Migrants on a boat heading for Lampedusa (Photo: Ansa-Dpa)

Migrants: "Educating to welcome is possible"

Lampedusa, the arrival of boats, the deaths at sea… and the Pope's speech in Marseilles. Oliviero Forti, head of migration policies at Caritas, speaks: "Humanitarian corridors, an educational model of charity."
Maria Acqua Simi

In recent days, the dramatic situation in Lampedusa has put the spotlight back on the migrant emergency and on the very delicate issue of reception: centres are collapsing, deaths at sea, short-lived political proposals. It is no coincidence that today Pope Francis will speak in Marseille at the 'Mediterranean Encounters' to reiterate that the migrant is not the enemy and that it is time for sharing in Europe, as the secretary general of the Italian Episcopal Conference, Monsignor Giuseppe Baturi, anticipated yesterday in Avvenire: “The migrant has the right to see their own life safeguarded. It is a gaze that springs from the Gospel and that must also urge shared policies of protection and hospitality.” We spoke with Oliviero Forti, head of the Office for Migration Policy and International Protection at Caritas Italiana. "For too long we have forgotten the value of the person as such, regardless of his or her origin and history. Welcoming, sharing, dialogue are values that Christianity has always upheld and that should be the basis of any democratic system. Today in Europe we are witnessing something very far from this.” Educating for acceptance and integration is, however, a possible path, as shown by the research 'Human lines: beyond the borders', which documents the experience of the humanitarian corridors that Caritas Italy has been promoting for years.

When we talk about migrants, we stop at the conflicting feelings that their arrival generates: anger, sorrow, sadness at the deaths at sea. But is it possible to move away from this emotionality to a concrete judgement on what is happening to these people?
It is possible. The work we have done with the humanitarian corridors is first and foremost a form of education and awareness-raising in our communities. It is so because it changes the narrative of the migration phenomenon: to involve everyone in the effort of reception and integration is a way to make everyone feel the responsibility of what is happening and to be able to touch the situation of these men, women and children who, on arriving here, question us. Migrants, and refugees, are an extraordinary opportunity for all of us.

Let us take a step back. What kind of reception exists in Italy today?
In Italy today, the reception system is divided into three levels: that of very first reception, that is, the centres that tend to be located near the places of disembarkation; that of extraordinary reception, structures that the government identifies on the territory together with the private-social world; then there is the third level which is that of the reception and integration system for those who have been granted refugee status. However, these three systems have an insufficient number of places of reception given the increasing arrivals on the Italian coast and along the Balkan route.

Is it sufficient?
Critical issues remain. The very first reception continues to be poorly managed, especially in Lampedusa, and no government has made a concrete commitment, for example, to fix a reception centre that has been crumbling for over fifteen years. And then there is the fact that the vast majority of those who land in Italy do not stay in our country but head for northern Europe where there are stronger economic and social systems than the Italian one. Those who do stay here, however, do not find adequate space in the reception system, especially in the summer, and not infrequently end up as victims of phenomena such as forced labour.

Caritas has done a great job with the humanitarian corridors; they offer the possibility to think about immigration in a more dignified and just way...
Let us start from a fact: these thousands of people who arrive on foot or by boat at sea are forced to do so because it is impossible for them to cross borders safely and legally. Let me give you an example: today the Afghan passport is last in the world ranking of passports, which means that practically no country in the world issues a visa to an Afghan citizen. The humanitarian corridors were created to give these people the chance to reach Italy safely and legally.

How do they work?
The civil society organisations enter into an agreement with the Italian government to resettle a certain number of people, a few thousand, so that they can obtain a visa following a jointly managed procedure to identify those who are particularly in need of protection. We at Caritas, for example, travel to the countries to interview the beneficiaries, to get to know them, and then include them in the programme so that they can obtain a visa and then accompany them on the path to integration. This is not the ultimate solution to the problem: there are a hundred million migrants in the world, we know that the need is infinitely greater than our small efforts. Moreover, the cost to the private-social sector is high in terms of money, because taking care of a migrant costs between seven thousand and ten thousand euros a year. But it is an incredibly valuable experience.

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Humanitarian corridors involve communities, parishes, citizens in the effort of reception and integration. They have great educational, pedagogical and public awareness value. And they generate an ever new willingness to welcome other people, so much so that communities are increasingly available and offers arrive today. It is a first step in the change of mentality: migrations are not a phenomenon to be endured, to be observed from afar filtered by the media and propaganda, but a value because they remind us of the infinite dignity of each person. The Pope will be in Marseilles today and I think he will forcefully call for respect for human rights as an unavoidable issue. He has said it several times himself: welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating are things that anyone can do starting from their own daily reality. Thus we will gradually move from a culture of mistrust to one of welcome.