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From Marseille, Pope Issues Boldest Challenge Yet on Migration

Pope Francis speaks to young people representing different faiths, bishops and civil leaders at the closing session of the Mediterranean Meetings in Marseille, France, Sept. 23, 2023. (Photo: CNS/Lola Gomez)

by Elise Ann Allen, Special to The Tablet

ROME — During his brief, overnight visit to Marseille, Pope Francis not only reiterated his advocacy on behalf of migrants and refugees, but turned up the volume of his message, issuing clear condemnations of what he called “alarmist propaganda” and “velvet gloved” indifference to their plight.

He traveled to Marseille Sept. 22-23 to close the third edition of the “Rencontres Méditerranéennes,” or “Mediterranean Meetings,” a gathering of some 120 church leaders and young people from various countries and confessions discussing the major challenges of the Mediterranean region. 

The event took place amid increased tensions within Europe over the migration issue following a surge of new arrivals in Italy, which for many is a gateway to other places in Europe.

Around 127,000 migrants have arrived in Italy so far this year, almost double the number compared to the same period last year, with over 2,000 people having died this year in their attempt to cross from North Africa to Italy and Malta, according to the U.N. migration agency.

In the week before the pope’s trip, some 8,500 people arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa, numbering more than the island’s entire population, in 199 boats, inciting anger among locals overwhelmed by the burden of the influx, and eliciting promises of a fresh crackdown from both Italian and EU leaders.

In the wake of the new migrant surge, France, in the days ahead of the pope’s visit, ordered the number of soldiers at its border with Italy to be doubled in a bid to crack down on illegal crossings.

Meanwhile, Germany suspended a voluntary agreement with Italy to take in migrants, accusing the Italian government of failing to live up to its obligations under the EU’s Dublin Regulation, which outlined criteria for which EU states are responsible for examining an asylum request.

In July, EU Commissioner Ursula Von der Leyen, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte signed a pact with Tunisia aimed at stemming the flow of migrants from Tunisia into Europe, which had become one of the preferred routes for smugglers in Africa, given that Libya is now considered too dangerous.

Both Meloni and Von der Leyen traveled to Lampedusa the week before Pope Francis’ visit to Marseille to draw attention to the situation. Meloni, who in the past has threatened to prevent migrant arrivals with a naval blockade, said the Tunisia agreement must be quickly implemented and insisted that the only solution was to stop “illegal departures.”

Pope Francis arrived in Marseille Friday afternoon, participating in a prayer liturgy with diocesan clergy and religious before leading a memorial for migrants and sailors who died at sea just outside of the city’s basilica, Notre Dame de la Garde.

In his speech at the memorial, the pope, speaking not just to France, but all of Europe, boldly stated that “we cannot be resigned to seeing human beings treated as bargaining chips, imprisoned and tortured in atrocious ways; we can no longer watch the drama of shipwrecks, caused by the cruel trafficking and the fanaticism of indifference.”

He criticized EU countries, including Italy, which fine vessels that rescue migrants and prevent them from docking, often leaving the boats and migrants on board stranded for days with limited supplies before being allowed to dock. In the past, Italy has allowed these ships to dock, but permitted only migrants with medical emergencies to come ashore. 

“People who are at risk of drowning when abandoned on the waves must be rescued. It is a duty of humanity; it is a duty of civilization!” the pope said in his speech, saying God would bless humanity “if on land and at sea we know how to take care of the weakest, if we can overcome the paralysis of fear and the disinterest that, with velvet gloves, condemns others to death.”

He said Europe stands at a “crossroads of civilization,” and urged leaders to treat migrants with humanity, remembering that they are people and not numbers, saying the EU’s survival depends on overcoming the fear of the challenges associated with the Mediterranean. 

Even on his short flight from Rome to Marseille, migration was on the pope’s mind, telling journalists on board that the situation in Lampedusa is one of “a terrible lack of humanity.” 

When shown a photo of a small child who arrived in Lampedusa with its mother as part of the new surge, Pope Francis said, “They keep them in Libyan lagers and then they throw them into the sea.”

In his lengthy, keynote speech at the “Rencontres Méditerranéennes” Saturday morning, which was attended by French President Emmanuel Macron and other government and EU officials, the pope cautioned against using rhetoric such as “invasion” or “emergency” to describe the migration problem. 

Rather, he said the migration issue is not a “short-term urgency,” but rather a long-term reality which must be governed “with wise foresight.” To this end, he called for “a European response capable of coping with the objective difficulties.

“History is challenging us to make a leap of conscience in order to prevent a shipwreck of civilization,” he said, insisting that “the future will not lie in being closed, which is a return to the past.”

If Europe is to overcome the challenges presented by migration, “the solution is not to reject but to ensure, according to the possibilities of each, an ample number of legal and regular entrances,” Pope Francis said, adding, “This would be sustainable with an equitable welcome on the part of the European continent, in the context of cooperation with the countries of origin.”

He stressed the need to invest in the integration of migrants into European society or risk their “ghettoization,” which he said leads to hostility and intolerance. In this regard, an attitude of fraternal solidarity is needed, he said. 

After his address, Pope Francis had a private meeting with Macron, during which they reportedly discussed the migration issue, as well as environmental concerns and the ongoing war in Ukraine. 

Pope Francis has consistently advocated on behalf of migrants since the beginning of his papacy, with his visit to Lampedusa in July 2013 being his first trip outside of Rome as pope. 

While he has frequently challenged EU leaders on the migration issue during visits to destination countries that are frontline points of arrival, such as Greece and Cyprus, including two visits to the Greek island of Lesbos, the pontiff’s language in Marseille was among the boldest he has used yet when engaging the issue. 

On his return flight from Marseille to Rome, he again addressed the issue, criticizing those countries that treat migrants like a “hot potato” or a “ping pong ball,” sending them back to their point of departure, where “it is known 

that many times they end up in lagers, they end up worse than before.”

Referring to his visit to Lampedusa, Pope Francis indicated that his attention to the migrant issue was divinely inspired, saying when he decided to visit the island in 2013, he didn’t even know where it was, but he had read troubling stories in the papers and in prayer felt a tug saying he needed to go. 

“In prayer I heard inside, you have to go there, as if the Lord led me there,” he said, saying he believes awareness of the issue has increased. 

Whether the pope’s bold remarks in Marseille have any real impact in terms of future EU policy is yet to be seen, especially with Italy’s current hostile stance. However, if Macron’s presence with Pope Francis in Marseille this weekend is indicative of anything, it’s that the pontiff’s message has certainly been heard.