Pope Francis arrived in Marseille on Friday promising a message of tolerance on migration, amid a bitter row over Europe’s approach to asylum seekers.
The two-day visit focused on Mediterranean crossings comes at a time of heated debate in Europe over how to share responsibility for people arriving on boats from North Africa.
Speaking to reporters on the plane to Marseille, the pope was asked about the boats landing on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, where thousands of people arrived last week, briefly outnumbering the resident population.
“Cruelty, a lack of humanity. A terrible lack of humanity,” he said.
The EU announced on Friday that it would increase funds to help the Tunisian government crack down on criminal people smugglers and accelerate delivery of the controversial migration pact that it made with the north African country this summer.
This week it emerged that criminal smuggling activities had quadrupled in Tunisia this year, with more than 120,000 people making to Italy since January 1st.
The European Commission announced it was increasing support from the €105 million agreed in July to €127 million, and unlocking €60 million immediately for Tunisia. The decision to bring forward the discharge of funds comes as questions were beginning to be asked about the increase in migration from Tunisia since the commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, signed the deal.
The difficult conditions that cause many people to leave their homes, and the risks they take in doing so, have been a key theme during Francis’s decade as head of the Catholic Church.
Speaking at the Vatican last Sunday, he said migration “represents a challenge that is not easy . . . but which must be faced together”. He emphasised the need for “fraternity, putting human dignity and real people, especially those most in need, in first place”.
The pope’s position on migration stands in contrast to some countries in Europe that are emphasising border fences, repatriations and the possibility of a naval blockade to keep a new influx of refugees out.
At Marseille airport, the pontiff was wheeled towards the French prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, who was waiting on the airport tarmac to greet him, AFP reported. He then stood up from his wheelchair to acknowledge the welcome of a military band.
Bells rang out from Marseille’s Notre Dame de la Garde basilica as the pope headed there to lead a prayer, before he was due to hold an interfaith prayer at a nearby monument dedicated to those who have died at sea.
The UN’s International Organisation for Migration estimates that more than 28,000 people have died trying to reach Europe across the Mediterranean since 2014.
Francis is presiding over the closing session of a gathering of Mediterranean Catholic bishops, but his visit to Marseille is aimed at sending a message well beyond the Catholic faithful to Europe, North Africa and beyond.
It is the first visit by a pope to France’s second largest city in 500 years. More than 100,000 people are expected to turn out to see the 86-year-old pontiff in his Popemobile on Saturday.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, will meet the pontiff for one-to-one talks on Saturday before attending a mass with almost 60,000 people.
After 8,500 people landed on Lampedusa in three days, the EU promised more help for Rome. But France, amid wrangling over a draft law on immigration that is due this autumn, said it would not accept anyone from the island.
“We are expecting very strong words” from the pope, said François Thomas, the head of the Marseille-based SOS Mediterranée, which operates a migrant rescue boat. “It is our humanity that is sinking if Europe does not do something.”
Meanwhile, some on the French far right took aim at the pope’s welcoming message on immigration. Marion Maréchal, the niece of Marine Le Pen and a candidate for European Parliament elections next year for the Reconquête party led by the far-right TV pundit Éric Zemmour, said last week: “I disagree with Pope Francis. He has the prism of a South American pope who doesn’t actually know the type of immigration we know and who clearly doesn’t fully realise what we’re dealing with.” – Guardian/Agencies