Top Vatican official appeals for solidarity with African boat refugees

Refugees gathered on the Italian island of Lampedusa. Credit: Antonello Mangano
Refugees gathered on the Italian island of Lampedusa. Credit: Antonello Mangano


As thousands of refugees flee the unrest in North Africa for the more peaceful shores of Europe, the Vatican is urging Europeans to welcome them and show concern for their plight.

The small, but inhabited Italian island of Lampedusa has become a gateway to Europe for North Africans fleeing unrest. It is one of the primary entryways to Europe for Libyans, Tunisians and Eritreans, who have been arriving in hordes in recent days.

Depending on the weather, the voyage can be rife with danger. On April 5, seas swollen by high winds rocked flimsy boats with 10-foot waves, sinking one craft that carried an estimated 250 people. More than 50 people have been rescued, but many have died and 150 remain unaccounted for.

The disaster prompted a response from Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ, who said that the situation has prompted concern and prayer from Pope Benedict XVI, who is “deeply troubled” by the events.

Of the more than 20,000 refugees and migrants who have made it to the coasts of the Italian island since January of this year, around 2,000 landed last week alone.

The numbers quickly overwhelmed systems designed to receive refugees, creating a documentation and processing bottleneck and bringing day-to-day life on the island to a halt. Protests by the island's residents calling for more effective government intervention earned it a visit from the nation's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

Because of the huge influx, the Italian government made the decision to grant new arrivals a three-month temporary permit before facing the prospect of repatriation or applying for an extended permit.

According Church leaders in Italy and the Vatican, the rest of Europe also needs to realize what is at stake and take a greater responsibility in the process.

One Sicilian bishop told Vatican Radio on April 7 that for the dead it’s “indifference,” not rough seas, that is to blame for the difficulties of migrants and refugees.

Europe needs to think seriously about what it means for refugees to remain in the region from which they are fleeing, Archbishop Antonio Maria Veglio told Vatican Radio.

Archbishop Veglio is the president of the Vatican's Council for Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, and is well versed in situations involving cross-border movement.

For Libyan refugees in particular, "Europe must take its responsibilities to fulfill its obligations of protecting refugees and demonstrating the true meaning of solidarity and sharing,” the archbishop said.

Some Italian regions have been adamant about not accepting refugees for economic reasons, but, according to Archbishop Veglio, the southern European nation can handle the influx. In 2010, he said, the much smaller country of the Netherlands received twice as many refugees as Italy.

There should be no question about accepting Libyans, who are now fleeing a U.N.-certified "war zone," he said. He also noted that Tunisians may deserve refugee status depending on their individual situations.

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