The papal appeal came as the European Union leaders struggle to overcome their differences on how to handle immigrants, an issue that feeds support for nationalist and populist groups across the EU.
Pope Francis on Sunday (October 24) urged countries not to send migrants back to insecure countries like Libya, where many suffer violent and inhumane conditions akin to concentration camps.
News outlets said the papal appeal on Sunday came as the European Union leaders struggle to overcome their differences on how to handle immigrants, an issue that feeds support for nationalist and populist groups across the EU.
"We have to put an end to the return of migrants to countries that are not secure," he said, citing "thousands of migrants, refugees and others who need protection in Libya."
Priority should be given to rescues at sea, orderly disembarkation, alternatives to prison, and regular paths to immigration and asylum procedures, he said.
‘I hear your cries’
Francis reminded the international community to "keep their promises" to find lasting solutions to manage migration flows in Libya and all of the Mediterranean.
"Many of these men, women and children (in Libya) are subjected to an inhumane violence," he said.
"How much those who are sent back suffer! There are real lagers there," he said, using the German word that is common in Italy when referring to concentration camps.
“I express my closeness to the thousands of migrants, refugees and others in need of protection in Libya,' he said adding' "I never forget you. I hear your cries."
UN Human Rights’ inquiry
This month the UN human rights office demanded an inquiry into what it called "unnecessary and disproportionate" force by Libyan security forces to detain African migrants, shooting dead some of those trying to escape.
Francis spoke a day after the latest hearing of a highly- publicized trial in Sicily where former interior minister Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy's right-wing League party, faces kidnapping charges for refusing to let a migrant ship dock in the country in 2019.
The EU has tightened asylum rules and its external borders since more than a million refugees and migrants reached Europe across the Mediterranean six years ago and cut deals with countries like Turkey and Libya for people to stay elsewhere along the global routes.
Francis also waded into a highly contentious political debate in Europe, calling on the international community to find concrete ways to manage the “migratory flows” in the Mediterranean.
Even as the pontiff appealed for changes of migrant policy and of heart in his remarks to the public in St. Peter's Square, hundreds of migrants were either at sea in the central Mediterranean awaiting a port after rescue or recently coming ashore in Sicily or the Italian mainland after setting sail from Libya or Turkey, according to authorities.
“How they suffer, those who are sent back” after rescue at sea, the pope said. Detention facilities in Libya, he said “are true concentration camps.”
“We need to stop sending back (migrants) to unsafe countries and to give priority to the saving of human lives at sea with protocols of rescue and predictable disembarking, to guarantee them dignified conditions of life, alternatives to detention, regular paths of migration and access to asylum procedures," Francis said.
UN refugee agency officials and human rights organizations have long denounced the conditions of detention centers for migrants in Libya, citing practices of beatings, rape and other forms of torture and insufficient food.
Migrants endure weeks and months of those conditions, awaiting passage in unseaworthy rubber dinghies or rickety fishing boats arranged by human traffickers.
Hours after the pope's appeal, the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders said that its rescue ship, Geo Barents, reached a rubber boat that was taking on water, with the sea buffeted by strong winds and waves up to three meters (10 feet) high.
It tweeted that “we managed to rescue all the 71 people on board.”
The group thanked the charity group Alarm Phone for signaling that the boat crowded with migrants was in distressed.
Earlier, Geo Barents, then with 296 migrants aboard its rescue ship, was awaiting permission in waters off Malta to disembark.
Six migrants tested positive for Covid-19, but because of the crowded conditions aboard, it was difficult to keep them sufficiently distant from the others, Doctors Without Borders said.
In Sicily, a ship operated by the German charity Sea-Watch, with 406 rescued migrants aboard, was granted permission to enter port.
But Sea-Watch said that a rescue vessel operated by a Spanish charity, with 105 migrants aboard, has been awaiting a port assignment to disembark them for four days.
While hundreds of thousands of migrants have departed in traffickers' boats for European shores in recent years and set foot on Sicily or nearby Italian islands, many reach the Italian mainland.
Red Cross officials in Roccella Ionica, a town on the coast of the “toe” of the Italian peninsula said on Sunday that about 700 migrants, some of them from Afghanistan, reached the Calabrian coast in recent days on boats that apparently departed from Turkey.
Authorities said so far this year, about 3,400 migrants had reached Roccella Ionica, a town of 6,000 people, compared to 480 in all of 2019. The migrants who arrived in the last several days were being housed in tent shelters, RAI state television said.
Italy and Malta have come under criticism by human rights advocates for leaving migrants aboard crowded rescue boats before assigning them a safe port.
The Libyan coast guard, which has been trained and equipped by Italy, has also been criticized for rescuing migrants in Libyan waters and then returning them to land where the detention centers awaited them.
With rising popularity of right-wing, anti-migrant parties in Italy in recent years, the Italian government has been under increasing domestic political pressure to crack down on illegal immigration.
Italy and Malta have lobbied theirs European Union partner countries, mainly in vain, to take in some of those rescued at sea.
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