Immigrants who cross the Mediterranean by boat often do so in unsafe conditions. Photo courtesy of Caritas Italiana

Every year, thousands of desperate migrants from Africa cross the Mediterranean, hoping to reach southern Europe. Caritas is focusing on their needs at the Migramed conference, held this week in Cagliari, Italy.

Before trying to cross the Mediterranean, many of these migrants have already spent months travelling through Africa, often fleeing violence, poverty or hunger. They embark from Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco and Algeria, with some migrants detained for long periods in Libyan prisons before leaving for Italy or Malta.

Their boat trips frequently fail. Some die in the sea, victims of bad weather. Others are sent back to their transit country after being intercepted by the Italian or Libyan navy.

In 2011, the crisis in North Africa and the Middle East increased migration towards Europe. Since January 2011, more than 50,000 migrants arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa, escaping Tunisia and Libya. The diocesan Caritas members in Italy are helping receive about 3,000 of them.

At Libya’s borders, Caritas Tunisia and Caritas Egypt–supported by Caritas Internationalis–have helped thousands of non-Libyan migrants as they fled the country.

Pope Benedict XVI has said, “An immigrant is a human being…I therefore ask people to look at the face of the other and to discover that he has a soul, a history and a life, that he is a person.”

Like the Pope, associations protecting migrants are deeply concerned about the situation. The Italian bishops have drawn the attention of the Italian government to respect of migrants’ and asylum seekers’ rights.

Participants at the three-day Migramed meeting, held from May 16 to 18 in Cagliari, Sardinia, discussed the challenges facing these immigrants today.

Representatives from all the Caritas members in southern and northern Mediterranean countries attended. They discussed trafficking, asylum, integration, housing, education, and health care for migrants.

They also spoke about legal issues, temporary work permits and how to prevent repatriating migrants who fled violence and human rights violations.

Caritas Cagliari presented research it had done based on over 100 interviews with migrants.

Towards the end of the conference, participants spoke about interreligious dialogue. Archbishop Arrigo Miglio of Cagliari, who is Chairman of the Committee for Social Weeks for the Italian bishops, said, “The presence of immigrants encourages us to make room for the religious experience they bring.”

He said, “The inclusion of immigrants needs to be experienced by our country as an opportunity for growth.”