For Comment Magazine:
One hundred and seventeen days after ascending to the papacy, Pope Francis took his first official trip outside the Vatican to visit the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa. Closer to Tunisia than Sicily, Lampedusa had been a transit point for migrants from North Africa and the Middle East into Europe for decades. In 2013, the burgeoning Syrian refugee crisis had brought Lampedusa to the world’s attention as thousands were arriving at its shores, untold numbers perishing in the surrounding sea.
Holding religious objects made from the remnants of the boats that had crashed against the island’s rocks, the pope opened his homily with, “Immigrants dying at sea, in boats which were vehicles of hope and became vehicles of death.”
While it was a papal visit devoid of the typical pomp and circumstance, it was an indication of how deeply committed Pope Francis—the first leader of the Catholic Church from the Southern Hemisphere—was to migrants. The humility of his journey, the power of his homily, and the significance of the symbols he chose created a connection between the individual lives of migrants and the systems that made their journeys so dangerous.
Over the ensuing years, as Pope Francis’s words and actions trained the world’s eyes on the record flows of migrants, their situation worsened. The European Union, soon followed by the United States, externalized their borders to the south and east, outsourcing the functions of immigration enforcement to other nations. Italy attempted to prevent migrants from even reaching Lampedusa by striking an agreement with Libya to detain migrants at sea and hold them in deadly detention camps. The Trump administration forced the hands of Mexico, Guatemala, and other Central American countries to harden their borders through militarization.
Approximately eight years after visiting Lampedusa, in December of 2021, Pope Francis travelled to Lesbos, Greece, home to some of the largest refugee camps and detention centres in the European Union.
With authoritarianism on the rise around the world, immigration had become the tip of the spear of those seeking to undermine democracies. Pope Francis lamented, “History teaches us that narrow self-interest and nationalism lead to disastrous consequences.” Yet, in a world where we will have “more and more contact with others,” Pope Francis powerfully observed that we live in the “age of walls and barbed wire.”