LAMPEDUSA – Pope Francis called for an end to “indifference” to the plight of refugees on Monday on a visit to an Italian island where tens of thousands of migrants from Africa and the Middle East first reach Europe.
“We ask forgiveness for the indifference towards so many brothers and sisters,” Francis said at a mass near the port on his first trip outside of Rome since his election in March.
Speaking within sight of dozens of the abandoned boats used by the migrants, he paid tribute to the hundreds who drown every year trying to reach Europe and said he had come to Lampedusa “to reawaken consciences”.
“The culture of well-being makes us think about ourselves, renders us insensitive to the cries of others,” he said, urging “brotherly responsibility” and condemning a “globalization of indifference”.
Later Monday he also saw Muslim migrants on the start of their Ramadan period of fasting and prayers and said the Catholic Church was close to them “in your search for a more dignified life”.
The pope celebrated mass with a cross and a chalice made from the wood of rickety fishing boats that migrants typically arrive on, mainly from Libya and Tunisia, dozens of which lay discarded nearby.
The altar for the mass was also fashioned from a fishing boat.
The Catholic leader earlier boarded a coast guard boat and cast a wreath of flowers at sea.
Surrounded by dozens of fishing boats and yachts, the pope solemnly made the sign of the cross over the sea in a spot where one of many drownings occurred.
Francis also met with a group of around 50 recent arrivals, many of them young Eritreans, telling them: “We will pray for those who are no longer with us.”
One young man told him: “We suffered a lot reaching this calm place but now we have to stay in Italy. We would like other European countries to help us.”
Under European Union rules, asylum-seekers have to stay in the country they first arrive in and unaccompanied minors are often stuck on Lampedusa for months at a time awaiting relocation.
In tune with the new pope’s informal style, the visit had less of the pomp customary for papal visits.
There were no meetings with politicians or high-ranking clergy, and the pope used a Fiat car on loan from a local inhabitant as a “popemobile”.
The visit was announced only last week, contrasting with past papal trips which are usually arranged months in advance.
Just hours before he touched down, the latest boat carrying 166 migrants landed on Lampedusa, joining the waves of others who have fled northern Africa in the wake of the Arab Spring revolutions that began in 2011.
Cardinal Antonio Maria Veglio, head of the Vatican’s migrant department, said he hoped the visit would prompt “concrete concern and solidarity to improve situations that have become inhuman and unacceptable”.
The pope also paid tribute to the local population — a fishing community of 6,000 on an island of 20 square kilometres (eight square miles) — for the assistance and tolerance they had shown to the boat people.
Lampedusa has seen an increase in arrivals in recent weeks because of improved weather conditions, with around 4,000 arriving so far this year — three times more than during the same period in 2012.
But the numbers are still far from the peaks reached in 2011 when tens of thousands arrived in just a few months as maritime border controls disintegrated during the Arab Spring revolts in north Africa.
Since 1999, more than 200,000 people have arrived on Lampedusa — making the island one of biggest gateways for undocumented migration into Europe.
Laura Boldrini, speaker of the Italian parliament and a former UN official on refugee issues, said coordination of rescues at sea “should be improved”.
“Laws need to be clearer that they need to be helped. Rescuing them is a legal and ethical duty,” she said in an interview with Rai public television.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 40 people have died so far in 2013 — most by drowning — trying to cross from north Africa, while around 500 were reported dead or missing in 2012.