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Pope Francis Says Those Who Deny Migrants Should Ask God for Forgiveness

The pope urged nations not to close their doors on the hundreds of migrants seeking refuge in Europe, and for governments to unite together to combat forced migrations.
June 17, 2015, 10:25pm
Photo by Boris Grdanoski/AP

Pope Francis made an appeal to the public on Wednesday, saying that "people and institutions" who close their doors to asylum seekers should ask God for forgiveness, with the spiritual leader addressing the matter as European leaders scramble to provide solutions for the migrant crisis.

The pope's comments come amid the dire migrant situation across Europe as a record number of migrants are fleeing conflicts in the Middle East and strife in Africa and heading over to Europe. The pope urged nations not to close their doors on migrants, and for governments to unite together and combat forced migrations.

"I invite you all to ask forgiveness for the persons and the institutions who close the door to these people who are seeking a family, who are seeking to be protected," the pope said. "These brothers and sisters of ours are seeking refuge far from their lands, they are seeking a home where they can live without fear."

The pope voiced his perspective after a string of deadly migrant boat accidents have caught global attention in recent months, as asylum seekers fleeing conflict, unemployment, oppression, and civil unrest cross into Europe — largely from the Middle East and parts of Africa — at record rates. As of June 8, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates that the number of migrants arriving to Europe has already surpassed 100,000 in 2015. Meanwhile, the death toll of individuals attempting to reach Europe hit 1,800 people in just the first five months of the year.

Pope Francis' plea for countries not to shut out migrants comes just one day after European Union (EU) leaders failed to reach an agreement regarding an emergency plan to redistribute 40,000 new migrants who have flowed into Italy and Greece this year. According to EU policy, refugees are supposed to register and seek asylum in the first EU country they reach, with Italy and Greece bearing much of this burden. However, migrants are often simply trying to pass through these countries without registering, as they attempt to move north to look for better employment opportunities in other parts of Europe.

This issue came to a head on Tuesday when migrants trying to make their way out of Italy clashed with police at the French border. For five days, dozens of migrants camped out on the Italian side of the border in hopes of moving further north and crossing into France. The scene grew chaotic as French authorities denied entry to the migrants — mostly from Sudan and Eritrea — and forcibly removed them from the border.

Amid the migrant crisis, leaders across Europe are grappling with how to handle the upheaval, with countries considering efforts ranging from shifts in border control methods to new legislation to even building physical obstacles. As seen in Tuesday's clashes, France has moved towards stricter border control, along with Austria and Switzerland. France and Switzerland have stopped allowing migrants entry from Italy.

After landing in France, many migrants with pending asylum applications have resorted to temporarily living in dismantled slums and tents. Earlier this month, the French evicted nearly 400 migrants from the crowded camps. French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced on Wednesday that France will crackdown on smuggler networks and create 11,000 places for migrants and housing in an attempt "to provide long-term solutions."

Related: Tucked Beneath a Paris Nightclub, Migrants in a Tent City Try to Survive

While the EU has failed to carry out its plan to distribute asylum seekers equally across its 28 member states, Hungary — another prominent passing point for migrants — announced plans to tighten up on border control. This year alone, more than 53,000 people have requested asylum in Hungary. With the country looking for options to keep migrants from crossing over into its territory, a Hungarian official announced on Wednesday that the country is considering to build a fence along the Serbian border in order to halt the influx of migrants.

"The pressure of migration which presents serious difficulties for Europe affects Hungary the most among EU member countries," Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said. "Hungary cannot allow itself to wait any longer. Naturally, we hope there will be a joint European solution."

The foreign minister claims the fence would not interfere with any legal issues, since Serbia is considered an EU candidate. Szijjarto said the government would classify EU members or candidates — like Serbia — as "safe countries," requiring them to take responsibility for the migrants that have reached their borders who are attempting to cross into Hungary. Meanwhile, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban remarked that the EU proposal to distribute migrants "borders on insanity," Reuters reported. Officials said that they will block the flow of migrants coming into Hungary from safe countries.

"The Hungarian government is committed to defending Hungary and defending the Hungarian people from the immigration pressure," Szijjarto said, mentioning that Greece and Bulgaria have constructed fences along their borders with Turkey to halt migrants from moving through.

The UNHCR emphasized that walls and fences would only put migrants in the hands of smugglers.

"We are against walls and fences. Erecting a fence on the Serbian border could be a barrier to the right to seek asylum in Hungary — and the right to seek asylum is an inalienable right," Kitty McKinsey, a spokesperson for UNHCR in Central Europe, told VICE News. "When countries introduce barriers like fences, this may lead refugees and asylum seekers to undertake more dangerous crossings and place refugees at the mercy of smugglers."

While Hungary and France are working to restrain migrants from moving in, one nation expected to take legislative action on the migrant issue this week is Macedonia. After enduring immense criticism for its treatment of migrants and for putting them at risk of being robbed, kidnapped, and killed as a result of unsafe routes taken to avoid encounters with authorities, Macedonia is expected to pass a bill that will grant migrants three days to safely move through the country, Balkan Insight reported.

"The current situation and circumstances demand an emergency session," Macedonia's parliament speaker Trajko Veljanoski announced on Wednesday.

Related: 'The European Asylum System Is Dysfunctional': UNHCR Speaks to VICE News About the Migrant Crisis

The bill, expected to get parliament approval on Thursday, is aiming to divert migrants away from unsafe routes, such as the railway tracks that start in Greece before extending through Macedonia and on to Serbia. Dozens have died while walking along these tracks after being hit by passing trains.

Authorities are currently launching an investigation in Macedonia regarding a report that surfaced earlier this month alleging that gangs were kidnapping migrants, many of who are fleeing conflict in Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen. In addition, migrants that were held in camps in the country's capital Skopje were reduced to severely crowded rooms that were in scant and unsanitary conditions. Police spokesperson Ivo Kotevski said Macedonia is struggling to deal with the migrant crisis, noting that around 8,500 migrants entered Macedonia from Greece in one week alone in order to pass through Serbia, Hungary to ultimately reach Western Europe.

Around 2,000 migrants have died or went missing en route to Europe this year. After the EU ministers failed on Tuesday to agree on the plan to share the placement of 40,000 new migrants in Italy and Greece, the leaders are set to discuss the plan when they meet in Brussels later this month, and revisit the issue again when they meet in July.

Related: France and Italy Can't Seem to Agree on What to Do About the Immigration Crisis

The Associated Press contributed to this report.