Pope Francis commemorates dead migrants at Lampedusa
LAMPEDUSA - Reuters
Pope Francis, center, prays after throwing a wreath of flowers into the sea in memory of migrants who never arrived, during his visit to the island of Lampedusa, southern Italy, Monday July 8, 2013. AP photoPope Francis laid a wreath in the port of Lampedusa on Monday in memory of the thousands of migrants from Africa who have died trying to reach the tiny Sicilian island in unsafe and overcrowded boats.
Francis' choice of Lampedusa for his first official trip outside Rome is highly symbolic for the new pontiff, who has placed the poor and dispossessed at the centre of his papacy and has urged the Church to return to its mission of serving them.
His trip comes at the start of the summer months when for the past two decades the island has seen a steady stream of migrant boats arriving on its shores.
Thousands of banner-waving islanders welcomed Francis at the port where he arrived aboard a coast guard vessel accompanied by a flotilla of fishing boats. He spoke with some young African migrants in T-shirts before heading off to celebrate mass.
At the mass, due to take place in a sports field which served as a reception centre for thousands who fled Arab Spring unrest in North Africa in 2011, he was to use a wooden chalice carved out of the wood of a migrant boat by a local carpenter.
Christopher Hein, director of the Italian Council for Refugees, told the Catholic newspaper Avvenire the pope's visit was "an extremely important gesture" that would help keep attention on the migrant issue.
Only 113 kilometres (70 miles) from Tunisia, Lampedusa, a sleepy island which normally lives off fishing and tourism, has become one of the main points of entry into Europe for poor and desperate migrants willing to risk the crossing in overcrowded and unsafe fishing vessels and small boats.
Thousands are known to have died over the years and unknown numbers of others are presumed lost without trace.
With the Church struggling to get to grips with fresh accusations of financial shenanigans at the Vatican bank and memories of the paedophile priests scandal still fresh, the visit to Lampedusa is designed to be sober in tone, in keeping with the pope's drive to get past the upheavals of recent years.
At the height of the crisis, dozens of boats carrying hundreds and even thousands of people were arriving in Lampedusa every day and although the numbers have declined since then, arrivals have continued.
Shortly before the pope arrived, a boat carrying 165 migrants from Mali pulled into port.
On Sunday, 120 people including four pregnant women were rescued at sea after the motors in their boat broke down seven miles off the coast.
According to United Nations figures, almost 8,000 migrants and asylum seekers landed on the coasts of southern Italy in the first half of the year, the vast majority of them from North Africa, mainly Libya.
So far, it said 40 people were known to have died crossing from Tunisia to Italy this year, down from 2012 when almost 500 were reported as dead or missing, thanks to better coordination between authorities in Italy and nearby Malta.
As well as a group of migrants, the pope will also meet residents of Lampedusa, who have at various points seen their island transformed into something approaching a refugee centre, with improvised campsites dotting the hills above the port.
On several occasions at the height of the crisis in 2011, the island's normal population of 5,000 was outnumbered by migrants waiting at the portside or in the main reception centre to be transferred to Sicily and mainland Italy.
Reminders of the crisis are everywhere on the island, notably in the portside scrapyard of old fishing boats, normally chosen by migrant smugglers in the knowledge that they would have only one voyage to make.
Despite some isolated outbreaks of tension and frustration, directed as much at the inactivity of Italian authorities as the migrants themselves, relations have mostly been good, with islanders often offering food and other assistance themselves.