Pope Francis denounced on Saturday the “sordid agreements” the European Union has made with Libya to turn back migrants and said Europe must show humanity in welcoming them. He called for the Mediterranean to be a “theater of solidarity, not the harbinger of a tragic shipwreck of civilization.”
Speaking with Malta’s president by his side, Francis was referring to the seven-year-old EU program to train Libya’s coast guard, which patrols the North African country’s Mediterranean coast for migrant smuggling operations and brings the would-be refugees back to shore. The program was adopted and strongly backed by Italy and other front-line Mediterranean countries to try to stem the flow of hundreds of thousands of desperate migrants who pay Libyan-based smugglers to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.
Human rights groups have condemned the EU-funded program as a violation of the migrants’ rights and documented gross abuses in the detention camps where returned migrants are then held. Just this past week, German said its military would no longer provide training to the Libyan coast guard given its “unacceptable,” and in some cases illegal, treatment of migrants.
Francis has condemned the Libyan detention facilities as concentration camps, but he went further on Saturday in shaming the EU for its complicity in the abuses committed.
“Civilized countries cannot approve for their own interest sordid agreements with criminals who enslave other human beings,” he said. “Unfortunately, this is happening.”
“Today, when those who cross the Mediterranean in search of salvation are met with fear and the narrative of ‘invasion,’ and safeguarding one’s own security at any price seems to be the primary goal, let us help one another not to view the migrant as a threat and not to yield to the temptation of raising drawbridges and erecting walls,” he said.
“Other people are not a virus from which we need to be protected, but persons to be accepted,” he said.
Malta, the European Union’s smallest country with a half-million people, has long been on the front lines of the flow of migrants and refugees across the Mediterranean. It has frequently called upon its bigger European neighbors to shoulder more of the burden receiving would-be refugees.
Francis has frequently echoed that call, and linked it on Saturday to the welcome the Maltese once gave the Apostle Paul, who according to the biblical account was shipwrecked off Malta in around A.D. 60 while en route to Rome and was shown unusual kindness by the islanders.