ROME: Pope Francis on Saturday urged the international community to act over a deadly surge in the numbers of migrants attempting to reach Italy via perilous sea crossings from north Africa.
The pontiff’s appeal came at the end of a week in which more than 450 people are feared to have drowned in the Mediterranean and more than 11,000 other would-be immigrants to Europe have been rescued by Italy’s coastguard, merchant ships or vessels involved in a much-criticised European Union maritime border patrol operation.
The latest consignment, a group of more than 450 refugees including 50 children, two newborn babies and eight pregnant women, disembarked at Messina on Sicily on Saturday morning following a rescue by the Italian navy ship the Driade.
“I want to express my gratitude for Italy’s undertaking in welcoming the numerous migrants seeking refuge at the risk of their lives,” Francis said.
“It is evident that the proportions of the phenomenon demand much greater involvement. We must not tire in our attempts to solicit a more extensive response at the European and international level.”
The pope was speaking during his first official meeting with new Italian President Sergio Mattarella, who reiterated Rome’s longstanding call for more support from its EU partners in dealing with the humanitarian crisis.
“These broken lives compromise the dignity of the international community and we are in danger of losing our humanity,” Mattarella said.
An estimated 900 boat people have perished in the waters between Libya and Italy already this year and current trends point to last year’s total of 170,000 migrants landing in Italy being at least matched.
Aid organizations say the death toll is much higher than it might have been if the Italian navy’s Mare Nostrum operation had not been suspended at the end of last year.
Italy scaled back the search and rescue operation after failing to persuade its European partners to help meet its operating costs of nine million euros ($9.7 million) per month amid divisions over whether the mission was unintentionally encouraging migrants to attempt the crossing.
Mare Nostrum has been partially replaced by a much smaller EU-run operation called Triton which has a fraction of the assets and manpower deployed by Italy.
The migrants seeking to reach Europe with the help of people smugglers are generally fleeing conflict or persecution in places such as Eritrea, Afghanistan and Syria, or poverty and hunger in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.