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Pope goes to France to talk migration, but will Europe listen amid influx?

Pope Francis
Pope Francis holds his pastoral staff, made of recycled wood from broken migrant boats, at the end of a Mass during his visit to the Italian island of Lampedusa on July 8, 2013.
(Gregorio Borgia / Associated Press)
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Ten years after Pope Francis made a landmark visit to the Italian island of Lampedusa to show solidarity with migrants, he is joining Catholic bishops from the Mediterranean this weekend in France to make the call more united.

The question is whether anyone in European corridors of power will listen, as they scramble to stem a new tide of would-be refugees setting off from Africa.

Francis’ overnight visit Friday to the French port city of Marseille to close out a meeting of Mediterranean bishops was scheduled months ago. But it comes as Europe’s migrant problem is once again making headlines, given the nearly 7,000 migrants who came ashore on Lampedusa within a day last week, briefly outnumbering the resident population.

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The drama has sparked another round of hand-wringing and pledges of solidarity from European capitals, with even talk of a naval blockade to prevent departures. It’s a policy Francis has long condemned given that an EU-funded operation to return migrants to Libya lands them in what he has called modern-day concentration camps.

Many thought the death of 300 people in a boat fire would cause the European Union to reshape its approach to migration, but little has changed.

Jan. 31, 2023

For Francis, the shocking scenes of men, women and children packed into a refugee center in Lampedusa have underscored that migration as a phenomenon must be tackled jointly. The future, he said last weekend about his upcoming trip to Marseille, “will only be prosperous if it is built on fraternity, putting human dignity, real people and especially the most needy first.”

Francis has long made the plight of migrants a priority of his papacy, starting from that remarkable 2013 visit to Lampedusa, his first trip since becoming pope. There, he 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 people who risk their lives to flee poverty, conflict and climate disasters to seek a better life.

Since then, he has made some other high-profile gestures to draw attention to the Gospel-mandated call to welcome strangers, most spectacularly when he brought back a dozen Syrian Muslims aboard his plane after a 2016 visit to a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece. His mantra: Welcome, protect, promote and integrate, with the last exhortation an acknowledgment that governments have limits in their abilities to accept newcomers and truly integrate them well.

A migrant reception center on Italy’s southernmost island of Lampedusa is trying to cope with thousands of people who arrived on boats within a span of 24 hours.

Sept. 14, 2023

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“The message that he is conveying is that the Mediterranean is our responsibility,” said Cardinal Michael Czerny, the Vatican’s top migration expert and himself a refugee. “In other words, you can’t look at it as each one has a bit of coastline and is responsible for that bit. There’s a collective responsibility which is largely being neglected.”

In Marseille, one of the most multicultural, multi-religious and multiethnic cities on the shores of the Mediterranean, the pontiff will be joined by about 60 bishops from North Africa, the Middle East, Balkans and Southern Europe, along with young people from those regions. It’s the third Mediterranean summit of its kind after the first two were held in Italy.

The location is not coincidental. Marseille for centuries has been characterized by a strong presence of migrants living together in a tradition of tolerance, even though today France’s second city is also known for its high crime and unemployment rates, poverty and lack of social services.

Unlike many other French cities where foreigners tend to live on the outskirts, in Marseille migrants and their descendants of diverse backgrounds — Italians, Spaniards and Armenians; people from France’s former colonies in North Africa, West Africa and the Comoros Islands — have settled in the city center, opening shops and restaurants that contribute to the city’s reputation as a melting pot.

Some 120 boats launched from Africa and crowded with migrants landed on a tiny Italian island, overwhelming coast guard, border police and aid workers.

Sept. 13, 2023

“Marseille is indeed like a city that embodies this diversity of France,” said Camille Le Coz, associate director of Migration Policy Institute’s Europe office, in Paris. “This great tradition of migration, but also a city that is concentrating so many difficulties in terms of access to public services, insecurity, drug trafficking. It’s a very complicated place.”

One of the highlights of Francis’ trip will be an interfaith prayer Friday at a Marseille monument dedicated to sailors who died at sea, in this case honoring the 28,000 migrants estimated by the International Organization of Migration who have drowned in the Mediterranean since 2014 trying to reach Europe.

The encounter will bring together leaders of Marseille’s various faith groups — Muslims, Jews, Armenian and Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics — and will feature testimony of migrants, rescue groups and the pope. The speakers’ list suggests a united voice to call for a culture of tolerance toward migrants, and lament that the Mediterranean has become, in Francis’ words, “the world’s biggest cemetery.”

The question is whether anyone in power will listen. President Emmanuel Macron, whose government has shifted rightward on migration and security issues, will join Francis on Saturday and is slated to attend his big Mass at the Velodrome. The centrist president has taken a firm stance on migration after coming under criticism from conservatives and the far right. He is pushing to strengthen the European Union’s external borders and wants the bloc to be more efficient in deporting those refused entry.

A rusty and overloaded fishing boat carrying 686 migrants from Africa and Asia has arrived at an Italian island port.

Sept. 28, 2021

As a result, France’s current political climate and its tradition of laicite, or secularism, suggest neither Macron nor other European leaders will necessarily heed Francis’ call.

“I think given our complicated relationship with the church and with religion, we don’t expect this to have so much impact, to be honest,” Le Coz said.

Jeffery Crisp, a research fellow at Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Center, said Francis does have a moral authority and has been wielding it to speak out on the issue of migration, calling especially on governments to respect international human rights principles.

“Does that translate into any kind of political pressure? I simply don’t know,” Crisp said in a telephone interview. “But I think you could probably argue that it could only have been worse without his interventions.”

Asylum applications in the European Union continued to rise in the first half of 2023, putting pressure on the bloc’s limited hosting capacities.

Sept. 5, 2023

Young men who arrived in Italy amid the recent wave of migrants hope someone will listen. On a recent day, a group from South Sudan stopped in Rome en route from Lampedusa to the French border. One particularly tall man said he wanted to go to France to play basketball, another said he wanted to go to Britain to be a doctor. Their only belongings were the clothes on their backs; volunteers gave them shoes.

After they spent a few nights sleeping on the ground below a noisy highway overpass near Rome’s main bus station, a nonprofit association bought them cheap bus tickets north. That evening, 16 boys left on a bus bound for Marseille.

They were planning to get off before the French border, where police checks have increased amid Italy’s new migrant influx, and to try to cross on foot. One of them, a 16-year-old named Dot, was wearing new yellow Converse sneakers provided by volunteers.

“We walked from South Sudan,” Dot said before boarding the bus. “We can walk to France.”

Corbet reported from Paris.

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