our services we gather testimonies and seek to accompany them in their difficult legal and sanitary processes,” they said, noting that the number of migrants who have come to Italy since the beginning of the year up to Aug. 21 number around 17,264 people, 2,200 less than the year before.

“In light of this data we ask institutions to avoid alarmist tones that fuel fears and instead propose projected solutions that protect the rights of migrants and public health,” they said, urging the leaders of Sicily to collaborate with local protection entities “so that everything possible is done to manage the arrivals and presence of migrants in the interest and safety of all.”

Migrants, including many women and children, are often victims of torture, violence, and human rights violations, they noted, and urged local leaders to be aware of this in the policies and solutions they propose.

“We do not find ourselves in front of an unexpected emergency, but rather, today we are paying the very high price of the effects of the security decrees,” they said, adding that “the migratory policies, restrictive and closing – if not even discriminatory – which have characterized the past year exacerbate the precariousness of life, exclusion and irregularity, making the whole of society more vulnerable.”

“Today in Sicily,” they added, “we see damages caused by not having invested in the protection, welcome and integration of migrants.”

The standoff in Sicily comes as the European Union faces increased pressure over a new wave of migrant deaths off the coast of Libya among those attempting to cross the Mediterranean.

On Aug. 23, the Libyan Red Crescent pulled the bodies of 22 migrants out of the waters near the town of Zarwa. The casualties, believed to be from a shipwreck that happened last week, are the latest in a string of migrant deaths as boats attempt to cross the Mediterranean.

According to International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the U.N. migration office, at least 45 people, including five children, died in a shipwreck on Wednesday, the worst incident this year off Libya’s coast.

At least 497 migrants and refugees have died so far this year, although authorities believe the number is in fact much higher.

Since 2014, more than 20,000 migrants and refugees have died while trying to reach Europe from Africa, while thousands of others have been forcibly returned to Libya, which has received funding from the EU to train its coastguard to try and stop the crossings.