“So I went knocking on all the doors of powerful people in Brussels’’
So says Mgr Francesco Montenegro, Archbishop of Agrigento, after meeting the highest European authorities during 5 to 8 November last.
Travelling from Lampedusa to the "European capital" to convey the voice of the poor to the headquarters of the EU institutions, Mgr Francesco Montenegro, Archbishop of the diocese of Agrigento (which also includes the island at the centre of so much sad news), was hosted by COMECE and shared his reflections with us.
After the recent tragedies that have occurred in Lampedusa, have you noted a greater mobilisation of the authorities, both Italian and European, around the humanitarian crisis arising from migrations?
We all were affected by the recent disaster, with over 400 dead of those leaving Africa on a single vessel. But we cannot forget that 20,000 have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, which has now become a ‘watery tomb’. These are situations that should affect us, because when a man dies it is humanity that is defeated; we should not wait until the huge numbers prod us awake and only then ask if something should be done.
The recent events in Lampedusa have touched the minds and consciences of many people: the risk is that for many people it is still only an emotion, one that is already fading. Has all this prompted any actual initiatives to address the situation more effectively? Well, I would say that, up to now, there’s not a lot to be seen. In fact we can see very little. So many promises have been made, but right now nothing has changed. In Lampedusa, for example, the reception centre for migrants remains just like it was before, not suitable for accommodating so many people. It officially has 250 places but shelters a thousand people in very makeshift conditions.
In the last few days you have been in Brussels. What prompted you to visit the EU institutions? Do you consider that the situation of asylum-seekers can be resolved more effectively at European level?
Coming here has been a bit like knocking on the doors of the powerful, of the decision- makers, bringing them the voice of the poor, telling them about the reality of their everyday lives. In fact there are two voices of the poor in Lampedusa: the voice of the migrants but also that of the islanders, who are crushed by their numbers but are not getting any help to help them. That’s why I have come to the EU headquarters to report what is happening on the island and also in the countries that receive migrants. In my opinion, the situation of asylum seekers could still see some improvements, but we must reach some agreement among the Member States. In this direction, true collaboration seems far away and the path is too slow to handle all this pressure of migration.
What was the outcome of your conversations with the European Commissioners and President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy?
Everyone said they were profoundly affected by recent events and that, ever since the shipwreck in early October, they had begun to think more about the problem. But what I said earlier became clear, namely that there is a difficulty: that of common decision-making. There are several initiatives such as Frontex and the start of the European Task Force in the Mediterranean. But also in this case we must hope that this is not just about creating tools to obstruct the passage of migrants, to construct a dam! The presence of more European ships in the Mediterranean would perhaps ensure greater safety for those who arrive in boats, so as to help those whose lives are in danger, but it is essential that the problem of migrants is not addressed simply by rejection, because by now migration is almost a physical law.
It is an overflow which is occurring because a range of difficulties, including poverty and hunger, are forcing these people to leave home, just as they have forced other people to emigrate in the past. Our fellow Italians have, in the past, packed their bags and scattered themselves throughout the world. And I would add that if you plan to stop emigration with some stricter laws, then I believe this will fail. On the contrary, it would produce an even more powerful reaction... We should remember that the anger of the poor is dangerous . If instead we devote our efforts to finding some solutions – small or large, short-term or long term – then there may be some more hope.
We are on the eve of the European Parliamentary elections, which will take place next spring. What is your message to Catholics as European citizens, including with regard to EU policies on migration?
We are just on the eve of the elections and this, unfortunately, may be a negative sign because everything shuts down during the election campaign. At election time, finding the solution to the migration problem will, in my opinion, have to be postponed until a later date. A message to Catholics as European citizens? I believe that we all have a duty to provoke public awareness. We must support people who can see further and go beyond personal interests and nationalisms. We must support people who believe it should not be the economy that should govern Europe, nor should the economy be the sole criterion of European legislation, because money is an idol and nothing more. I believe rather that the effort to be undertaken is to shift all the attention onto mankind.
In what sense?
In the sense that migration is not made up of numbers and it is not a newspaper column: it is about people who are forced to die in order to live, who are forced to pay such a high price for survival and, in the final analysis, this price is the result of the choices that we ourselves have made. I had the opportunity to tell the leaders of the European institutions that today we are paying for the results of colonisation; we have used and exploited the African continent, one which we call 'poor' but is actually rich, holding wealth for us while they, the inhabitants of Africa, continue in poverty. We must open our eyes - and especially our hearts – when, with the Gospel in our hands, we make our choices.
the interview was conducted by Johanna Touzel
Translated from the original text in Italian