Pope prepares for Italy migrant island visit

Pope Francis will on Monday travel to an Italian island in the middle of the Mediterranean that has become a gateway for African economic migrants and refugees entering Europe in perilous crossings on rickety boats.

Pope prepares for Italy migrant island visit
African migrants rescued off the coast of Lampedusa. Photo: AFP/Marina Militare

Lampedusa island has seen tens of thousands of arrivals since the start of the Arab Spring revolts in 2011, many of them leaving behind African homelands and taking to overcrowded fishing trawlers and rubber dinghies.

Hundreds have drowned in the process and the head of the Roman Catholic Church will honour them by casting a wreath into the sea in their memory, before taking a boat to the same pier where many of the migrants first set foot on dry land again.

A group of recent arrivals will meet the pope there.

"The pope is going there to cry for the dead," his secretary, Alfred Xuereb, told reporters this week.

"His presence is a signal that in the North there are rich people who waste, while in the South there are those who leave everything behind," he said.

The Catholic Church has often been a strong advocate for migrants and has called for their rights to be better protected by host countries, as well as providing food aid and shelter through its charities.

The pope has said he does not want to be accompanied by any politicians, with the Vatican turning down a request from Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, on what will be his first visit outside Rome since his election in March.

Francis is also expected to pay homage to the local population of 6,000 souls, a quiet fishing community that has been overwhelmed by the arrivals but has shown a constant readiness to help those in need.

The pope will be given a small crucifix made by a local artist with wood from the boats on which the migrants arrive, which lie abandoned on the island.

"Christ is on the island in those who arrive but also in the local population that welcomes them," Cardinal Antonio Maria Veglio, head of the Pontifical Council for Migrants, wrote in the Vatican's official daily.

The tiny island of Lampedusa, measuring 20 square kilometres (7.8 square miles), is a popular summer destination and once housed a US Coast Guard base during the Cold War now used to house migrants.

The rocky outcrop is closer to North Africa than to the Italian mainland and is on the same latitude as central Tunisia, a proximity that has meant historical ties going back centuries and cooperation in fishing.

The migrant centre on the island is often criticised by campaigners for being overcrowded and unsanitary, while many unaccompanied minors are stuck on the island for months as they await suitable housing.

Within days of their arrival, adults are transferred from Lampedusa to migrant detention centres on the mainland to be deported or to refugee centres if they file asylum claims in line with Italian laws.

The pope's visit will send "a strong signal" to governments about immigration, Veglio said.

The cardinal said the places where migrants and refugees are held and the way they are treated "should be questioned" and called for full rights on "freedom of movement and freedom to work" in host countries.

Italian parliament speaker Laura Boldrini, a former United Nations official working on refugee issues in Rome who has visited Lampedusa many times during her career, said the visit was "historic".

"It is a warning against the ideological campaigns that degrade social cohesion by denouncing an non-existent invasion and spread fear," she said.

Boldrini said that while Italy's asylum system was working well, the "real problem" was integration. She said the lack of assistance for new arrivals meant they were "condemned to live on the fringes".

Lampedusa has also been a magnet for politicians who oppose immigration, like French National Front leader Marine Le Pen who visited in 2011 warning of an imminent "catastrophe" caused by the boat people.

There has been an increase in arrivals on Lampedusa in recent weeks because of improved weather conditions, with more than 3,600 arriving so far — three
times more than during the same period last year.

But the numbers are still far from the peaks reached in 2011 when tens of thousands arrived within months as border controls in Libya and Tunisia disappeared during Arab Spring revolts.

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How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.