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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Haunted by a sinking ship

Thamer and Thayer are two brothers from Syria who risked their lives in the hope of reaching Europe. The sea voyage was fraught with danger. But home had become a war zone.

Before the conflict, they led a simple life in a small, tight-knit community they describe as "serene". Syria offered them hope and a future. Then conflict broke out and they were among the millions forced to flee, eventually finding their way to Libya and making a desperate decision.

At a cost of US$ 2,000 each, they boarded a boat with over 200 others and set sail for Italy. They knew that capsizing was a very real possibility. But they hadn't expected bullets, fired by militiamen and puncturing their boat off the coast of Lampedusa.

As water licked their ankles, the brothers clung to one another in the chaos. "I saw my life flash before my eyes," recalls Thayer. "I saw my childhood. I saw people from when I was young. Things I thought I no longer remembered."

After ten terrifying hours, the boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, throwing occupants overboard. Rescue, when it finally came, was too late for many.

Theirs was the second of two deadly shipwrecks off the coast of Lampedusa last October. Claiming hundreds of lives, the disasters sparked a debate on asylum policy in Europe, leading Italian authorities to launch the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation. To date, it has saved more than 80,000 people in distress at sea.

Eight months on, having applied for asylum in a sleepy coastal town in western Sicily, Thamer and Thayer are waiting to restart their lives.

"We want to make our own lives and move on," they explain.

Haunted by a sinking ship

Rescue at Sea

Summer, with its fair weather and calmer seas, often brings an increase in the number of people risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean and seek asylum in Europe. But this year the numbers have grown by a staggering amount. In the month of June, the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation picked up desperate passengers at a rate of more than 750 per day.

In late June, UNHCR photographer Alfredo D'Amato boarded the San Giorgio, an Italian naval ship taking part in the operation, to document the rescue process - including the first sighting of boats from a military helicopter, the passengers' transfer to small rescue boats and then the mother ship, and finally their return to dry land in Puglia, Italy.

In the span of just six hours on 28 June, the crew rescued 1,171 people from four overcrowded boats. Over half were from war-torn Syrian, mostly families and large groups. Others came from Eritrea and Sudan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia, Bangladesh and beyond. D'Amato's images and the interviews that accompanied them are windows into the lives of people whose situation at home had become so precarious that they were willing to risk it all.

Rescue at Sea

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

Italy: Mediterranean RescuePlay video

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.
Italy: Thousands of Refugees Rescued in SicilyPlay video

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.
Italy: Waiting for AsylumPlay video

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.