VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis on Monday urged countries to greatly improve their welcome to migrants and stop collective expulsions, saying migrants' dignity and right to protection trumps national security concerns.
Francis' politically pointed message was made in view of the Catholic Church's 2018 world refugee day, celebrated Jan. 14. It comes amid mounting anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe and beyond following waves of migrant arrivals and Islamic extremist attacks.
In the message, Francis demanded governments welcome, protect, promote and integrate migrants, saying Jesus' message of love is rooted in welcoming the "rejected strangers of every age."
He demanded a simplified process of granting humanitarian and temporary visas and rejected arbitrary and collective expulsions as "unsuitable." He said the principle of ensuring each person's dignity "obliges us to always prioritize personal safety over national security."
Francis has made refugees a priority of his pontificate, making his first trip outside Rome in 2013 to the island of Lampedusa, ground zero in Europe's migration crisis. He has repeatedly spoken out for migrants' rights, demanded countries build "bridges not walls," and personally brought a dozen Syrian refugees back to Rome with him when he visited a Greek refugee camp in 2016.
Ignoring critics who say his calls are unrealistic and naive, Francis insisted in the new message that border guards must be trained to protect migrants and that each new arrival, regardless of legal status, must be guaranteed access to basic services beyond health care.
That extends to guaranteeing access to consulates, the justice system and the ability to open a bank account and survive financially, he said.
Unaccompanied minors, he said, require even greater protection, including guaranteeing them citizenship and access to schooling, as well as foster programs rather than detention centers.
He called for policies that support family reunification, employment opportunities and accelerated citizenship procedures to improve migrants' abilities to integrate.
His call was immediately rejected by the leader of Italy's anti-immigrant Northern League party, which has opposed government proposals to change Italy's law to accelerate citizenship for children born in Italy to non-Italians.
"If you want to do it in the Vatican, go ahead," Matteo Salvini wrote on Facebook. "But as a Catholic, I don't think Italy can welcome and support the whole world."
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