VATICAN CITY (AFP, AP): The number of migrants dying in the Mediterranean is an “open wound” for humanity, Pope Francis said Sunday after a week marked by a string of deadly shipwrecks.
At his weekly Angelus prayer, the 86-year-old pontiff offered his prayers for the 41 people reported missing on Wednesday by four survivors brought to safety on the Italian island of Lampedusa.
He recalled “with pain and shame” UN figures showing more than 2,000 migrants have lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea since the start of the year.
“It is an open wound in our humanity,” he told pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square.
“I offer encouragement to the politicians and diplomats who are seeking to heal it, in a spirit of solidarity and brotherhood.”
He also hailed “the commitment of all those who work to prevent shipwrecks and rescue sailors.”
Francis — who regularly urges better treatment of those who flee their homes for a better life elsewhere — had this week already warned against becoming “indifferent” to the deaths.
A spokesman for the UN migration agency, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said Saturday that “at least 2,060” migrants had lost their lives in the Mediterranean since January 1.
Of those, more than 1,800 died in the Central Mediterranean, the route from North Africa to Italy and Malta, he said — more than twice as many as in the same period last year.
In the latest incident, two Tunisians including a baby died when their boat sank Saturday shortly after leaving the shores of the North African country, the coast guard said.
On Monday judicial officials reported the deaths of 11 migrants in a shipwreck off Sfax, with dozens more missing.
The eastern Tunisian port city located about 130 kilometers (80 miles) from Lampedusa has emerged as a key migrant launchpad.
According to the four survivors who were rescued by a merchant ship in the Central Mediterranean last week as they drifted in a smugglers’ engineless boat, they had been tossed into the sea when towering waves knocked over their vessel and that 41 fellow passengers didn’t survive.
Separately, a charity vessel carried out 15 rescue operations and the Italian coast guard on Sunday recovered a body off the western coast of Sicily from a shipwreck.
Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni has repeatedly encouraged Tunisia to put an end to the near daily launching of multiple vessels from its ports. But in the last 10 days there has been a spate of boats capsized, shipwrecked or otherwise in distress. Tens of thousands of migrants have set out this year from northern African shores to try reach Europe.
Since Friday, migrants rescued from more than 60 boats stepped ashore on Lampedusa island, including some 400 people early Sunday. Those arrivals swelled to 2,000 the number of asylum-seekers in the island’s temporary migrant residence, which is supposed to house no more than about 450, said Pierluigi De Ascentiis, from the Italian Red Cross, which manages the structure.
With so many boats setting out from Tunisia, migrants were reaching tiny islands they only occasionally land on, including Marettimo, a remote rocky fishing isle in the Egadi Archipelago off western Sicily.
The Italian coast guard on Sunday recovered a man’s body from a shipwreck of a rubber dinghy a day earlier near Marettimo, Italian state TV quoted a Trapani-based port official, Gulgielmo Cassone, as saying. Nine migrants were rescued by the coast guard. State TV said one person was believed missing, and a coast guard helicopter was deployed in the search.
On Pantelleria, an arid island noted for its VIP vacation homes, 250 migrants set foot without need of rescue on Saturday, the Corriere della Sera daily said.
While the large minority of migrants reaching Italian shores in the last few days had set out from Tunisia, a rescue boat operated by the humanitarian group Emergency was sailing on Sunday toward Naples with 76 migrants whose vessel had set out on Thursday from Libya. It capsized in international waters within Malta’s search-and-rescue zone, the organization said. The migrants come from Egypt, Syria, Ethiopia and Eritrea and include seven women and 24 minors, the youngest 7 months old, it said.
Months ago, Meloni’s right-wing government, whose coalition partner is the staunchly anti-migrant League party, sought to limit the time charity boats are at sea on rescue missions. It contends they essentially encourage smugglers to launch vessels in hopes that humanitarian groups will ultimately ensure the passengers’ safe arrival.
Under the crackdown, humanitarian boats are supposed to immediately head to port after each rescue operation and not stay at sea to help others.
But lately, it appears that charity ships in the central Mediterranean Sea are increasingly playing rescue roles, as the number of migrants reaching Italy by sea so far this year — some 95,000, according to Interior Ministry figures — is more than double the number in the same period last year.
The charity ship Ocean Viking, in a recent 48-hour-period, carried out 15 separate rescue missions under the direction of the Italian coast guard, its most ever. Ocean Viking’s operator, the humanitarian organization SOS Mediterranee, said most of the 623 rescued from vessels that set out from Tunisia are from Sudan, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Benin and Bangladesh.