2013-07-08 Vatican RadioOne of the first things he did upon his arrival on the Island of Lampedusa, Pope Francis laid a wreath in the waters in memory of the tens of thousands of migrants who have died trying to reach Europe in unsafe and overcrowded boats.
Most of them have no names. We do not know their personal stories, their hopes and certainly not their faces. But almost 20.000 people are thought to have died during their journey of hope, across the Mediterranean sea, in the past 25 years.
The migrants are all illegal so of course there are no official figures available. But Italian organizations who deal with the issue of migration estimate that over 19,000 migrants have met with their death whilst crossing the Mediterranean.
They are men, women and children, fleeing hunger, war, persecution and poverty. Their desperation is such that they risked their lives in search of hope for a better future in Europe.
Last year Italy registered 13,245 landings. Almost 5,000 were registered in the first months of 2013. News of more, almost daily landings on the Island of Lampedusa, also speaks of the many who didn’t make it in dilapidated and overloaded boats.
Many of the refugees originally come from sub-Saharan Africa, and would have made the long overland journey to north Africa on foot or by bus, to find work.
Each year on June 20, to coincide with the World Day for Refugees, a prayer vigil takes place in Rome for all the refugees who have lost their lives trying to get into Europe.
The evening prayer vigil at the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere is organised by the Community of Sant'Egidio in collaboration with other associations who care for migrants.
The vigil is entitled “To die of hope” and is generally lead by the President of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People.
Vatican Radio’s Linda Bordoni spoke to St. Egidio's Cecilia Pani about the prayer vigil and about the scenario behind it...
Cecilia explains that St. Egidio has been collecting news about the people who have died, mainly in the Mediterranean Sea because "we were struck about so many people dying, but no one knew their names or their stories". The newspapers, she says, carry numbers and statistics conveying the idea that "some sort of invasion of Italy is taking place. That's why we started to collect names and stories. On this occasion we remember the people who disappeared".
These people are men, women, children - even babies - entire families have disappeared in the waters, coming from all over the world.
Cecilia says these are people who fled their countries, many of them wanting to ask for asylum, most of them fleeing dire economic situations. She remembers that Pope Paul VIth called them "economic refugees" - people escaping not only because of political problems but because their land gave them no possibility to live.
Cecilia says the ones who manage to reach our countries are the strongest. "You need money, courage, strength and good health to undertake this trip".
These people, she points out, allow us to open our mentality and open our eyes on the future of the world. Our future in Europe is with other people, she says, in particular with people from Africa. "The future of Europe is with Africa" - and she refers to the global aging of the European population and the need we have of young people to work. And she speaks of cultural awareness, "of course Europe is a continent with a long history, but in the globalised world we can only develop if we open our borders".
Cecilia says these people are aware of the dangers they are about to face when they undertake their journey of hope. Many of them travel for months by all sorts of means.
She remembers the tragic fate of 2 young boys from Guinea Conacrì in 1999 who hid in the belly of an aeroplane in the attempt to reach Europe to study. Their bodies were discovered in Brussels many days later...
She says we can do much to avoid this kind of tragedy. But also, she says "there is place for these people: we need them". We must not be afraid of "invasions", we must help them cross the borders in a safe way "because the danger is not for us Europeans, it is for them - for their lives...".