Pope heads to Sicily to pray with new migrants

LAMPEDUSA, Sicily — Pope Francis heads Monday to the Sicilian island of Lampedusa for his first pastoral visit outside Rome, going to the farthest reaches of Italy to pray with migrants who have recently arrived by boat and mourn those who have died trying.

Francis, a pope from “the end of the Earth” whose ancestors immigrated to Argentina from Italy, has a special place in his heart for refugees: As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he denounced the exploitation of migrants as “slavery” and said those who did nothing to help them were complicit by their silence.

On Monday, he will arrive at Lampedusa’s port by boat, as the migrants do, and will throw a floral wreath into the sea in memory of those who died trying to reach the island, which is closer to Africa than the Italian mainland and is the frequent landing place for smugglers’ boats leaving from Libya or Tunisia.

According to the U.N. refugee agency, 8,400 migrants have landed in Italy and Malta in the first six months of the year, almost double the 4,500 who arrived during the first half of 2012. It’s still a far cry from the tens of thousands who flooded to Italy during the Arab Spring exodus of 2011.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has recorded 40 deaths in the first half of 2013, and a total of 500 for all of 2012, based on interviews with survivors. Fortress Europe, an Italian observatory that tracks migrant deaths reported by the media, says about 6,450 people died in the Canal of Sicily between 1994 and 2012.

Francis decided somewhat at the last minute to visit Lampedusa, a treeless, strip of an island nine kilometers (four miles) long, after reports of nearly a dozen migrants lost at sea a few weeks ago. The decision, announced July 1, left the island struggling to bring in enough security forces, portable bathrooms, ambulances and other necessities for its first papal visit.

Mayor Giusi Nicolini said the Vatican had explicitly requested a simple affair, in keeping with Francis’ humble take on the papacy. He will greet a few dozen migrants upon arrival at the port and celebrate Mass on the main sports field, located near the “boat cemetery” that houses the remains of broken migrant ships that have reached Lampedusa’s rocky shores. On Sunday, yellow and white Vatican flags fluttered atop the rotting boats.

A small, colorful boat has been turned into the altar where Francis will celebrate Mass, and pieces of wood from wrecked migrant boats have been crafted into his pastoral staff and the chalice that will be used at Mass.

The pope will visit the local church and then fly back to Rome before lunchtime.

“It will be a strong, a very strong message to open up the silence that covers up the deaths and this injustice of the Mediterranean,” Nicolini told reporters Sunday. “What is launched here will help Lampedusa feel that it’s not alone, that it’s welcome in Europe.”

The island, and Italy as a whole, has insisted that the Europe Union craft a comprehensive migration policy so that the Mediterranean border countries don’t have to bear the burden of housing, screening and caring for migrants on their own. The cry has swelled again as the summer season, calm seas and unrest in Egypt and Syria encourage ever more people to make the crossing.

“Lampedusa is the `Checkpoint Charlie’ of the third millennium,” Interior Minister Angelino Alfano told Parliament this week. “Lampedusa is the frontier of Europe, and taking care of it isn’t a national interest but a European interest.”

Italy enraged the UNHCR in 2009 when it started sending migrants intercepted at sea back to Libya without screening them first for asylum. Just last week, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat refused to exclude sending migrants back to Libya unless the EU shows greater solidarity.

“Malta cannot leave its doors open wide and welcome boats from Libya and elsewhere as if nothing happened,” he told a news conference after 290 migrants were rescued from a drifting boat south of the island nation. “Call us harsh, call us heartless, but we are not pushovers. Malta expected to be shown the same solidarity it had shown to countries which have received bailouts in recent years.”

Francis is expected to ask both governments and local residents to continue opening their doors. The Vatican has said he wants to “encourage the island’s inhabitants and appeal to the responsibility of all that they care for these brothers and sisters in such extreme need.”

It’s a message he has made repeatedly, most recently when he greeted members of the Vatican’s office for migrants in May, and before that in 2008, when he celebrated Mass at a sanctuary for immigrants in Buenos Aires marking World Refugee Day. Then, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio decried subtle and not-so-subtle forms of xenophobia and exploitation of refugees, and noted that “we all are migrants, because no one stays put forever.”

“We are complicit by our silence, by doing nothing, by turning to those who are responsible to find solutions, by our apathy,” he said then.

Lampedusa, with a local population of roughly 5,000 people, has struggled to keep up with the pressure of receiving boatload after boatload of migrants, many from sub-Saharan Africa but also from Egypt, Pakistan and Syria. The island’s holding center has room for nearly 400 migrants, but it often houses hundreds more awaiting transfer to the Italian mainland. Protests, including some in recent days, are common.

One Eritrean man, who was prevented by Italian authorities from being identified for privacy reasons, said Sunday he left his wife and two children to reach Italy, making his way through Sudan and the Egyptian desert to Libya where he boarded a boat. He said he hopes to reach his uncle in Norway and find work.

“I made this huge sacrifice,” he told The Associated Press on Sunday at the holding center. “The journey was terrible, but I don’t feel lost. I had to do it for my family, for my wife and children.”

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