LAMPEDUSA, Sicily – Pope Francis traveled Monday to the tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa to pray for migrants lost at sea, going to the farthest reaches of Italy to throw a wreath of flowers into the sea and celebrate Mass as yet another boatload of Eritrean migrants came ashore.
Lampedusa, a treeless strip of an island four miles long, is closer to Africa than the Italian mainland and is the main port of entry into Europe for African migrants smuggled by boat from Libya or Tunisia.
Dozens of Lampedusan fishing boats accompanied Francis’ coast guard ship as it pulled into port, a seaborne motorcade to honor the first pope to visit an island that often complains it has been forgotten by Europe to process the thousands of would-be immigrants who come ashore each year.
“Pope Francis, only you can save us,” read a banner on one of the boats. “You’re one of us,” said a spray-painted sign hanging from an apartment building overlooking the port.
As his plane was landing, a boat carrying 162 Eritreans arrived in port, the latest in a new wave of migrants taking advantage of calm seas and warm weather to make the treacherous crossing. Officials said they were in good condition, just cold.
Francis' ancestors immigrated to Argentina from Italy. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he denounced the exploitation of migrants as “slavery” and said those who did nothing to help them were complicit by their silence.
He has also said he wants his to be a missionary church, one that goes to the “peripheries” to minister to the most marginal.
He choose Lampedusa as the destination for his first pastoral visit outside Rome, and its residents welcomed him warmly, shouting “Viva il Papa” and wildly waving the yellow and white flags of the Vatican.
As he pulled into port, Francis blessed a wreath of yellow and white flowers and tossed it into the sea in memory of those migrants who never arrived. He then disembarked and greeted a few dozen migrants one by one, stopping to chat with a few before heading to celebrate Mass on the island’s main sports field.
In yet another indication of how Francis is changing the rules of this papacy, he traveled by open-top vehicle through throngs of well-wishers to reach the Mass site, shunning the bullet-proof popemobile that popes usually use when outside the Vatican.
The Mass site is located near the “boat cemetery” that houses the remains of broken migrant ships that have reached Lampedusa’s rocky shores.
A small, painted boat was turned into the altar, a recycled helm decorated the lectern and pieces of wood from wrecked migrant boats were crafted into his pastoral staff and the chalice used at Mass. Officials have said the simple nature of the Mass was in keeping with the express wishes of Francis, who only decided last week that he would come after hearing about the deaths of a dozen migrants on one particularly bad crossing.
According to the U.N. refugee agency, 8,400 migrants have landed in Italy and Malta in the first six months of the year, almost double the 4,500 who arrived during the first half of 2012. It’s still a far cry from the tens of thousands who flooded to Italy during the Arab Spring exodus of 2011.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has recorded 40 deaths in the first half of 2013, and a total of 500 for all of 2012, based on interviews with survivors. Fortress Europe, an Italian observatory that tracks migrant deaths reported by the media, says about 6,450 people died in the Canal of Sicily between 1994 and 2012.
The island, and Italy as a whole, has insisted that the Europe Union craft a comprehensive migration policy so that the Mediterranean border countries don’t have to bear the burden of housing, screening and caring for migrants on their own.
Italy enraged the UNHCR in 2009 when it started sending migrants intercepted at sea back to Libya without screening them first for asylum. Just last week, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat refused to exclude sending migrants back to Libya unless the EU shows greater solidarity.
Lampedusa, with a local population of roughly 5,000 people, has struggled to keep up with the pressure of receiving boatload after boatload of migrants, many from sub-Saharan Africa but also from Egypt, Pakistan and Syria. The island’s holding center has room for nearly 400 migrants, but it often houses hundreds more awaiting transfer to the Italian mainland. Protests, including some in recent days, are common.