Pope Faces Down Growing Backlash Against Migrants in Europe

Pope Benedict XVI waves as he arrives to lead the Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's square, at the Vatican October 24, 2012. REUTERS/Giampiero Sposito (VATICAN - Tags: RELIGION)
Pope Benedict XVI waves as he arrives to lead the Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's square, at the Vatican October 24, 2012. REUTERS/Giampiero Sposito (VATICAN - Tags: RELIGION)


The pontiff is visiting Marseille, France, where he will mourn migrants who died crossing the Mediterranean.

Pope Francis is visiting Marseille, France, on Friday to advocate for refugees amid an antimigration political backlash in Europe.

The pope, who has made migration a signature issue of his decadelong pontificate, will attend a meeting of Catholic bishops and young people of different faiths from around the Mediterranean to address common social problems and particularly the challenge of migration.

That challenge “must be faced together, insofar as it is essential for the future of all, which will be prosperous only if built on fraternity, putting in first place human dignity, concrete persons, above all the neediest," Francis said last Sunday.

But political leaders around Europe are focused on finding ways to clamp down on migration across the Mediterranean, which has become one of the world’s most frequented—and most dangerous—routes for migrants from poor or war-torn countries in Africa, the Middle East and farther afield.

“Nobody with his stature is sticking up for migrants the way the pope is," said Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels, a migration expert at the U.K.’s University of Kent.

French President Emmanuel Macron, with whom the pope is scheduled to meet in Marseille on Saturday, is under pressure from the political right to take a harder line on migration since riots in June and July were sparked by the killing of a youth of North African origin.

Italy’s right-wing government, which came to power last year with a strongly anti-immigration platform, announced plans this week to beef up the detention and deportation of migrants who don’t qualify for asylum. Anti-immigration parties are in power or on the rise in much of the continent.

More refugees and other migrants have crossed the Mediterranean this year than in any since Europe’s migration crisis of 2015-16, when more than a million war refugees from Syria and other migrants trekked across Europe from the Middle East.

According to the United Nations, more than 183,000 “irregular" migrants have arrived in Europe in 2023, more than 95% of them by sea and more than 70% in Italy, whose tiny southern Mediterranean island of Lampedusa has been overwhelmed in recent weeks.

“I will not allow Italy to become Europe’s refugee camp," Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said Wednesday in New York, where she is attending the U.N. General Assembly.

Lisel Hintz, a professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, said the current upsurge is driven by factors including high grain prices caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine, water shortages due to climate change, armed conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa, and a desire to escape repressive governments in Tunisia and Egypt.

Around 2,500 migrants have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean so far this year, according to the U.N. On Friday afternoon in Marseille, the pope is scheduled to take part in a ceremony with other religious leaders, migrants and representatives of rescue groups at a monument to sailors and migrants lost at sea.

“Our humanity is sinking in the Mediterranean," said François Thomas, president of the French branch of SOS Méditerranée, which rescues seaborne migrants, and who will attend Friday’s event. “The pope’s visit is a message of hope…to say that the Mediterranean can be a sea of hope and not a sea of distress."

A similar moment marked the pope’s first trip outside of Rome in 2013, when he denounced the “globalization of indifference" and cast a floral wreath onto the sea near Lampedusa to mourn those who had drowned trying to reach Europe.

Since then, the problem has grown worse, said Cardinal Michael Czerny, head of the Vatican office for social-justice concerns and himself a refugee from post-World War II Czechoslovakia, who will accompany Francis to Marseille.

“There’s a deterioration, and there’s an urgency, which are even greater than that 10 years ago," Czerny said, citing Europe’s growing practice of sending migrants back into dangerous conditions in neighboring regions, which he said violates at least the spirit of international law.

The European Union recently signed a deal of more than $1 billion with Tunisia to stop migrants from leaving its shores, following similar agreements with Libya and Turkey. Francis has been explicitly critical of the deal with Libya, calling migrant detention centers there “concentration camps."

“The Mediterranean is a cemetery, but it’s not the biggest cemetery. The largest cemetery is North Africa," the pope told reporters in August.

“Pope Francis is very good at humanizing" migration, Klekowski von Koppenfels said. “That people who lose their lives crossing the Mediterranean are also people with families with hopes, with dreams, with fears…is something that Pope Francis really does get across."

Write to Francis X. Rocca at

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