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Why the Pope needs dialogue with anti-migrant voters

Pope Francis meets migrants at the Moria detention centre (Andrea Bonetti/Greek Prime Minister's Office via Getty Images)

It is interesting to note that the Pope started 2018 with a speech in St Peter’s Square about migrants, as this magazine reports. Not only does this reflect the longstanding concern of the Holy Father with the issue, it is also a sign that we shall continue to hear more about this matter in the coming twelve months. It may have escaped the notice of many, but the Pope himself oversees the section of the new dicastery for Integral Human Development which deals with migration issues. This means that the people who work on the issue in the Curia report directly to the Pope himself. This is all in keeping with the several high profile actions that he Pope has taken with regards to refugees and migrants, such as his trip to Lampedusa early on in his pontificate in July 2013, and his trip to Lesbos in April 2016. Both islands have been overwhelmed with migrants making the often dangerous sea passage to Europe.

The Pope’s concerns put him in direct conflict with many politicians and with many voters in Europe and North America. One symbolic example of this is the way that Guisy Nicolini, the mayor of Lampedusa who welcomed Pope Francis in 2013, and who was an international advocate for migrants, was resoundingly defeated in her bid for re-election in 2017. It seems that the citizens of Lampedusa decided that they preferred a mayor who would be an advocate for the residents’ rights too. And let us not forget, either, the recent setback at the polls suffered by Dr Merkel, another champion of migrants, who is still struggling to form a government.

Lampedusa perhaps is a laboratory for the rest of Europe, only more so. A small island with a population of 6,000, it has borne the impact of migration more than any other place. The case of Lampedusa puts into sharp relief the questions that must be answered in other places as well, namely, how are we to provide for migrants, both in the short term and the long term? Are we to offer them passing assistance, or are we to aim to integrate them into our societies? These questions are problematic, and as far as I can see no one has any answers to them.

The Pope talks of the right of migrants to live in peace. That sounds good, but it should not be confused with the right of migrants to migrate. There is no such right. Refugees have a right to seek asylum in the first safe country they come to, thanks to the Dublin Convention, but there is no right to migrate as such, as we all know: try entering America without a passport, for example, and see how far you get, or one of the countries that demands visas without one. You can and will be turned back at the frontier, for the country you are trying to enter is entitled to refuse you entry. We all know people to whom this has happened.

Not all migrants are refugees, but some are. It is telling the difference between the two that is important. But the Pope’s remarks apply to both refugees and migrants; but with regard to the latter, many countries are slamming their doors, which may, sadly, mean increased suffering to those who are refugees, as well as migrants.

One thing is clear. If migration continues at the present rate, it will put strain not just on places like Lampedusa, but other societies as well. The Pope and the Church need to initiate a dialogue about migrants with those who have voted for anti-migrant parties, such as AfD in Germany. That could lead to some interesting results.