VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis on Sunday urged governments to stop returning migrants to countries like Libya where they are sent to detention centres rife with abuse, and prioritise saving lives of those crossing the Mediterranean.

The pontiff’s message comes as Italy sees an increase in migrant arrivals from Libya, and the debate within a divided EU shifts to migrants entering the bloc’s eastern borders with Belarus.

“I express my closeness to the thousands of migrants, refugees and also others in need of protection in Libya,” Pope Francis said in a heartfelt message following his Sunday Angelus prayer on Saint Peter’s Square in the Vatican. “I don’t forget you ever. I hear your cry and pray for you,” he said.

“So many of these men, women and children are subject to an inhumane violence,” the pope said. “Yet again I exhort the international community to keep their promises and find common, concrete and lasting solutions, to manage the migrant flows in Libya and all the Mediterranean.” Governments must stop returning migrants to “non-secure countries” like Libya, the 84-year-old pontiff said.

He urged them to prioritise saving lives in the Mediterranean, offer safe disembarkations at ports and guarantee migrants “alternatives to detention” and access to asylum.

Arrivals increase

Italy and the European Union have for years financed, trained and equipped the Libyan coastguard to intercept migrants heading for Europe on makeshift boats.

Those intercepted at sea and returned to Libya are placed in detention centres in deplorable conditions.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi told Parliament that arrivals to Italy from the Mediterranean had doubled thus far this year to 50,500 versus 26,000 in the same year-ago period.

About 1,106 people died this year attempting the crossing, he said.

On Sunday, migrant rescue hotline Alarm Phone said two inflatable boats in the Mediterranean carrying 60 and 68 people, respectively, needed urgent intervention.

Doctors Without Borders, meanwhile, said its Geo Barents charity vessel had rescued another 95 people on Saturday night, bringing the total of rescued migrants onboard to 296.

The Aita Mari rescue vessel operated by Spanish search and rescue agency Salvamento Maritimo and carrying more than 100 migrants is also seeking a safe port to disembark, Italian news agency AGI reported on Sunday.

On Saturday, the 406 migrants rescued in various operations by German rescue charity Sea-Watch began disembarking after Italy allowed it to dock at the Sicilian port of Pozzallo.

A two-day summit of EU leaders that ended on Friday revealed continued rifts between countries on migrant issues. A number of EU member states, including Poland and Lithuania, called for the bloc to finance barriers to stem the thousands of migrants seeking access to Europe via Belarus.

Published in Dawn, October 25th, 2021

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