International News

Italian Bishop Calls For End To Indifference After ‘Shameful’ Migrant Deaths

A still image taken from a video shows migrants at sea waiting to be rescued by Spanish search-and-rescue ship Open Arms in the Mediterranean Sea in 2020. After the death last week of 130 migrants, who for two days issued distress calls to no avail when their boat met trouble in the Mediterranean, Italian Bishop Antonio Staglianò of Noto, Sicily, called the saving of lives a “duty that cannot be given up… especially if they are in need an in danger.” (Photo:CNS /Open Arms handout via Reuters)

By Elise Ann Allen, Senior Correspondent

ROME (Crux) — One Italian bishop has said Pope Francis’ push for greater brotherhood and solidarity is needed more than ever following the death last week of 130 migrants who for two days issued distress calls to no avail when their boat met trouble in the Mediterranean.

Bishop Antonio Staglianò of Noto, Sicily, near where the migrants drowned, said in an April 26 statement that the incident provokes both great “disturbance” as well as a strong desire to forge “new paths” for those crossing the Mediterranean, which he said has become “an absurd cemetery for another 130 migrants who died after two days of unheard calls for help.”

“Helping lives in difficulty, which have increased in our territories because of the pandemic, and saving lives in danger is a duty that cannot be given up, because every person, especially if they are in need and in danger, is an image of God,” Bishop Staglianò said.

To aid those who are vulnerable and at-risk also allows people to “save ourselves from an indifference that anesthetizes and sterilizes,” he said.

Now is “a time of courage, of generosity, of far-sighted vision,” he said. “is time for a new imagination of an open and supported society that is rooted in the hearts of those who want to stay human and hand over a legacy of a good life to their children.”

Pope Francis’ frequent plea for greater solidarity and brotherhood in the world is not “a simple dream of the pope or some visionaries. It is the only true future worthy of humanity,” he said.

Bishop Staglianò’s remarks come days after 130 migrants attempting to reach Europe from Libya drowned when rescue centers in Italy and Libya, as well as Europe’s own rescue agency, failed to respond to their distress calls.

Pope Francis himself spoke of the tragedy following his Sunday Regina Coeli address, saying he was “very saddened” by the tragic deaths of the migrants.

Migrants are seen after being rescued by the Libyan coast guard, in Tripoli, Libya, July 26, 2019. On April 25, 2021, Pope Francis prayed for migrants who drowned in a shipwreck off the coast of Libya.  (Photo: CNS/Ismail Zitouny, Reuters)

“They are people, they are human lives, who for two whole days begged in vain for help, help that did not arrive,” he said, and stressed the need for serious reflection “on this umpteenth tragedy.”

On April 21 three boats carrying hundreds of people sent in distress signals off the coast of Libya, with one complaining that they were out of fuel and the other voicing fear that their rubber boat would collapse due to high waves.

After two days of issuing appeals for help, one of the boats carrying a mother and child who died was returned to Libya, and the second boat deflated, resulting in the death of the 130 people on board. Some 42 people from a third boat that sent in a distress call are still missing.

The Libyan coast guard and Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, and other rescue centers in Italy were alerted to the troubled vessels multiple times but made no attempts to rescue them, with the Libyan coast guard citing weather concerns.

Three commercial ships eventually decided to respond to the distress calls, but they arrived too late.

According to Avvenire, the official newspaper for the Italian bishops, an independent helpline called Alarm Phone for ships in distress kept a timetable of the events leading up to the deaths, which show multiple attempts to rally help for the migrants going unanswered.

Safa Msehli, Spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration sent potent tweets about the incident, making statements such as “humanity has drowned,” calling the event “a time of the total moral collapse,” and, referring to the fact that the boats called for help in vain for two days before going down, asked, “Is this Europe’s legacy?”

International NGO Sea Watch International observed a moment of silence on one of their rescue boats in honor of the 130 people who died, accusing both Libya and Europe of failing to save the migrants’ lives.

They sent a tweet on April 24 saying, “When states stopped rescuing, civil society had to step in. When states stopped searching, civil society had to step in. When states now stop coordinating, civil society has to step in.”

In his statement, Bishop Staglianò urged European authorities to up their efforts to protect and care for the weak and vulnerable, especially with the coronavirus pandemic still underway, saying, “We all feel involved for our part in the necessary exodus from indifference to fraternity.”

As a Church, he said, “we cannot fail to appeal to the conscience of all so that they remain human and give new generations a beautiful and hospitable world.”

Bishop Staglianò offered a prayer for the 130 migrants who died, asking that the Holy Spirit “hover over the waters” of the Mediterranean, “so that they are a source of life and not a place of burial, and enlighten the minds of leaders so that, through just and solidarity laws, the mare nostrum may be a sea of peace, an arch of brotherhood of peoples and cultures.”