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Pope Says Impeding Migrant Rescues at Sea is 'Gesture of Hate'

Maritime Activity Reports, Inc.

September 22, 2023

© Boris V. / Adobe Stock

© Boris V. / Adobe Stock

Pope Francis said on Friday that migrants who risk drowning at sea "must be rescued" because doing so was "a duty of humanity" and that those who impede rescues commit "a gesture of hate".

Francis, 86, spoke at an inter-religious prayer service before a monument dedicated to those lost at sea. Earlier, the city's archbishop, Cardinal Jean Marc Aveline, an Algerian-born Frenchman, criticized politicians who block NGOs and their ships from saving drowning people.

"We cannot be resigned to seeing human beings treated as bargaining chips, imprisoned and tortured in atrocious ways," Francis said. "We can no longer watch the drama of shipwrecks, caused by the cruel trafficking and the fanaticism of indifference."

The pope also said: "People who are at risk of drowning when abandoned on the waves must be rescued. It is a duty of humanity; it is a duty of civilization."

Some NGOs have complained that governments have blocked some of their ships from leaving Mediterranean ports for reasons the groups consider unjustifiable. Some have also complained that their ships are forced to dock at ports far from areas where migrant boats are usually found.

Aveline said "political institutions" commit "a crime just as grave" as that committed by human smugglers when they block rescuers. Moments later, Francis went off script to thank groups that rescue migrants.

"Many times they stop you from leaving because, they say, the ship is lacking something, missing this, missing that. These are gestures of hate against brothers," he said. "Thank you for all you do".

Neither the pope nor Aveline named any Mediterranean governments during the portside event, which had echoes of Francis' first visit as pope - in 2013 to Lampedusa, where he paid tribute to migrants who died at sea and condemned "the globalization of indifference".

About 2,500 dead or missing
According to the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, about 178,500 migrants have come to Europe in the year to date via the Mediterranean, while about 2,500 died or went missing on the way.

Nearly, 133,000 migrants have arrived in Italy so far this year by sea, according to government data, nearly double the figure for the same period of 2022.

Italian and Greek sea rescue efforts have come under scrutiny following two major shipwrecks. Italy's conservative government has also faced criticism for restricting the activities of charity-run migrant rescue boats.

In February, a migrant boat that had set off from Turkey crashed on rocks near the southern Italian town of Cutro, leaving at least 94 dead. While the vessel was monitored by authorities, the coast guard did not intercept it in time.

In Greece, several survivors of a June 14 shipwreck in which hundreds of migrants died, claimed that their overcrowded fishing trawler capsizedafter a botched coast guard attempt to tow it. Greek authorities have denied this.

The pope, who was greeted at Marseilles airport by Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne and who will meet twice with President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday, is making the 27-hour trip to Marseille to conclude a meeting of Catholic young people and bishops from the Mediterranean area.

While Francis has said often that migrants should be shared among the 27 EU countries, his overall openness towards migrants, including once calling their exclusion "scandalous, disgusting and sinful," has riled conservative politicians, not least in France.

"He behaves like a politician, or the head of an NGO, and not a pope," said Gilles Pennelle, general director of the far-right Rassemblement National party of Marine Le Pen, President Emmanuel Macron's main challenger in last year's presidential vote. He spoke in a telephone interview with Reuters before the pope made his comments praising NGOs who save migrants at sea.

(Reuters - additional reporting by Layli Foroudi and and Alvise Armellini; Editing by David Gregorio and Alex Richardson)