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‘A day of tears’, says Pope, after migrants’ vessel is lost

04 October 2013

by Helen Saxbee


Recovered: the bodies of some of the victims are lined up in the port of Lampedusa, on Thursday 

Recovered: the bodies of some of the victims are lined up in the port of Lampedusa, on Thursday 

POPE FRANCIS described as "shameful" the fatal accident on Thursday in which a boat carrying as many as 500 African migrants to the southern Italian island of Lampedusa sank.

Addressing a conference in the Vatican on Thursday, he asked everyone to "renew our efforts to ensure that such tragedies are not to be repeated".

At least 130 people died as the boat, travelling from Misrata, in Libya, sank approximately half a mile from the shore. Passengers reportedly started a fire on board in an attempt to attract the attention of coastguards, after the boat suffered engine-failure and began taking in water.

On Friday, at least 130 of the migrants were confirmed dead, and 200 were unaccounted for. More than 150 people had been rescued.

On a day-long pilgrimage on Friday to Assisi to visit sites associated with St Francis, the Pope condemned current global treatment of refugees.

The world "does not care about the many people fleeing slavery, hunger, fleeing in search of freedom. And how many of them die, as happened yesterday! Today is a day of tears," he said.

The Italian government declared Friday a national day of mourning, and schools observed a minute's silence. Rescue workers continued to search Sicilian waters for survivors. The Mayor of Lampedusa, Giusi Nicolini, said: "It is horrific, like a cemetery. They are still bringing them out."

The Italian deputy prime minister, Angelo Alfano, said at a press conference in Rome that the accident illustrated that Europe need to assist in dealing with the ongoing influx of refugees. He said that this was "a European tragedy, not just an Italian one".

The UN reported that most of the migrants on the boat were from Eritrea and Somalia. The High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, commended the swift action of the Italian coastguard to save lives. Mr Guterres expressed his dismay at the rising number of people who perished at sea in attempts to flee from conflict or persecution.

This was the second fatal accident this week causing migrants' deaths off Italy's coast. On Monday, the bodies of 13 Eritrean men were washed up on a Sicilian beach, after the men attempted to swim ashore when their ship ran aground.

Pope Francis chose Lampedusa for his first official visit outside Rome, at the beginning of July. He said then that each time he heard of immigrants dying at sea, the thought of a way of hope ending in a way of death "always returns as a thorn in the heart".

The Archdeacon of Italy and Malta, the Ven. Jonathan Boardman, writes:

The tragedy of last week's shipwreck off Lampedusa is just another episode in a horrific saga of human exploitation and misery. Many of the West Africans who worship in Anglican chaplaincies in Italy came to Europe as long ago as the early 90s by trekking across the Sahara and then risking everything by seeking passage across the Mediterranean. Their tales of deprivation, constant danger and the nearness of death emerge only when pressed - the trauma is too difficult regularly to recall.

Our archdeaconry's own involvement in trying to address the present intensification of the crisis is to assist partners with a presence on Lampedusa itself, principally the Community of Sant'Egidio. This lay RC movement, founded in 1968 by Andrea Riccardi, the minister for Integration in the last Italian government, works all year round through a Lampedusa parish to assist the unaccompanied minors who arrive on the island. Intensification of arrivals in the summer months has led the community to organise their own youth members as a team to befriend the growing number of child refugees, who are the only ones with an automatic right to stay in the country.

In summer 2011, All Saints' Anglican Church, Rome funded the provision of 1000 bibles in English at the request of Sant'Egidio to be distributed to these young people. But concern goes much further than their spiritual needs. Even before this latest shipwreck, at its annual inter-religious peace conference last weekend, attended by the Archbishop of Armagh, Dr Richard Clarke, and Dame Mary Tanner to represent Anglicans, Sant'Egidio was calling for an integrated pan-European approach to the humanitarian crisis. Italy simply cannot cope with the pressure, in spite of a high degree of human sympathy for the refugees.

The waters in which these poveri cristi, the normal Italian expression for needy humans but meaning literally 'poor Christs' are perishing are the same ones where St Paul suffered shipwreck. Concerted ecumenical and integrated European effort needs to be applied in finding a resolution to this humanitarian disaster rather than abandoning Italy to go it alone.

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