VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis met Saturday with thousands of refugees and charity groups hosting them in Italy as he sought to promote legal migration routes to Europe as an alternative to smuggling operations that he said have turned the Mediterranean Sea into a “cemetery.”
Francis said “humanitarian corridors,” which have operated in Italy since 2016, saved lives and helped newly arrived asylum-seekers get acclimated while church groups provided housing, education and work opportunities.
“Humanitarian corridors not only aim to bring refugees to Italy and other European countries, rescuing them from situations of uncertainty, danger and endless waiting; they also work toward integration,” he said.
The Sant’Egidio Catholic charity, the Federation of Evangelical Churches and the Waldensian Church spearheaded the ecumenical humanitarian transfer initiative in Italy, which has brought more than 6,000 people to Europe, Francis was told.
Under the program, aid workers identify asylum candidates in refugee camps and process initial paperwork to bring them into Italy on humanitarian grounds. Once they arrive, they are then provided with assistance to settle and apply for asylum.
Families from Syria, Afghanistan, Rwanda and Ukraine were in the Vatican auditorium to meet with the pope.
“It was important for me to come here to show the world that humanitarian corridors are one of the most beautiful things this world has to offer for people who deserve” safety and dignity, Oliver Chris I. Kabalisa, a 22-year-old from Rwanda, said. “Because as a refugee, we do not leave our country because we want to, but because we are constrained, we are forced to.”
Afghan refugee Nazani Shakvulla said women in her country were suffering, banned from education, work and travel, and need help from the Vatican and charity groups “to support the humanitarian corridors and find a way to evacuate or find a way that girls in Afghanistan get education.”