VALETTA, Malta (RNS) — In his final speech in Malta before returning to Rome on Sunday (April 3), Pope Francis laid out his vision for “the future of the human family in a globalized world,” where migrants are readily integrated into their new countries and in turn serve as “witnesses and agents of welcome and fraternity.”
Addressing migrants from Africa and the Middle East at the John XXIII Peace Lab refugee center, Francis urged people in host countries not to fall into “the trap” of thinking that “nothing can be done” and that the migrant crisis is too big of a problem to solve.
“Let us respond to the challenge of migrants and refugees with kindness and humanity. Let us light fires of fraternity around which people can warm themselves, rise again and rediscover hope,” Francis said.
In his weekend visit to this Catholic-majority country of 500,000 in the heart of Western Europe, he also spoke urgently about the war in Ukraine, government corruption and the need to renew the church through dialogue and bridge building.
Migrants have been a major issue of Francis’ pontificate, and this trip echoes his first as pope in 2013, when he traveled to the Italian island of Lampedusa — which, like Malta, has sheltered, and refused, refugees trying to get to the European mainland — and returned to the Vatican with a dozen asylum seekers.
“Since the day I visited Lampedusa, I have not forgotten you. You are always in my heart and in my prayers,” Francis said on Saturday.
The theme of Francis’ trip was a passage from the Acts of the Apostles, when the apostle Paul is generously welcomed by the Maltese people after being shipwrecked on the island in 60 A.D. Francis said that the saint’s shipwreck echoes the plight of many immigrants seeking to reach Europe today.
“Yet in these events we see another kind of shipwreck taking place: the shipwreck of civilization, which threatens not only migrants but us all,” the pope said.
Malta has been criticized for its immigration policies, which have focused on sending refugees back to their native countries, often against European Union regulations and international law. This past week, Maltese authorities refused to allow the German rescue ship Sea-Eye 4, carrying 106 migrants from Egypt, Nigeria, Sudan, South Sudan and Syria, to dock and discharge its passengers.
Maltese authorities claim that because the NGO operating the vessel is German, it should be the German government that addresses the situation.
Francis listened to the experiences of immigrants arriving in Malta. Daniel Jude Oukeguale from Nigeria paid smugglers six times to get to Europe. He said he experienced “traumatic days” in the deserts, flying bullets in Libya, the abuses of coast guard forces, traffickers and guards at detention centers — “the worst place to spend one single day,” Oukeguale said.
Oukeguale told the pope that he witnessed torture, drownings and other profound suffering on his journey. After arriving in Malta, he spent six months in a detention center. “Sometimes I cried! Sometimes I wished I had died,” he said. “I was wondering if all this journey was a mistake. Why were men like us treating us like criminals and not like brothers?”
Siriman Coulibaly, who came to Malta from Sudan, said migrants are often reduced to statistics and “are not seen in the fullness of their humanity,” frequently falling prey to traffickers and criminals.
Francis thanked the two men for their testimonies and acknowledged the “deep wound” caused by being uprooted from their countries and lives.
“Your experiences make us think, too, of the experiences of all those thousands and thousands of people who in these very days have been forced to flee Ukraine because of war,” the pope said, adding that many others fleeing from Asia, Africa and the Americas are in his thoughts and prayers.
“You gave voice to the stifled plea of those millions of migrants whose fundamental rights are violated, sadly at times with the complicity of the competent authorities,” Francis told the migrants.
He commended reception centers, like Peace Lab, for taking up the challenge of helping immigrants and recognizing that “civility itself is in play.”