Pope Francis issued an appeal to the “international community” Sunday, pleading for swift and decisive action to bring an end to migrant shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea.
“Dramatic news of shipwrecks of barges laden with migrants in the waters of the Mediterranean have arrived over these last weeks,” the pope said following his weekly Angelus prayer in Saint Peter’s Square. “I express my sorrow in the face of such tragedies and assure my thoughts and prayers for the victims and their families.”
“I address a heartfelt plea to the international community to act decisively and promptly in order to prevent such tragedies from happening, and to ensure security and respect for the rights and dignity of all,” he said.
In his appeal, the pontiff did not explain what sort of action he is hoping for from international powers, but his ongoing support for a sweeping “welcome” of migrants would suggest that he believes the best course of action to be an increased presence of rescue vessels in the Mediterranean to assure that as many migrants as possible reach safe harbor in European ports.
In recent weeks a number of Catholic bishops from Italy and Malta have expressed their opposition to the tightened immigration policies of their respective governments, blaming closed ports for migrant deaths at sea.
In Malta, both Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Bishop Mario Grech have voiced public support for a statement by NGOs claiming that the consequences of the government’s decision to close its ports “are potentially fatal, as the vessels will no longer be able to continue saving lives in the Mediterranean Sea.”
“Although supposedly aimed at ensuring respect for the law, this action directly undermines the protection of human life at Europe’s borders, making them even more dangerous for refugees and asylum seekers,” the NGOs said.
In Italy, the Sicilian Cardinal Francesco Montenegro responded to Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s decision not to allow an NGO vessel to unload economic migrants from North Africa earlier this month by comparing migrants who drown at sea to Jesus Christ.
“It is Jesus coming to us on a vessel, he is in the man or child who drowns, it is Jesus who fishes through the garbage in search of a little food,” he said.
Montenegro blamed migrant sea deaths on efforts to curb mass migration, which in turn would be motivated by callousness and indifference.
“It’s a society, but unfortunately also a religion that ignores human rights, that creates the poor and then doesn’t want them because they are irksome and lets them die,” Montenegro said.
Attempts to tie migrant deaths with tighter controls on sea ports runs into a serious problem, however, when the available immigration data is carefully analyzed.
As both the UNHCR and IOM have recently reported, migrant deaths in the Mediterranean have dropped dramatically in the first six months of 2018, at the same time European leaders have sent the message that borders are no longer open to economic migrants.
Having fewer migrants on the seas has resulted—unsurprisingly—in far fewer deaths.
For the first half of 2018, sea deaths fell to 1,058, less than half the 2,258 migrant sea deaths recorded during the same six-month period of 2017.
From January through June, Italy’s immigration figures have similarly undergone a drastic reduction, thanks in part to its new populist government, and numbers for the first half of the year reflect an 80 percent decline over the same period of 2017.
According to data released earlier this month by the United Nations immigration agency (UNHCR), a total of 16,919 migrants arrived by sea into Italy prior to July 8, whereas over the same period in 2017 a total of 85,197 migrants had arrived.
The total number of migrants lost at sea reached its highest point in 2016, with 4,578 migrants determined to be either dead or missing. That year also marked the record number of migrants arriving across the Mediterranean onto Italian shores, a total of 181,436, UNHCR reported.
Statistics from UNHCR and IOM strongly indicate that the recent decline in migrant sea deaths correlates directly to more restrictive immigration policies.
In this light, people who take the pope’s appeal seriously should support more stringent immigration regulations to prevent would-be migrants from recklessly embarking on a perilous sea voyage that could cost them their lives.
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