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Francis calls for action on migrants as tensions rise in Italy and Libya
15 May 2014 15:25 by Hannah Roberts in Rome

Pope Francis has again implored the international community to help with the influx of migrants leaving northern Africa for European shores.

Francis spoke out after a boat carrying hundreds of migrants sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa, which he visited last year to draw attention to the crisis.

A further 36 people drowned last week when a boat sank near the Libyan coast.

Southern European countries have been saying for years that the rest of the EU is turning their back and leaving them to take the strain of mass migration.

Pope Francis said at the end of his general audience in St Peter's Square yesterday: “Let us also pray for those who in have lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea in these days. We must unite forces and put human rights first to prevent this shameful carnage.”

Cardinal Antonio Maria Veglio, President of the Pontifical Council for Migrants, said: “This Pope does not let pass an opportunity to talk about this issue that unfortunately is becoming more widespread and is getting worse."

Francis, he said, “made a strong appeal to both local and national organisations to ensure that every person’s human rights and dignity are respected regardless of their ethnicity or legal status.”

Francis spoke as the Italian Government threatened to break European treaties and send asylum-seekers across Europe.

Italy's Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said that, without more help with sea patrols, Italy would defy EU rules obliging migrants to stay in the country where they land.

“We'll just let them go,” he said. “Since migrants do not want to stay in Italy, they should have the opportunity to exercise their right of political asylum in the rest of Europe. Otherwise we transform Italy into the prison of political refugees.”

Libya's Government warned last weekend that they would “facilitate” the passage of illegal immigrants to European shores. Many are fleeing violence or making the journey in search of a better life.

Interior Minister Saleh Maziq said that Libya could not cope with the influx of migrants transiting through from sub-Saharan Africa, saying “Europe must pay the price”.

Fr Giovanni La Manna, of the Centro Astalli, which helps migrants, backed the Pope's call for nations to work together on the issue, saying: “It is Europe's duty of guarantee access to seek asylum, it is a human right."

James Stapleton, of the Rome-based Jesuit Refugee Service, said: “This is not a question that can be resolved by Italians on their own.”

He said that a plan was needed that included "the whole of the EU". "Security measures can’t just be put in place to prevent people from arriving. People are fleeing for their lives, people are prepared to put their lives at risk.”