ROME, Italy — Pope Francis has called for people to become “more supportive” in welcoming migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Africa into Europe.
Following his weekly Angelus address in Saint Peter’s Square Sunday, the pope remarked on a ceremony taking place in Augusta, Sicily, to welcome the arrival of the remains of the boat from the massive shipwreck of April 18, 2015 that claimed the lives of some 700 African migrants.
“May this symbol of so many tragedies in the Mediterranean Sea continue to challenge everyone’s conscience and foster the growth of a more supportive humanity, that tears down the wall of indifference,” the pontiff told the crowds.
“Let us think: the Mediterranean has become Europe’s largest cemetery,” he said.
Only 28 people survived the 2015 shipwreck, skippered by Mohammed Ali Malek, a member of a network of Libyan people smugglers, who received a jail sentence of 18 years for multiple charges of manslaughter.
As captain of the vessel, the 27-year-old Malek, a Tunisian, reportedly caused the disastrous collision with a Portuguese ship that had come to its rescue, which led to the shipwreck.
The BBC noted that Malek followed “the regular procedure for migrant boats making the long crossing,” namely, to place a distress call with the Italian coast guard in Rome asking for rescue once the vessel was in international waters.
In those years, the Italians’ willingness to provide a free shuttle service to migrants provided an incentive to many to undertake the perilous journey, causing the deaths of thousands.
In 2017, Frontex, the border control agency of the European Union (EU), released a report revealing that NGOs had been complicit with human traffickers by offering a taxi service from North Africa to Italy.
NGOs engaged in maritime rescue operations “help criminals achieve their objectives at minimum cost, strengthen their business model by increasing the chances of success,” the report stated.
The Italian prosecutor, Carmelo Zuccaro, said at the time that whether or not the organizations in question are operating out of philanthropic motives, “the facilitation of illegal immigration is a punishable offense regardless of the intention.”
Migrant sea deaths in the Mediterranean did not begin falling until 2018, following the election of a center-right government with stricter immigration policies.
According to a report at the time from the Italian daily La Verità, “the Salvini method works,” referring to border controls by interior minister Matteo Salvini, who had insisted that open ports fuel human trafficking and encourage migrants to undertake dangerous sea crossings.
There had been no solution under the former Matteo Renzi government, the newspaper noted, since he tried passed the buck to the European Union and wrung his hands when the EU did absolutely nothing to resolve the problem.
“The proof is that after years of useless chatter the departures and arrivals have diminished, indeed almost ceased,” the newspaper declared. “And with falling departures and arrivals, the deaths have also declined. Yes, the statistics say that despite alarms raised by NGOs, as the number of refugees who board a vessel is reduced, deaths have also been reduced.”
Prior to assuming office, Mr. Salvini repeatedly accused NGO vessels of providing an illegal shuttle service for African migrants to Italy and on more than one occasion denounced the NGOs for accepting financing from billionaire George Soros as part of his efforts to stimulate migration into Europe.