When the newly elected Pope Francis made his first trip outside of Rome his destination was the islet of Lampedusa, just off the coast of Sicily. His intended audience was not a Catholic congregation but was instead the hundreds of refugees and asylum-seekers that had put their very lives in danger to reach Europe.
Such a visit made inevitable enemies for the new Pope, especially in the Holy See’s Italian home. It has become a popular pastime of Italy’s political right to lambast the pope for being too migrant and Muslim-friendly. One of the leading critics of the pope is the Lega Nord (Northern League), a political party hoping to use the rising anti-migrant sentiment to raise its profile amongst the electorate. “The disgusting thing is the hypocrisy of a church…which asks a secular state to be invaded by millions of Muslims without any filter,” complained one Lega politician.
Arguments between the church and politicians are commonplace in the north of Italy but in the south reactions to the migrant crisis by churchmen and politicians are more subdued, even though that’s where thousands of refugees come ashore. According to Pasquale Annicchino, a researcher at the European University Institute in Florence, this is because “migrants in the south are less visible than they are in the north.”
Not only that but in the south of Italy migrants have become an integral part of the local economy. Migrant labour is cheap and is controlled by the caporali, or gang-leaders, it has become an indispensable source of labour for the harvesting and processing of tomatoes in the south. Migrants will often work for 12 hours a day under the sweltering sun for little more than 30 euros, a wage from which the caporali will also take a cut.
Many of these migrants are crowded into makeshift camps built from wood and even sometimes cardboard. These are often placed far from Italian towns and the local population has little reason to go near them, unless of course they’re farmers looking for cheap labour. The best known of these makeshift ‘ghetto’s’ was the Gran Ghetto di Rignano, which burnt down not long ago, killing two migrants. It is thought the fire was deliberately set.
So what is the church of Pope Francis doing to tackle this heinous situation? Not much sadly. There are of course Catholic charities trying to improve the life of migrants, Caritas for instance looks after refugees on arrival on Italian soil and is also lobbying for legislative change to tackle the caporali. According to Caritas they are providing both legal and medical support to migrant workers in 18 territories, most of which are located in the south.
Yet the work of Catholic charities is about as far as the church’s involvement stretches. Despite all of its fierce papal rhetoric the church has stepped aside to avoid alienating powerful interests in the south, particularly the agricultural employers. You see in the south of Italy it’s traditional for rich locals to finance religious festivals and processions, no matter how they’ve acquired their wealth. The church will often turn a blind eye as long as the coin continues to flow.
That’s not to say the church never tackles the corruption however. Recently a priest in a small town in the south planned to hold an expensive mass in memory of a local man, a man described by police as an organised crime boss. The regional archbishop stepped in however and barred the even from taking place, he dismissed the idea of a mass for such a man as a “great scandal”.
While the church is mostly quiet in the south it’s the ingrained social beliefs of the local populations that provide the greatest obstacle to migrant’s welfare. The church is faced with a society prepared to overlook the horrific exploitation of cheap migrant labour in the name of regional economy. Locals don’t care for the migrants while they live far from their towns and do the jobs few Italians want to do themselves. The fate of the migrants is not at the top of many locals minds.
The church is facing a challenge to make people in the north and south care about the welfare of the refugees but while it remains quiet in the area where the majority of them are to be found little is likely to change. The church needs to stop whispering its message and instead start to shout it, these migrants are not cheap labour, they’re vulnerable human beings who need our help and compassion.
Rhetoric is all well and good but when it’s not backed up by action Pope Francis may as well be talking to an empty room.