The Migrant Pope

America Magazine 
July 6-13, 2015 Issue

By J. Kevin Appleby

How Pope Francis focuses world attention on modern sojourners

A hallmark of Pope Francis’ papacy has been his ability to focus the attention of the church and the world on human beings who live on the margins of society. In no area has he accomplished this more profoundly and effectively than in defending the rights of persons on the move—immigrants, refugees and victims of trafficking—who struggle to survive on the outer edges of the global community.

In his first trip outside of Rome, for example, the pope did not land in some glorious European capital in order to make a grand entrance on the world stage. He instead visited a small, rocky Italian outcrop about 70 miles off the coast of Africa in the Mediterranean Sea.

During his trip to Lampedusa, Italy, in July 2013, the pope celebrated Mass and laid a wreath in the sea to remember the many hundreds of migrants who have died attempting to reach Europe by sea. Thousands of migrants, both those trying to escape from economic hardship and those fleeing persecution, each year attempt to reach Europe by boat; Lampedusa is the closest European soil. (The capsizing and sinking this spring of several vessels overloaded with migrants on the Mediterranean claimed hundreds of lives and demonstrated how perilous that passage can be.)

He joined his powerful actions that day with words that sent ripples throughout European capitals and beyond. As a moral matter, he said, the world can no longer ignore the human rights and human lives of those seeking a better life and safety in a foreign land. He decried the “globalization of indifference” toward migrants and charged world leaders with responding to their plight.

“In this world of globalization, we have fallen into globalized indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others; ‘It does not affect me; it does not concern me; it is none of my business,’” he said. “Father…we beg your forgiveness for those who by their decisions on the global level have created situations that lead to these tragedies.”

In addition to his visit to Lampedusa, the pope has skillfully combined his words with small but profound acts of compassion toward forced migrants and solidarity with them, thus amplifying his message. He has had Christmas gifts delivered to residents of a migrant shelter near the Vatican, visited a Jesuit-run refugee shelter in Rome and, more recently, sent Easter cakes to Christian refugees in Iraq. He also has highlighted their struggles in his trips outside Rome, meeting with Syrian refugees in Jordan and immigrants in Naples.

Through his deeds and messages, the pope has placed the issue of migration—and the human rights of persons forced to migrate—at the center of his papacy. He also has moved it to the center of policy debates in world capitals. As a result, he has forced elected leaders worldwide to rethink their approach to this timeless and vexing human rights issue.

The Francis Effect on Migration Policy

The pope’s actions have helped influence the direction of migration policy globally, shaming governments into addressing migration issues.
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Nowhere has he had more influence than in Europe. Soon after the pope’s visit to Lampedusa, the Italian government launched a rescue operation called Mare Nostrum (Our Sea), which saved the lives of 150,000 persons attempting to reach Europe by sea over the course of a year. Sadly, the operation ended in November 2014 because of costs and the lack of support from other European governments.

In a speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg that month, Pope Francis urged European nations to join together to protect migrants. “We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery,” he said. European officials are now discussing how to work more cooperatively to respond to the most recent crisis in the Mediterranean.

In the area of refugee protection, Francis’ focus on the Syrian conflict and its human consequences has helped create political space for governments to take action. The United States, for example, intends to resettle several thousand Syrians in 2015, up from a total of only 583 during the first three years of the conflict. Other nations should follow suit. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has set a worldwide resettlement goal of 130,000 Syrians by the end of 2016.

“The voice of the pope and the testimony of the pope have an enormous importance to help us all and to help those who struggle for refugee protection to be maintained in our societies,” said António Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner.

As for refugees fleeing the Islamic State, Pope Francis has called international attention to their situation, which otherwise might have been ignored or overshadowed by indifference. In August 2014, he called for an end to the persecution of Iraqi and Syrian religious minorities, including Christians, and called upon the international community to work together to stop it.

“In these cases, where there is an unjust aggressor, I can only say that it is licit to stop the aggressor,” he said. Although many took that statement as an endorsement of the use of force against the Islamic State, the pope clarified that the international community should look at all options and also address the political, social and economic exclusion that extremists exploit: “I thank those who, with courage, are bringing succor to these brothers and sisters, and I am confident that an effective political solution on both the international and local levels may be found to stop these crimes and reestablish the rule of law.”

Building on the pope’s statement, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the representative of the Holy See to the United Nations in Geneva, endorsed a multilateral military option against ISIS, within the framework of international and humanitarian law. “We have to stop this genocide,” he said.
The pope’s focus on the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, one of the largest humanitarian crises in memory, has emphasized the importance of two primary issues for the global church: the protection of the rights of those fleeing persecution and the preservation of religious minorities, particularly Christians, in the Middle East. His interventions have helped keep these issues at the forefront of the international response to the crisis.

Finally, the pope has made the fight against human trafficking a top priority, using his most forceful language in attacking it. In 2013 he called human trafficking a “crime against humanity” and signed a joint declaration with other faith leaders to end human trafficking by 2020.

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