In his first trip outside of the Italian mainland since the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis will visit the island of Lampedusa, near Sicily. A Vatican communiqué released on July 1 declared that Pope Francis was “profoundly moved by the recent wreck involving a boat transporting migrants from Africa, the latest in a series of similar tragedies, intends to pray for those who have lost their lives at sea, to visit the survivors and refugees, to give encouragement to the island's inhabitants and to appeal to the responsibility of all to care for these brothers and sisters in extreme need.”
The statement said that he will visit “as discreetly as possible,” in a show of respect to local bishops and civil authorities. The Pope will toss a ceremonial wreath of flowers in the waters off Lampedusa in memory of refugees lost at sea.
Crossing the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa, more than 1,000 migrants have sought to reach the shore of Italy in the last few days. The holding center on Lampedusa is now filled beyond capacity. Built to accommodate a maximum of 300 people, the Lampedusa migrant center now has 855 migrants, with more on the way. On July 1, a boat carrying 200 Eritrean refugees sent an SOS signal when the vessel went adrift and also because a woman was about to give birth on board. Two more boats, an inflatable with 40 people aboard and a boat carrying 110 Somalis, are heading to Italy from Libyan waters.
The Italian Coast Guard and other authorities are receiving further signals by the hour as rescuers seek to save more lives. Human traffickers are ferrying more people to Italy in unseaworthy boats that frequently founder and sink. On June 30, ten migrants drowned as they attempted to cling to a tuna cage dragged by a Tunisian fishing boat south of Malta. Some 95 survived to tell the Italian Coast Guard how the fishing crew refused to allow them on board, cutting the tuna cage cables.
Prosecutors in the Sicilian city of Agrigento will open a case once investigators take witness statements from the survivors. ''The charge will probably be abetting clandestine immigration'', said chief prosecutor Renato Di Natale, according to the ANSA news service. Prosecuting on charges relating to the ten drowning deaths will be difficult, he added, because the migrants died in international waters 85 miles south of Lampedusa island.
The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has called for an investigation so those responsible can be identified. ''The UNHCR applauds the efforts of the Coast Guard, which has saved hundreds of lives thanks to its numerous missions. We trust the authorities will institute a transfer system as soon as possible, allowing Lampedusa island to remain a place of first reception and transit and in order to avoid the situations of extreme discomfort experienced in the past'', said the UNHCR delegate for southern Europe, Laurens Jolles.