Emergency aid provided to migrants rescued at sea Emergency aid provided to migrants rescued at sea  (Antonello Nusca)

ICMC calls for united efforts to save migrants, offer safe pathways

Recalling the tenth anniversary of Pope Francis' visit to the Italian island of Lampedusa, the International Catholic Migration Commission appeals for every effort to be made to prevent the loss of lives and offer safe pathways for migrants fleeing war and poverty.

By Thaddeus Jones

This month marks the tenth anniversary of the first papal pastoral visit of Pope Francis. The Pope on 8 July 2023 recalled his visit to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, just south of Sicily, in a letter addressed to Archbishop Alessandro Damiano of Agrigento. 

Pope Francis laying a wreath at sea in Lampedusa, Italy, remembering migrants who died at sea (July, 2013)
Pope Francis laying a wreath at sea in Lampedusa, Italy, remembering migrants who died at sea (July, 2013)

In the letter the Pope Francis expressed his sorrow for the “recurring grave tragedies in the Mediterranean,” where countless innocent lives, particularly children, are lost as they search for a safer existence away from the horrors of war and violence. He described these “silent massacres” as a distressing and deafening cry that should not leave anyone indifferent.

Echoing the Pope's message, the International Catholic Migration Commission, ICMC, issued a statement on the tenth anniversary of the Pope's visit, describing the migrant deaths as a shipwreck for humanity as well, but calling on all people of goodwill to take action to save and assist those fleeing poverty or war at home.

Pope Francis with migrants in Lampedusa, Italy (July 2013)
Pope Francis with migrants in Lampedusa, Italy (July 2013)

In this radio interview with Vatican News, ICMC Secretary General, Msgr. Robert Vitillo, recalled the Lampedusa visit and anniversary, and the long road ahead in assuring no more lives are lost at sea and safe pathways can be assured for those fleeing war and poverty.

Interview with ICMC Secretary General, Msgr. Robert Vitillo

What do you recall most about the papal journey to Lampedusa back in July 2013?

What stood out in my mind about the first journey to Lampedusa was, first of all, the fact that the Holy Father went there practically alone, and he didn't want to call a lot of attention to his visit. He wanted to, first of all, ask for pardon that so many people’s lives were lost in the Mediterranean Sea. And he wanted to call attention to the fact that this situation could not and should not continue. So, my feeling was that he was really awakening our consciences worldwide about this terrible tragedy of losing so many migrants at sea and, in other ways, in deserts and in mountains as well.

Pope Francis meeting with migrants in Lampedusa, Italy (July 2013)
Pope Francis meeting with migrants in Lampedusa, Italy (July 2013)

Ten years later now, how far have we come since that time, both in terms of the good and bad outcomes?

Ten years later, in terms of how this has not realized all the hopes that I had that the world's conscience would be awakened. The studies that have been done and reported by the International Organization for Migration, the UN Migrants Agency, indicate that, since 2014, we have 56,849 missing migrants worldwide, and that's probably a low estimate since many times we don't even know the people who went missing but were not reported as such -   and that 27,629 of those, so almost half of those went missing in the Mediterranean Sea. And, so, this is a real issue in terms of the fact that we still are losing all of these people and the attention not only of the media, but of most people in the world is not focusing on this great tragedy.

What do you think needs to happen most right now just in view of those numbers you've given?

I think a major thing that must happen is that those of us who are citizens of countries and choosing the representatives and the decision-makers in those countries need to be aware of this and need to insist that some attention be paid to this. I'd like to share with you a quote that from the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights of Migrants in 2022, and this is what that rapporteur said. “Pushbacks remain de facto general policy in many States and continue to seriously impede the enjoyment of human rights of migrants who cross international borders. The full spectrum of such violations often remains hidden due to State-led attempts to dismiss or cover up allegations of wrongdoing.” This means that even in many countries that have signed the Geneva Convention for Refugees, for instance, in which the countries that have signed the pledge should allow people to make a claim for asylum in that country when their lives are in danger, now are forcing people back or starting to externalize the borders and saying to people, you cannot enter to make an asylum claim here. You have to do it somewhere else. I think that's something we need to let people know about worldwide and for them to ask their decision-makers why they are making these kinds of policies.

Would you say this also means lobbying and doing everything we can to make sure that emergency help is provided to those in need?

Absolutely. It's trying to awaken the consciences of people to respond to those emergency situations. I was really impressed by a report that was done by Migrantes, the migration agency of the Italian Bishops Conference, and this was a report that was done back in April of 2023, when about 70 people were lost at sea off the coast of Calabria. And the title of that article was “Traces of a Shipwrecked Humanity”. And I think it's important for us to realize that we leave the tracks of our not caring and the Holy Father in his message that he sent on this 10th anniversary of Lampedusa, made this similar point. He said, “the whole Church is called to a renewed and deep sense of responsibility, solidarity, and sharing”. So that means we need to share both in those emergency situations, saving the lives of the people who are in unseaworthy vessels and trying to save them at sea, and not blocking those who are trying to save them at sea or claiming that they're doing something criminal. It also means our being at the places where they land so that we give them immediate humanitarian assistance. But then it also means trying to develop a real sense of hospitality, of welcome and a protection of those people who are crossing our borders and who are forced to migrate from other parts of the world and not just seeing them as people who want to do better but understanding that there are about 100 million forced migrants in the world today, and we need to be responding to their problems.

How would you respond to people who say, look at those numbers, it's not possible to manage so many people?

Well, first of all, we need to inform people, because a lot of people in the high-income countries see this as a mass of people that are coming to our countries and in some ways are going to affect the comfort and the privileges, we have in these high-income countries. The fact is that most forced migrants are seeking refuge in countries in the South, in poorer countries, and the people in those poorer areas are reaching out to them and are trying to give them emergency assistance and to integrate them into their own societies. So, much of the burden is outside the high-income countries, and we, in high income countries, need to help those who are really carrying the heaviest burden of receiving the forced migrants in the world. But also, we have a responsibility to be sure that the benefits of economic and social development that we enjoy also can reach those low-income countries as well. And that will help to prevent the forced migration that we see happening throughout the world.

Can you offer a few examples of some of the work that you're involved in and that's happening to try and improve the situation regarding migrants?

Yes, our work in ICMC (International Catholic Migration Commission) has been able to develop some funds to give small grants to Bishops Conferences and Catholic organizations that are responding to people who are forced migrants and in need. And I'll give you an example. In Cote d'Ivoire, we're working with the Bishops Conference of Cote d'Ivoire and the Caritas there to do some retraining of deported migrants. Those who have gone to Europe have been deported back home, but they need to be able to find ways to support themselves in their own home country. And so, we're giving them vocational skills and we're helping them to develop some small businesses so they could stay home, but they could live in a much more decent and dignified way than they were able to before they were forced out and tried to seek entry into other parts of the world. In India, we're doing similar work in trying to reskill the internal migrants who suddenly lost their jobs. They had internally migrated to the cities, they lost their jobs, and they were forced to walk back home, sometimes thousands of kilometers, because they were given no support to get back home. And so, we're working with those internal migrants who now are staying at home, but we're helping them to start some small businesses, like helping to develop a kind of taxi system, or developing a small-scale store, informal work that they could do, but in a way that gives them enough support for them to educate their children and to live a decent life. These are some of the things that we see in terms of changing the ways, the flows of migration, and helping people enjoy more in their home areas and not being forced out of their home areas.

Are there any concerted efforts to try and work together on the whole complexity of the reality of migration, whether emergency help dealing with the problem of human trafficking as well as welcome, settlement, in addition to long term help?

Yes, every year there's a convening of what's called the Global Forum for Migration and Development, and that's a meeting of both government representatives and of civil society. Our ICMC, the International Catholic Migration Commission, convenes the civil society participants in that meeting. So, we have about 2000 non-governmental organizations that we work with to prepare for that meeting. They have parallel sessions of the States, the governments, and non-governmental organizations, and then they have joint meetings of both sides. And, so, we're helping the non-governmental organizations develop the priority messaging, advocacy messaging, to be able to promote more open and more just ways of migration so that people are not forced into the unseaworthy vessels and going at sea or having to walk through deserts or up mountains to be able to seek a better life through migration. But also, we're raising issues in terms of helping people in their own home countries be able to stay there. It's very similar to the theme that the Holy Father has designated for the 109th World Day of Migrants and Refugees that will be observed in the Catholic Church on September 24th this year, the last Sunday of September. And his theme this year is “free to decide to migrate and free to stay home” and I think that's the kind of theme that we need to promote more, not just as words, but in actual policies that help people be able to benefit from integral human development in their home countries.

Listen to the interview with Msgr. Robert Vitillo, ICMC Secretary General

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13 July 2023, 12:58