Refugee drama to dominate pope’s weekend trip to Malta

Pope Francis heads to Malta this weekend, with the refugee exodus from Ukraine casting a haunting backdrop to the European migration drama that for years has focused on Malta and other Mediterranean countries and the plight of desperate people who arrive on boats seeking refuge.

Francis’ two-day visit to the Mediterranean island nation was always expected to focus on migration, given Malta’s frontline place in Europe’s refugee debate and Francis’ frequent calls for nations to show solidarity to those fleeing war, famine and poverty.

But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the forced exodus of 4 million people — half of them children — have added a new impetus to Francis’ trip, which was originally scheduled for May 2020 but postponed because of the pandemic.

Some in Malta see a double standard at play in the war in Ukraine, in terms of European refugee norms and the willingness of European countries to share the burden of accepting newcomers.

The 2003 Dublin Regulation stipulates that the European Union countries where would-be refugees first arrive generally must process asylum claims. This puts an enormous burden on front-line countries such as Malta, Italy and Greece to host migrants while the process plays out.

That rule has been set aside in the Ukraine exodus, with the EU for the first time adopting a “temporary protection directive,” allowing Ukrainians to resettle anywhere in the 27-nation bloc. Most have stayed in neighboring Poland, but many have travelled onward to find family members across Europe.

“The Dublin rule has been sort of ignored, and justly so because there is an unprecedented situation which needs flexibility,” said Malta Archbishop Charles Scicluna. “We would like to see that sort of flexibility when it comes to situations of emergency in the Mediterranean.”

In a telephone interview, Scicluna said he expected Francis to raise the migration issue, not least because of the welcome Malta showed the Apostle Paul when he was shipwrecked off Malta around AD 60, en route to Rome. According to the biblical account, Maltese people showed Paul “unusual kindness” — the type of welcome Francis has said he hoped would be extended to all migrants.

Francis is to meet with a group of migrants staying at a shelter on Sunday, at the end of his visit.

Malta has often come under fire by rescue groups for refusing entry to migrants crossing from Libya. It argues that it has one of the EU’s highest rates in processing first-time asylum applications relative to the population, and frequently urges other European countries to take them in.

Last year, some 832 migrants arrived by sea, a 63% decrease from the previous year; Malta currently has asylum applications pending for some 4,000 people, according to EU and U.N. data.

Just this week, a German aid group urged Malta to take in 106 migrants rescued off Libya; There was no immediate indication if Malta would grant port access to the Sea-Eye 4.

In February, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, insisted that Malta should not leave migrants at sea while negotiating their ultimate fate, saying this risked lives and violated Malta’s obligations to protect them.

In the same report, Mijatovic also demanded Malta bring to justice the killers of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who died on Oct. 16, 2017 when a powerful car bomb exploded as she was driving near her home. She had been investigating links between financial dealings indicated by the leaked Panama Papers documents and prominent political and business figures on the small EU nation.

Caruana Galizia’s murder sparked international outrage and prompted the European Parliament to send a fact-finding mission to Malta. A public inquiry found the Maltese state “has to bear responsibility” for the murder because of the culture of impunity that emanated from the highest levels of government.

Francis could well make reference to the slaying, given he has has long railed against corruption in politics, including on his frequent foreign trips.

Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni would not exclude that Francis would refer to the slaying or even meet with Caruana Galizia’s relatives. “It’s perfectly possible that themes will be confronted in diverse ways, with words or encounters,” Bruni said. Francis frequently holds private audiences during his foreign visits, which are confirmed only after they occur.

Maltese authorities have identified several suspects in the murder, and trials are ongoing.

Nadia Delicata, who is in charge of evangelization efforts in the Malta church, said the assassination laid bare divisions in Maltese society, with some in the overwhelmingly Catholic country nearly “canonizing” the journalist — a small vigil is held each month on the 16th in her memory — and others saying that such a polarizing figure should have seen it coming.

Delicata said the church, which spoke out strongly against the assassination, has perhaps unconsciously helped bridge the gap by becoming a more visible presence during the pandemic, with daily televised Masses beamed into Maltese homes.

“It actually helped heal this big divide that includes the divide around the memory of Daphne,” she told reporters.

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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