In Malta, Pope Francis slams EU's treatment of refugees from Africa

In Malta, Pope Francis slams EU's treatment of refugees from Africa

Francis was referring to the EU’s program to train Libya’s coast guard, which patrols the North African country’s coast for migrant smuggling and brings the would-be refugees back to shore

FPJ Web DeskUpdated: Sunday, April 03, 2022, 12:02 PM IST
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Pope Francis sits next to Malta's Archbishop Charles Jude Scicluna, left, aboard a catamaran leaving Valletta's harbor for Gozo in Malta on Saturday, April 2, 2022 | AP

Pope Francis headed to the Mediterranean island nation of Malta on Saturday for a pandemic-delayed weekend visit, aiming to draw attention to Europe's migration challenge that has only become more stark with Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Francis also said the war had pained his heart so much that he sometimes forgets about the pain in his knees. Francis has been suffering for months from a strained ligament in his right knee. The inflammation got so bad that the Vatican arranged for a tarmac elevator to get him on and off the plane for Saturday’s flight to Malta, and his limp was more pronounced Saturday.

The Malta visit, originally scheduled for May 2020, was always supposed to focus on migration, given Malta’s role at the heart of Europe’s migration debate. The issue took on more import with the forced exodus of over 4 million Ukrainian refugees. Francis focused his remarks on the perilous Mediterranean migration route and Europe’s flawed migration policies in welcoming people fleeing war, poverty and conflict.

Speaking with Malta’s president by his side, Francis denounced the “sordid agreements” the European Union has made with Libya to turn back migrants and said Europe must show humanity in welcoming them. He called for the Mediterranean to be a “theater of solidarity, not the harbinger of a tragic shipwreck of civilization.”

Francis was referring to the EU’s program to train Libya’s coast guard, which patrols the North African country’s coast for migrant smuggling and brings the would-be refugees back to shore. The program was strongly backed by Italy and other front-line Mediterranean countries to try to stem the flow of hundreds of thousands of desperate migrants each year.

But human rights groups have condemned the EU-funded program as a violation of the migrants’ rights and documented gross abuses in the Libyan detention camps. Just this week, German said its military would no longer provide training to the Libyan coast guard given its “unacceptable,” and in some cases illegal, treatment of migrants.

Francis has condemned the Libyan detention facilities as concentration camps, but he went further Saturday to shame the EU for its complicity in the abuses there.

“Civilized countries cannot approve for their own interest sordid agreements with criminals who enslave other human beings,” he said.

Malta, the European Union’s smallest country with a half-million people, has long been on the front lines of the flow of migrants and refugees across the Mediterranean and often has come under fire for refusing to let rescue ships dock. Just this week a German aid group sought port for 106 migrants rescued at sea and, by Saturday, the ship was heading to Sicily instead.

Malta has frequently called upon its bigger European neighbors to shoulder more of the burden receiving would-be refugees.

In 2016, Pope Francis, still in the early years of his pontificate, traveled straight into the heart of Europe’s migration crisis, visiting the miserably overcrowded Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. In a key moment of his papacy, he took 12 refugees from Syria, including six children, back to Rome with him on the papal plane.

But five years on, as Francis again visited Lesbos on Sunday as part of a five-day trip to Cyprus and Greece, the world’s focus has drifted and waned. And when it has paid attention, it has done so in a way opposite from how he had hoped, working fervently to block and deter migrants.

Yet for the Vatican, Lesbos remains a symbol of inhumanity, and Francis’ return there this weekend represented an effort not to let Europe look away.

“Human lives, real people, are at stake,” he said in an address before a group of migrants on the island on Sunday. “The future of us all is at stake, and that future will be peaceful only if it is integrated.”

He added, “It is an illusion to think it is enough to keep ourselves safe, to defend ourselves from those in greater need who knock at our door.”

(with inputs from AP)

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