Pope Francis prays for migrants, refugees during landmark visit to Italy's Lampedusa Island

News Stories, 8 July 2013

© ANSA/A.Tarantino
Pope Francis talks to migrants from Africa at the pier where they stepped ashore onto Italy's Lampedusa Island.

LAMPEDUSA ISLAND, Italy, July 8 (UNHCR) Pope Francis, during a highly symbolic visit to Italy's Lampedusa Island on Monday, called for understanding and solidarity for the thousands of people who risk their lives every year on the high seas to reach Europe and prayed for those who lost their lives in the attempt.

Hours before his arrival, a small boat carrying 166 people of various nationalities had reached the island, 120 kilometres from Tunisia. The Italian coastguard reportedly rescued another boat carrying 120 people, including a pregnant woman, on Sunday.

The Pope met a group of 50 recently arrived migrants, mainly young Somali and Eritrean men, during his first pastoral visit outside Rome since being elected as pontiff in March. "Let's pray for those who did not make it," he told them.

One man from Eritrea told Pope Francis why he had left his home and described his ordeal during the crossing. He asked that Europe give him assistance. Migrants arriving on Lampedusa are normally taken to reception centres on the mainland to ease the burden on the island, whose resident population is just 6,000 people.

Before meeting the migrants, Pope Francis had boarded an Italian coastguard vessel and cast a floral wreath into the sea off Lampedusa in memory of those who have died during the attempted crossing from North Africa. He then visited the pier where the boatpeople reach land after their arduous and dangerous journey.

The Pope next held an open air mass attended by thousands of locals, tourists and migrants. A small wooden fishing boat served as the altar, a ship's wheel was on the lectern and the cross held by the Pope had been fashioned from wood taken from a run-down boat that had brought one group to Lampedusa.

He told the congregation that he had been moved to come to the island after learning that at least 10 people had died when their boat foundered on June 17. He thanked the local population for their solidarity and also thanked associations and authorities who work to assist migrants.

The Pope called for more understanding for those who flee their homes in search of hope and a better place for their families, and while doing so put their lives at risk and often in the hands of smugglers. Pope Francis cautioned against the indifference shown towards the suffering of migrants.

UNHCR Regional Representative Laurens Jolles said the Pope's visit had significant humanitarian and symbolic value. "During his first months as Pope, we have had the chance to appreciate his attention towards refugees and migrants," he said, adding: "We are glad that he could meet a group of migrants, who explained the reasons why they were forced to flee and the dangers of their journey."

The Pope has long been a strong advocate for the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers. On June 19, the eve of World Refugee Day, he called on people and governments to give special consideration to the situation of refugee families.

"We cannot be insensitive to these families or towards our refugee brothers and sisters. We are called to help them, opening ourselves to understanding and hospitality. May there be no lack of people and institutions around the world to assist them," he said.

© ANSA/C.Fusco
Pope Francis during the open air mass. The altar is a small fishing boat and he holds a cross made from wood taken from one of the boats used to bring migrants across the Mediterranean.

UNHCR estimates that approximately 8,400 migrants and asylum-seekers landed on the coasts of Italy and Malta in the first six months of this year. The majority, 7,800, arrived in Italy. Most making the journey left from North Africa, principally Libya (around 6,700 people). The remaining 1,700 crossed from Greece and Turkey, landing in southern Italy's Apulia and Calabria regions.

Countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are the main places of origin of these migrants and asylum-seekers, particularly Somalia and Eritrea. Other countries of origin include Afghanistan, Egypt, Gambia, Mali, Pakistan and Syria.

UNHCR has recorded some 40 deaths in the first six months of 2013 by people attempting to cross to Italy from North Africa. In 2012, almost 500 people were reported dead or missing at sea. The decrease in deaths so far in 2013 is thanks in part to the efforts of the Italian and Maltese authorities

The UN refugee agency engages with all the world's major religions in the cause of protection of the forcibly displaced and stateless. UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres last year held a dialogue in Geneva on faith and protection. Those attending included faith leaders, representatives of faith-based organizations, inter-faith experts and academics.

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A Cry for Those in Peril on the Sea

Earlier this month, within sight of shore after a long journey from Libya, a boat carrying hundreds of people foundered off the Italian island of Lampedusa. More than 300 people, many of them children, drowned and only 156 people were picked out of the water alive. The tragedy was staggering for its heavy death toll, but it is unlikely to prevent people from making the dangerous and irregular journey by sea to try and reach Europe. Many seek a better life in Europe, but others are escaping persecution in countries like Eritrea and Somalia. And it's not just happening on the Mediterranean. Desperate people fleeing poverty, conflict or persecution are risking their lives to cross the Gulf of Aden from Africa; Rohingya from Myanmar are heading into the Bay of Bengal on flimsy boats in search of a safe haven; people of several nationalities try to reach Australia by boat; others cross the Caribbean. And many remember the Vietnamese boat people exodus of the 1970s and 1980s. As then, governments need to work together to reduce the risk to life. These photos, from UNHCR's archives, capture the plight of boat people around the world.

A Cry for Those in Peril on the Sea

Angelina Jolie meets boat people in Malta, Lampedusa

Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie joined UNHCR chief António Guterres on the Italian island of Lampedusa, where they met with boat people who have fled unrest in North Africa.

More than 40,000 people, including refugees and asylum-seekers, have crossed the Mediterranean on overcrowded boats and descended on the small island since the beginning of the year.

The UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador flew to Lampedusa from Malta, which has also been a destination for people fleeing North Africa by boat.

Angelina Jolie meets boat people in Malta, Lampedusa

Fleeing Libya by sea

Thousands of people, mainly sub-Saharan Africans, are taking to the sea in ancient, leaky and overcrowded boats to escape war in their adopted homeland. Libya. The destination of choice is the Italian resort island of Lampedusa, some 600 kilometres north of Libya in the Mediterranean. Many of the passengers arrive traumatized and exhausted from the high seas journey. Others perish en route.

One Ivorian migrant describes life in Tripoli before leaving: "There was no peace. There was rifle fire everywhere. Then NATO started to bomb. We had nothing to eat. Some Libyans started to attack strangers at night, to steal your money, your mobile, whatever you have ... No way to stay there with them. Better to flee."

UNHCR estimates that one in 10 people die during the sea journey from Libya. Those bodies which wash ashore get a simple burial in Lampedusa's cemetery.

May 2011

Fleeing Libya by sea

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Italy: Mediterranean Rescue

The Italy Navy rescues hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers on the high seas as the numbers of people undertaking the crossing of the Mediterranean from North Africa grows.
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Italy: Thousands of Refugees Rescued in Sicily

Over 1,200 migrants were rescued from inflatable boats off the boast of Lampedusa on the 7th of February by the Italian navy. Young men, women and children, crammed into eight dinghies and a boat, were spotted by helicopter half way between Tunisia and Italy.
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Italy: Waiting for Asylum

Sicily has a high number of asylum-seekers because of its location in the south of Italy. In 2011, Cara Mineo was set up to provide asylum-seekers with a place to live while their applications were processed. Today, more than 4,000 people stay there and must wait up to a year for a decision on their applications.