Pope Francis: Stop ‘inhumane’ practice of sending migrants back to Libya

Pope Francis.
Pope Francis waded into a highly contentious political debate in Europe. Credit: AP/Press Association Images

Pope Francis has called for the end of the practice of returning migrants rescued at sea to Libya and other unsafe countries where they suffer “inhumane violence”.

The head of the Catholic church urged the international community to find practical ways to manage the “migratory flows” in the Mediterranean.

“I express my closeness to the thousands of migrants, refugees and others in need of protection in Libya,” he said on Sunday, as he made remarks to the public in St Peter's Square in the Vatican city.

“I never forget you, I hear your cries and I pray for you," the pope said.

“So many of these men, women and children are subject to inhumane violence."

Pope Francis delivers his blessing as he recites the Angelus noon prayer overlooking St.Peter's Square. Credit: AP

Even as the pontiff made his appeal, hundreds of migrants were either at sea in the central Mediterranean awaiting a port after rescue, or recently coming ashore in Sicily or the Italian mainland after setting sail from Libya or Turkey, according to authorities.

“Yet again I ask the international community to keep the promises to search for common, concrete and lasting solutions to manage the migratory flows in Libya and in all the Mediterranean,” the pope added.

Detention facilities in Libya, he said, “are true concentration camps”.

“We need to stop sending back (migrants) to unsafe countries and to give priority to the saving of human lives at sea with protocols of rescue and predictable disembarking, to guarantee them dignified conditions of life, alternatives to detention, regular paths of migration and access to asylum procedures.”

Human rights organisations have long denounced the conditions of detention centres for migrants in Libya, citing practices of beatings, rape and forms of torture and insufficient food.

Migrants endure weeks and months of those conditions, awaiting passage in rubber dinghies or rickety fishing boats arranged by human traffickers.

On Sunday, the humanitarian group Alarm Phone reported that 60 people had contacted it to say they were in need of rescue from their flimsy rubber boat.

Separately, Doctors Without Borders, said 296 migrants aboard its rescue ship Geo Barents were awaiting permission in waters off Malta to disembark.

Italy and Malta have come under criticism for leaving migrants aboard crowded rescue boats before assigning them a safe port.

The Libyan coast guard, which has been trained and equipped by Italy, has also been criticised for rescuing migrants in Libyan waters and then returning them to land where the detention centres awaited them.

With rising popularity of right-wing, anti-migrant parties in Italy in recent years, the Italian government has been under mounting domestic political pressure to crack down on illegal immigration.

Italy, along with Malta, has also lobbied its European Union partner countries, mainly in vain, to take in some of those rescued at sea, since many of the migrants are hoping to find relatives or work elsewhere in Europe.