A hallmark of Pope Francis’ papacy has been his ability to focus the attention of the church and the world on human beings who live on the margins of society. In no area has he accomplished this more profoundly and effectively than in defending the rights of persons on the move—immigrants, refugees and victims of trafficking—who struggle to survive on the outer edges of the global community.
In his first trip outside of Rome, for example, the pope did not land in some glorious European capital in order to make a grand entrance on the world stage. He instead visited a small, rocky Italian outcrop about 70 miles off the coast of Africa in the Mediterranean Sea.
During his trip to Lampedusa, Italy, in July 2013, the pope celebrated Mass and laid a wreath in the sea to remember the many hundreds of migrants who have died attempting to reach Europe by sea. Thousands of migrants, both those trying to escape from economic hardship and those fleeing persecution, each year attempt to reach Europe by boat; Lampedusa is the closest European soil. (The capsizing and sinking this spring of several vessels overloaded with migrants on the Mediterranean claimed hundreds of lives and demonstrated how perilous that passage can be.)
He joined his powerful actions that day with words that sent ripples throughout European capitals and beyond. As a moral matter, he said, the world can no longer ignore the human rights and human lives of those seeking a better life and safety in a foreign land. He decried the “globalization of indifference” toward migrants and charged world leaders with responding to their plight.
“In this world of globalization, we have fallen into globalized indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others; ‘It does not affect me; it does not concern me; it is none of my business,’” he said. “Father...we beg your forgiveness for those who by their decisions on the global level have created situations that lead to these tragedies.”
In addition to his visit to Lampedusa, the pope has skillfully combined his words with small but profound acts of compassion toward forced migrants and solidarity with them, thus amplifying his message. He has had Christmas gifts delivered to residents of a migrant shelter near the Vatican, visited a Jesuit-run refugee shelter in Rome and, more recently, sent Easter cakes to Christian refugees in Iraq. He also has highlighted their struggles in his trips outside Rome, meeting with Syrian refugees in Jordan and immigrants in Naples.
Through his deeds and messages, the pope has placed the issue of migration—and the human rights of persons forced to migrate—at the center of his papacy. He also has moved it to the center of policy debates in world capitals. As a result, he has forced elected leaders worldwide to rethink their approach to this timeless and vexing human rights issue.
The Francis Effect on Migration Policy
The pope’s actions have helped influence the direction of migration policy globally, shaming governments into addressing migration issues.
Nowhere has he had more influence than in Europe. Soon after the pope’s visit to Lampedusa, the Italian government launched a rescue operation called Mare Nostrum (Our Sea), which saved the lives of 150,000 persons attempting to reach Europe by sea over the course of a year. Sadly, the operation ended in November 2014 because of costs and the lack of support from other European governments.
In a speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg that month, Pope Francis urged European nations to join together to protect migrants. “We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery,” he said. European officials are now discussing how to work more cooperatively to respond to the most recent crisis in the Mediterranean.
In the area of refugee protection, Francis’ focus on the Syrian conflict and its human consequences has helped create political space for governments to take action. The United States, for example, intends to resettle several thousand Syrians in 2015, up from a total of only 583 during the first three years of the conflict. Other nations should follow suit. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has set a worldwide resettlement goal of 130,000 Syrians by the end of 2016.
“The voice of the pope and the testimony of the pope have an enormous importance to help us all and to help those who struggle for refugee protection to be maintained in our societies,” said António Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner.
As for refugees fleeing the Islamic State, Pope Francis has called international attention to their situation, which otherwise might have been ignored or overshadowed by indifference. In August 2014, he called for an end to the persecution of Iraqi and Syrian religious minorities, including Christians, and called upon the international community to work together to stop it.
“In these cases, where there is an unjust aggressor, I can only say that it is licit to stop the aggressor,” he said. Although many took that statement as an endorsement of the use of force against the Islamic State, the pope clarified that the international community should look at all options and also address the political, social and economic exclusion that extremists exploit: “I thank those who, with courage, are bringing succor to these brothers and sisters, and I am confident that an effective political solution on both the international and local levels may be found to stop these crimes and reestablish the rule of law.”
Building on the pope’s statement, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the representative of the Holy See to the United Nations in Geneva, endorsed a multilateral military option against ISIS, within the framework of international and humanitarian law. “We have to stop this genocide,” he said.
The pope’s focus on the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, one of the largest humanitarian crises in memory, has emphasized the importance of two primary issues for the global church: the protection of the rights of those fleeing persecution and the preservation of religious minorities, particularly Christians, in the Middle East. His interventions have helped keep these issues at the forefront of the international response to the crisis.
Finally, the pope has made the fight against human trafficking a top priority, using his most forceful language in attacking it. In 2013 he called human trafficking a “crime against humanity” and signed a joint declaration with other faith leaders to end human trafficking by 2020.
On April 1, 2014, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, led by its chairman, Bishop Eusebio Elizondo of Seattle, and Cardinal Seán O’Malley, O.F.M.Cap., of Boston, celebrated Mass at the U.S.-Mexico border to commemorate the thousands of migrants who died attempting to cross the unforgiving U.S. southwest deserts or soon after doing so. Hundreds attended the Mass, which received widespread media attention.
The idea for the Mass had its roots in the pope’s visit to Lampedusa. The U.S.-Mexico border, the bishops said, is the Lampedusa of the United States, a place many migrants have attempted to reach, sometimes at the cost of their lives. The Mass and its powerful images of the bishops giving Communion through the border fence gave some momentum to the immigration reform debate in Washington, although legislation eventually died in the House.
As a general matter, the pope has not directly weighed in on U.S. immigration issues, although he reportedly discussed immigration reform with President Obama at the Vatican last year. But his well-publicized and successful intervention with the U.S. government at the time to halt the deportation of the father of a 10-year-old Mexican-American girl, Jersey Vargas, made it clear where his sympathies lay.
He also wrote a letter to the Mexico/Holy See Colloquium on Migration and Development held in Mexico City in July 2014, in which he called for the protection of unaccompanied minors fleeing violence in Central America: “Such a humanitarian emergency demands, first of all, urgent intervention, such that these minors are reeived and protected.” To date, legislation in Congress that would send children back to Central America without an asylum hearing has failed to advance.
Last December, Pope Francis wrote a letter to teenagers in Arizona who had volunteered for the Jesuit-sponsored Kino Border Initiative, lauding them for helping immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. In perhaps his most provocative comment on U.S. immigration policy, Pope Francis told reporters that he would like to walk across the U.S.-Mexico border to show solidarity with Mexican immigrants: “To enter the United States from the border with Mexico would be a beautiful gesture of brotherhood and support for immigrants,” he said.
Come September, the Holy Father will have an opportunity to address the U.S. Congress on immigration and other issues important to him and the church. His address should have a major impact and, at a minimum, help create a more positive political atmosphere and tone toward immigrants on Capitol Hill and beyond.
A Message of Hope
What is the main message that can be taken from Pope Francis’ strong defense of persons on the move—immigrants, refugees and victims of trafficking? It is that these persons are our brothers and sisters and should be afforded the same rights as all of God’s children—to live their lives in safety and with the opportunity to reach their God-given potential. As he told the Seventh World Congress for the Pastoral Care of Migrants, authentic human development requires full participation in the human community: “The authentic right to development regards every person and all people, viewed integrally. This demands that all people be guaranteed a minimal level of participation in the life of the human community.”
Pope Francis has been unafraid to hold governments accountable for respecting these rights and for their restrictive policies against migrants. “The time has come for us to abandon the idea of a Europe that is fearful and self-absorbed,” he told the European nations. His greatest contribution has been his ability to change the international discourse on an issue that continues to perplex and challenge governments. “Obviously, as citizens of the world, we see Pope Francis as a symbol of hope for many things,” the U.N.’s Guterres said.
As the pope said in his 2014 message, his primary goal is to help change global attitudes: “A change of attitude toward migrants and refugees is needed on the part of everyone, moving away from the attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalization—all typical of a throwaway culture—toward attitudes based on a culture of encounter, the only culture capable of building a better, more just and fraternal world.” While this is a challenge, given the nativist sentiments in many nations, Pope Francis has not hesitated to forcefully engage and define the conversation.
Significantly, Pope Francis’ outreach to persons on the move also has affected the life and mission of the church. In his statement for the 2015 World Day of Migrants and Refugees, he placed pastoral ministry and service to migrants at the center of the church’s mission: “The church without frontiers, Mother to all, spreads throughout the world a culture of acceptance and solidarity, in which no one is seen as useless, out of place or disposable.” At a minimum, he is telling us, on his watch the church will reject and transcend the “throwaway” culture and set an example that governments should follow.
In the final analysis, the Pope Francis’ words and actions—his visit to Lampedusa, his frequent meetings with refugees, his acts of kindness to immigrants—are those of a pastor, whose goal is to deliver a message of hope to a portion of humanity that often feels only hopelessness. This is a powerful witness that should continue to weigh upon the conscience of the world.