Pope Francis blasted the “fanaticism of indifference” that greets migrants seeking a better life, as he arrived Friday in the Mediterranean port of Marseille amid a new influx of would-be refugees from Africa that has sparked a backlash from some of Europe’s increasingly anti-migrant leaders.
Opening a brief, overnight visit to the French port, Francis presided over a silent moment of prayer at a memorial dedicated to sailors and migrants lost at sea.
He was surrounded by Marseille’s faith leaders and representatives of migrant rescue organizations that have increasingly come under fire from Europe’s populist leaders.
The visit, scheduled months ago, came as Europe’s migrant dilemma returned to the headlines when the Italian island of Lampedusa was overwhelmed last week by nearly 7,000 migrants who arrived in a day, more than its resident population.
Leaders from Italy and the European Union pledged that the migrants would be returned.
“Cruelty, a lack of humanity. A terrible lack of humanity,” Francis said of the Lampedusa drama as he flew to Marseille.
History’s first Latin American pope has made the plight of migrants a priority of his 10-year pontificate, travelling to Lampedusa in his first trip as pope to honour migrants who drowned, celebrating Mass on the U.S.-Mexico border and, most spectacularly, bringing home 12 Syrian Muslims on his plane after visiting a Lesbos, Greece, refugee camp.
Citing the Gospel mandate to welcome the stranger, Francis has exhorted governments to welcome, promote, protect and integrate desperate people.
On Friday, he gathered with Marseille priests at the Notre Dame de la Garde basilica and then led an interfaith prayer at its nearby memorial, which stands on a rocky outcropping overlooking Marseille and the Mediterranean Sea.
Francis said far too many people fleeing war, poverty, misery and climate disasters had never made it to shore. “And so this beautiful sea has become a huge cemetery, where many brothers and sisters are deprived even of the right to a grave.”
Adding to his prepared remarks, he extended a special thank you to the humanitarian groups that rescue migrants and blasted efforts to block their rescues as “gestures of hatred” ��— an apparent reference to Italy’s frequent impounding of rescue boats on technical violations.
Francis is in Marseille to preside over the closing session of a gathering of Mediterranean-area Catholic bishops. But his two-day visit to Marseille is aimed at sending a message well beyond the Catholic faithful to Europe, North Africa and beyond.
WATCH | Italy’s Lampedusa copes with record migrant arrivals:
Record number of migrants overwhelm Italian island
This tiny Italian island isn’t equipped to keep up with the thousands of migrants arriving from North Africa. An estimated 8,000 people have flooded Lampedusa in the past week, doubling the island’s population and straining resources.
Migrants not ‘bargaining chips’
His visit comes 10 years after his papacy-opening pilgrimage to Lampedusa, which is the migrant smugglers’ destination of choice because it’s closer to Africa than the Italian mainland. During that visit, Francis celebrated Mass on an altar made of shipwrecked wood, tossed flowers in the sea in tribute to migrants who had drowned, and decried the “globalization of indifference” that the world shows desperate migrants.
He issued a more emphatic variation on that theme Friday, blasting the “fanaticism of indifference” that greets migrants, a recognition that the past 10 years have seen Europe harden its line on migration with some countries emphasizing border fences, repatriations and the possibility of a naval blockade to keep migrants out.
During that same decade, an estimated 28,000 migrants have died in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe, while others have been subject to horrendous conditions in Libyan detention centres where abuse is rife, according to the International Organization of Migration.
“We cannot be resigned to seeing human beings treated as bargaining chips, imprisoned and tortured in atrocious ways,” Francis said in clear reference to the Libyan camps.
“We can no longer watch the drama of shipwrecks caused by the cruel trafficking and the fanaticism of indifference.”
He insisted that people who are at risk of drowning “when abandoned to the waves” must be rescued.
“It’s a duty of humanity; it’s a duty of civilization!” he said. He spoke in front of a monument made up of the cross of Camargue, a symbol composed of a Christian cross, an anchor and a heart embodying faith, hope and charity.
LISTEN | CBC News in Lampedusa, front line of Mediterranean migrant crisis:
The Current10:59Small Italian island struggles as 8,000 migrants arrive in one week
Thousands of migrants crossed the Mediterranean to reach the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa last week, doubling the island’s population. Megan Williams went there to find out how the locals — and the newcomers — are coping.
Italy’s PM wants blockade to prevent crossings
After the new arrivals at Lampedusa last week, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni resurrected calls for a naval blockade and announced new centres to hold those who don’t qualify for asylum until they can be sent home.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen backed Meloni’s call for beefed-up naval missions to prevent departures from Tunisia, insisting that the EU would decide who can enter the bloc, not human traffickers.
France, for its part, boosted 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.
“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, has 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.
Speaking at the memorial on Friday, Aveline noted that death at sea is a risk sailors take as part of their job but that migrants fleeing war and misery shouldn’t be forced to face such risks.
He said it was “criminal” that traffickers take advantage of desperate migrants. “And when political institutions forbid non-governmental organizations and also commercial ships that cross these waters from rescuing shipwreck victims, it’s an even more serious crime and violation of the most elementary international maritime law,” Aveline said.
It was an apparent reference to regulations introduced by Meloni’s right-wing government that require humanitarian rescue ships to return to port after each rescue, often taking them out of active rescue operations for days at a time.
Ahead of Francis’ 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 an urgent appeal for rescues to continue.
“The unfathomable death toll in the Mediterranean this year could have been prevented if the political will was there,” the groups said.
LISTEN | How a migrant boat disaster that left hundreds dead or missing preventable:
As It Happens6:16‘It could have been prevented,’ refugee advocate says of migrant boat tragedy
At least 79 people have died and others are feared missing off the coast of southern Greece after a fishing boat carrying migrants capsized and sank. Efi Latsoudi of Refugee Support Aegean tells As It Happens host Nil Köksal that tragedies like this are completely preventable.