More Migrant Deaths Near Lampedusa: Pope Francis describes tragedy a 'disgrace'

The bodies of African migrants lie in a hangar of the Lampedusa airport

More refugee deaths on the sea near the southern Italian island of Lampedusa has brought international focus to an ongoing tragedy—an unknowable loss of life as thousands of refugees and migrants each year seek to escape to Europe from North Africa in sometimes overloaded or ramshackle watercraft. Rescuers so far have pulled 111 bodies from the Mediterranean from the sinking on Oct. 3 of a boat packed with as many as 500 refugees, including 30 children. As many as 200 remain unaccounted for and are presumed lost; 155 people were pulled from the sea just a half mile from the shore of Lampedusa.

Authorities believe the boat began taking on water after its engines failed; a fire started by passengers to attract attention from passing ships quickly spread and when passengers attempted simultaneously to escape by fleeing to one side, the boat capsized. Many went down with the ship. Would-be rescuers report arriving to a hellish scene on the Mediterranean.

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Simona Moscarelli, a spokeswoman from the International Organization for Migration in Rome, estimated that only six of about 100 women on board survived, adding that most of the migrants were unable to swim. "Only the strongest survived," she said.

The recovery effort was postponed today because of rough weather and Italy's government declared Friday a day of national mourning. "Today is a day of tears," Pope Francis said. So far four children have been found among the dead, alongside 49 women and 58 men. The U.N. refugee agency said that all but one of the survivors were from Eritrea, in the Horn of Africa. The other was Tunisian.

Pope Francis made his first public appearance outside the Vatican on the island in July in an effort to draw attention to the plight of African refugees, many of whom would qualify for asylum in Europe because of the conditions in Libya, Eretria and Somalia from which they are fleeing. On Lampedusa Pope Francis condemned the "global indifference" to the plight of migrants trying to land there.

Addressing a conference marking the 50th anniversary of Blessed John XXIII's encyclical "Pacem in Terris" ("Peace on Earth"), Pope Francis asked whether "'justice' and 'solidarity' are just words in our dictionary or do we all work to make them a reality?" The world still has far to go, he said on Oct. 3, as he offered prayers for the migrants.

The pope described the tragedy as "a disgrace." Pope Francis had visited Lempedusa on July 8 after similar tragedies near the island. The island has become a landing pad for many seeking asylum in Europe. In July Pope Francis had tossed a wreath of white and yellow flowers into the Mediterranean Sea in memory of the estimated 20,000 African immigrants who have died in the past 25 years trying to build a new life in Europe. Addressing the participants in the "Pacem in Terris" conference, organized by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Pope Francis tied the migrants' tragedy to the "inhuman global economic crisis, a serious symptom of a lack of respect for the human person."

A representative from Jesuit Refugee Services (J.R.S.) said on Oct 3 that the “umpteenth tragedy in the Mediterranean this year” the continued inaction by the Italian authorities and the European Union is unjustifiable. "Two days after the last tragedy at sea, we are again left to count the victims of yet another shipwreck in the Mediterranean," said the Director of Centro Astalli (the Jesuit Refugee Service Italy), Giovanni La Manna, S.J.

"We are deeply saddened by this unnecessary loss of life of those who were already fleeing their homes and families in hope of a more secure and protected future," said J.R.S. International Director, Peter Balleis, S.J.

J.R.S. Italy reiterated the call by Pope Francis that "no more deaths in the Mediterranean" should now become a priority for E.U. institutions and the Italian government. Father La Manna urged the government to ask the European Commission to establish a humanitarian channel to the continent, so that victims of war and conflict can safely obtain international protection.

Guaranteeing the rights to asylum means allowing refugees and forced migrants to safely arrive to our countries without risking death by relying on smugglers, he added. "It is unacceptable and shameful that in 2013 the arrival of a ramshackle boat carrying 500 people in the Mediterranean Sea can be met with indifference. Expressing formal mourning for the dead is not enough to remove blame and responsibility. We must welcome them alive, otherwise we are as guilty as those who organize the smuggling of human beings," said Father La Manna. J.R.S. Italy (Centro Astalli) called on the European Union and national decision makers in Italy to seriously consider making the E.U. border agency, Frontex, responsible for monitoring arrivals of migrants fleeing war and persecution and guaranteeing they are able to safely seek asylum in Europe.

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