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Pope Francis Warns European Union That the Mediterranean Risks Becoming a 'Vast Migrant Cemetery'

The pontiff called the EU 'elderly and haggard' and condemned the absence of a united response to the boatloads of migrants making perilous maritime bids for European shores.

by Sally Hayden
Nov 26 2014, 4:45pm

Imagen vía Reuters

Pope Francis condemned European Union migration policies on Tuesday, warning the Mediterranean was in danger of becoming a "vast cemetery" if more was not done to help boatloads of migrants who have been making perilous bids for European shores in their thousands.

During an address to a full house at the European Parliament building in Strasbourg, the pontiff also said that the rest of the world viewed the EU as "somewhat elderly and haggard," saying it felt "less and less a protagonist" on the international stage.

He called for a "united response" to the increasing problem of migration, saying: "We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery. The boats landing daily on the shores of Europe are filled with men and women who need acceptance and assistance."

The handful of southern European countries that have largely borne the brunt of maritime migration have long complained about a lack of assistance from the rest of the bloc. 

Last month Italy formally ended its year-long Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation, which cost over $11 million a month but was credited with rescuing over 100,000 migrants.

A new border operation, named Triton, began on November 1, but it lacks a search and rescue mandate. John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia Director, said this change could have "catastrophic and deadly consequences in the Mediterranean."

Italy has said that it doesn't feel it should have to bear this burden alone, given that the migrants that end up on its shores are often aiming for other destinations in Europe. Francis alluded to this issue, pointing to the "absence of mutual support within the European Union."

Italy Is About to Shut Down the Sea Rescue Operation That Saved More Than 90,000 Migrants This Year. Read more here.

Greece has also found itself on the frontline of the problem. On Tuesday morning the Greek coastguard announced that there were between 500 and 700 migrants adrift on a boat 34 miles southeast of Crete. Authorities were expected either to tow it into shore or transfer the passengers on to rescue vessels.

Many of the migrants who arrive at Europe's entry points are fleeing conflicts in Africa and the Middle East — including the war in Syria.

Terrorism and the Islamic State were also alluded to by the Pope, who said he is "convinced that a Europe which is capable of appreciating its religious roots and of grasping their fruitfulness and potential will be all the more immune to the many forms of extremism spreading in the world today."

Francis also made reference to abortion and euthanasia, saying that women and men are being reduced to cogs in a machine, and "whenever a human life no longer proves useful for that machine, it is discarded with few qualms, as in the case of the terminally ill, the elderly who are abandoned and uncared for, and children who are killed in the womb."

This met with a round of applause in the chamber.

However, not all were happy with the mixture of religion and politics that the Pope's presence symbolized. Several MEPs — including members of the left-wing Spanish party Podemos — wore multi-coloured feather boas to protest in part at the Catholic church's treatment of LGBTI people, though MEP and scientist Pablo Echinique tweeted that Francis's economic policies might be acceptable to them.

Beyond Italy, this is the second European country Pope Francis has traveled to during his tenure as Pope. The first was Albania, a visit he made in September. Critics have complained that the first non-European pope for more than a millennium has focused too little on the continent. 

Roads in the area around the venue were shut down for the four-hour visit, while security boats patrolled the river beside the parliament building. 

In 1988, Pope John Paul II also addressed the parliament at Strasbourg. During his speech the Northern Ireland MEP Reverend Ian Paisley, the firebrand then-leader of the unionist movement, was ejected from the chamber for heckling that included denouncing John Paul II as the "anti-Christ." 

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd