Migrants arrive in Malta on 12 October after being rescued by the local armed forces. (Darrin Zammit Lupi)
Rome, 22 January 2014 – It's a shame it took 500 lives, lost within days, to make Europe aware of the danger faced by people who desperately try to reach its territory to seek refuge.

On 3 October, some 370 people died when the 20-metre boat they were travelling in capsized near the Italian island of Lampedusa – a frequent entry point for asylum seekers coming from Libya. Just a week later, a similar tragedy claimed a death toll of at least 130. Survivors said the boat came under fire shortly after it left Libya. Among the victims of the two tragedies were Eritreans, Somalis, Syrians and Palestinians.

Their fate was by no means exceptional. Thousands of immigrants die trying to breach the walls of 'Fortress Europe'. What drew international horror to the October tragedies was their visibility and high death toll.

Some survivors of the second disaster ended up on the island of Malta after being rescued by the local armed forces. Their stories are heart-breaking. "Entire families were wiped out," said Dr Katrine Camilleri, JRS Malta director. "There were parents who lost all their children, many of them very young, even babies; some were lucky enough to discover one alive in Sicily or Lampedusa, where other survivors were taken".

European leaders were among those who expressed dismay at what happened. But their reaction is too little, too late. Asylum seekers resort to such risky measures, travelling in unsafe boats and entrusting their lives to unscrupulous smugglers, because the European Union (EU) leaves them with no alternative. Experience shows it is virtually impossible for people who need protection to get a visa or other papers to enter an EU member state or another safe country elsewhere in the world.

The European Commissioner responsible for home affairs, Cecilia Malmström, has admitted a shift is needed away from a "restrictive" approach to one based on "openness and solidarity". In what appears to be an unusual time of soul-searching, the man showing the way ahead is Pope Francis. He described the 3 October tragedy as a "shame" and "disgrace", adding: "Today is a day of tears."

Not long before, Pope Francis had delivered a prophetic warning about the dangers immigrants face on their journey. On 6 July, he took the extraordinary step of visiting Lampedusa on his first trip outside Rome. The visit was a clear sign that to the pope, so-called 'illegal immigrants', who so often face hostility at public and policy level, are people who matter.

In his homily that day, Pope Francis said: "Immigrants dying at sea, in boats which were vehicles of hope and became vehicles of death. Since I first heard of this tragedy, it has constantly come back to me like a painful thorn in my heart. So, I felt I had to come here today, to pray and to offer a sign of my closeness, but also to challenge our consciences lest this tragedy be repeated. Please, let it not be repeated!"

He begged forgiveness for widespread indifference and for "those who by their decisions on the global level have created situations that lead to these tragedies". Months later, given the repetition of the tragedy he hoped to avert, the pope's words at Lampedusa take on an even stronger significance: "Who is responsible for the blood of our brothers and sisters? Nobody! Today no-one in our world feels responsible".

But Pope Francis made it clear that the Church cannot be part of this global complacency, telling the immigrants: "The Church is at your side as you seek a more dignified life for yourselves and your families".

The Pope's appeals throw out a strong challenge to political leaders, first and foremost, and to the rest of us too. If we make the crucial link between our action, or inaction, and the tragedies that occur, perhaps urgently needed measures will be taken to minimise the dangers faced by asylum seekers knocking at Europe's doors. And perhaps hundreds of people would not have died in vain.

This article was published in the latest issue of Servir. Click here to read more.
Countries Related to this Region
Italy, Malta