VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis is traveling to Malta this weekend, with the refugee exodus from Ukraine throwing a haunting backdrop to Europe’s migration drama, which for years has centered on Malta and other Mediterranean countries and the plight of desperate people arriving on boats for refuge Looking for.
Given Malta’s place in the European refugee debate and Francis’ frequent calls for nations to show solidarity with those fleeing war, famine and poverty, Francis’ two-day visit to the Mediterranean island nation should always focus on migration .
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the forced exodus of 4 million people – half of them children – have given new impetus to Francis’ trip, originally planned for May 2020 but postponed because of the pandemic.
Some in Malta see a double standard at play in the war in Ukraine, in relation to European refugee norms and the willingness of European countries to share the burden of welcoming newcomers.
The 2003 Dublin Regulation stipulates that the countries of the European Union where potential refugees arrive first must, in principle, process asylum applications. This places an enormous burden on frontline countries like Malta, Italy and Greece to take in migrants while the process is unfolding.
That rule was suspended in the exodus from Ukraine, as the EU adopted for the first time a “Temporary Protection Directive” allowing Ukrainians to settle anywhere in the 27-nation bloc. Most have stayed in neighboring Poland, but many have traveled further to find family members across Europe.
“The Dublin Rule has kind of been ignored, and rightly so, because there is an unprecedented situation that requires flexibility,” said Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta. “We would like to see such flexibility when it comes to emergency situations in the Mediterranean.”
In a telephone interview, Scicluna said he expected Francis to raise the issue of migration, not least because of the welcome Malta offered the Apostle Paul when he was shipwrecked off Malta en route to Rome around AD 60. According to the biblical account, the Maltese showed Paul “unusual kindness” — the kind of greeting Francis said all migrants would receive.
Francis will meet a group of migrants staying in a shelter on Sunday, at the end of his visit.
Malta has often come under fire from rescue groups for refusing entry to migrants arriving from Libya. It argues that it has one of the highest rates in the EU at processing first-time asylum applications, relative to population, and frequently calls on other European countries to take them.
Last year, about 832 migrants arrived by sea, down 63% from the previous year; According to EU and UN information, asylum applications for around 4,000 people are currently pending in Malta.
Just this week, a German aid group called on Malta to take in 106 migrants rescued from Libya; There was no immediate indication as to whether Malta would grant port access to the Sea-Eye 4.
In February, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, insisted that Malta should not abandon migrants at sea while they negotiate their ultimate fate, saying it would risk lives and violate Malta’s obligation to protect them.
In the same report, Mijatovic also called on Malta to bring to justice the killers of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who died on October 16, 2017 when a powerful car bomb exploded as she was driving near her home. She had investigated links between financial deals revealed in the leaked Panama Papers documents and prominent political and business figures in the small EU nation.
The murder of Caruana Galizia sparked international outrage and prompted the European Parliament to send a fact-finding mission to Malta. A public inquiry found that the Maltese state “must take responsibility” for the murder because of the culture of impunity emanating from the highest levels of government.
Francis could well be referring to the assassination as he has long railed against corruption in politics, including on his frequent trips abroad.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni did not rule out that Francis would refer to the killing or even meet with Caruana Galizia’s relatives. “It is quite possible that topics are confronted in a variety of ways, with words or encounters,” said Bruni. Francis frequently holds private audiences during his foreign visits, which are only confirmed after they have taken place.
Maltese authorities have identified several suspects in the murder and court proceedings are ongoing.
Nadia Delicata, who is responsible for evangelization efforts in the Maltese Church, said the assassination exposed divisions in Maltese society, with some in the predominantly Catholic country almost “canonizing” the journalists – a small vigil is held every month on May 16 her memory – and others say that such a polarizing figure should have seen it coming.
Delicata said the church, which has spoken out strongly against the assassination, may have unknowingly helped fill the gap by becoming a more visible presence during the pandemic, with daily televised masses being beamed into Maltese homes.
“It actually helped heal that big rift that includes the rift around the memory of Daphne,” she told reporters.
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