CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 13 October 2018

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Rescue shines harsh light on Italy’s migrant policy

ROME (CNS): Tweeting with hashtags that translate as “Closed ports” and “Open hearts,” Matteo Salvini, the interior minister of Italy, disputed claims that the Italian government was complicit in leaving a migrant to die in the Mediterranean Sea as she clung to a board from a destroyed fishing boat.
 
Salvini strongly supported Italy’s policy of having the Libyan coast guard patrol its own shores, pushing back refugee boats or taking the migrants and refugees back to camps in Libya.
 
Salvini, who has been deputy prime minister and interior minister since June 1, has insisted on a hardline policy limiting immigration. The policy relies both on turning migrants and refugees back to Libya and on forcing member countries of the European Union to contribute to the care of migrants and refugees, who tend to reach land in Italy, Greece, Malta or Spain.
 
He also has worked to prevent rescue boats from docking in Italy until other European countries agree to take a share of the migrants onboard.
 
Salvini and others credit the policy with leading to a sharp decline in the number of migrants and refugees arriving on Italy’s shores. 
 
The 17,838 migrants and refugees who arrived between January 1 and July 18 represent an 86.5 per cent decline from the number of arrivals in the same period in 2017 and an 84.8 per cent decline compared to the same period in 2016, according to figures compiled by the Department of Public Security and posted on the Interior Ministry website on July 18.
 
But the numbers could not bump photographs of Josefa, a migrant from Cameroon, being pulled from the Mediterranean on July 17 by rescuers from the Spanish organization, Proactiva Open Arms, from the front pages of Italian newspapers. 
 
The organisation said it also recovered the dead bodies of a woman and a child from the water.
 
The organisation accused the Libyan coast guard of attacking the boat the refugees were on and leaving some of the migrants to die.
 
A Libyan official said it intercepted a boat with 158 people on board July 16. The migrants were transferred to a coast guard vessel, given food and medical attention and returned to Libya. The boat was destroyed to prevent other smugglers from using it, the Libyans said.
 
Like other Church commentators, Monsignor Robert J. Vitillo, the Geneva-based secretary-general of the International Catholic Migration Commission, noted how Salvini’s actions and comments came so close to the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ first trip outside of Rome as pope when he visited the island of Lampedusa, a major port for migrants and refugees, and he prayed there for the thousands of people who lost their lives at sea in the search for peace and a better life.
 
“I am left with the haunting question cited by Pope Francis, ‘Cain, where is your brother?’” Monsignor Vitillo said on July 18. “While states and civil society have spent countless hours in consultations and negotiations, how many more precious and invaluable lives are being lost? While we continue to fight over ‘burden sharing,’ how much do we recognise the contributions of refugees and migrants to host populations who welcome them? Why aren’t we talking about ‘resource sharing’ instead of ‘responsibility sharing’?”
 
As for the claim that Proactiva and other non-government organisations rescuing the migrants at sea actually entice people to set out and make smugglers’ jobs easier since they increase the possibility of a safe passage, Monsignor Vitillo suggested people making that claim need to speak with some of the migrants and refugees “who felt forced to leave their homelands in order to seek safety, security, freedom and dignity elsewhere.”
 
Monsignor Vitillo said he has worked with hundreds of refugees and migrants in his 46 years as a priest.
 
“I spent much time in refugee camps and migrant processing centres,” he said. Most of the people “have told me how much they would have preferred to stay at home. Many of the refugees have shared with me the horrors of their frequent and unsuccessful attempts to leave their home countries because they saw no other way to survive.”
 
Today, he said, “forced migrants reveal the same circumstances—they are responding to basic needs for survival, not any lure of ‘search and rescue’ boats!”

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