Francesco Montenegro is the archbishop of the Sicilian Archdiocese of Agrigento, which includes the island Lampedusa. He spoke to EurActiv’s Laurens Cerulus.
In the wake of the tragedy on the shores of Lampedusa, the EU has offered €30 million’s worth of aid to Italy. How big is the need for more – and structural – aid? First of all, I feel that, in a way Lampedusa was a wake-up call. We now had a first allocation of money to Italy, but obviously more needs to be done. We are facing a huge problem.
Also, the people arriving in Lampedusa don’t actually want to stay there. They want to go somewhere else, to another member state, and be reunited with their family or friends living there. So the reception of the asylum seekers is a problem, but another issue is where these people wish to go afterwards.
What we need is a political plan, undertaken by the whole of Europe, to receive these people. That’s absolutely essential.
Southern European countries are faced with boat arrivals every year. What is the difference between how the EU reacted in the past and now? This last shipwreck drew a lot more attention than in the past. Before, whenever such tragedies happened, it was perceived as an emergency, a contingent event. After a while, people forgot about it.
This time, because of the huge amount of victims, there is a lot more attention. And another big difference is that the attention comes from all of the EU member states.
Personally, I ask myself why attention is only drawn [to the issue] when people die. We had about 7,000 to 10,000 boat arrivals in 2011. I think we should have asked ourselves a long time ago why these people make such efforts to come to our shores.
Back then, nothing was done about it. And now that 400 people have died, something is finally being undertaken. Why didn’t we intervene when the situation was not at a point of crisis?
Is the EU striking a good balance between border control, from a security perspective, and asylum reception, from a humanitarian perspective? I think we are trying to find the right balance. Beforehand, our policies were based on rejection; on preventing boat arrivals to reach our shores. Now, we are gradually changing our thinking. There is more will; there’s a different attitude. But I feel many more ideas need to change. It is a slow process, but I think we should help speed up this process [of changing minds] a bit.
What can the church do to support the EU's policy initiatives, and is it up to the church to do this? I think the church has the capacity and the instruments to create a culture of reception. But it is a culture we need to expand to the whole of society. It is a very slow progress, because I think what we need to do is change minds first.
What politics can do is to create laws so as to encourage people to welcome these newcomers, to embrace what is different from their own identity.
At the same time, I think we are paying the price of colonisation. These poor countries have been exploited by us, so poverty is in a way our own fault as well as our own responsibility.
These people are not asking for charity, they are asking for justice.
But we need politics to be involved. Politics shouldn’t only focus on economics. If we really want to see a change in the world, we need to put the human being in the centre of attention. We don’t more than politics based on flexing muscles.
Your plea at the EU institutions: has it delivered specific promises? Has it met your expectations of raising awareness on this issue? Well, I have noticed there’s an attention for this problem – a willingness to change things. But I also know that the situation is going to be like this for a long time.
Mostly, I ask myself: how many more people will have to lose their lives and lie on the bottom of the sea; how much longer do we have to wait and how many more deaths should we tolerate before we step up the action?