Two Salesian groups in Italy launched an initiative Friday to coordinate their activities for immigrants, many of whom are refugees, both in Italy and in their home countries. The June 20 launch date marks World Refugee Day, established in 2000, which is meant to raise awareness about refugees throughout the world. The initiative of the Salesians' International Volunteering for Development and Salesians for Social Issues to encourage the formation of more, and smaller, more welcoming reception centers for Italian immigrants. It is inspired by the special attention Pope Francis has given to refugees and immigrants in Italy, most of whom are fleeing humanitarian crises in Africa. Shocked by the news of a ship of migrants which sank, leading to the death of hundreds, Pope Francis visited the Italian island Lampedusa last July. There, he shed light on the suffering of migrants who get to the small island. With a capacity of 801 people, the Lampedusa reception center is only meant to house people for 76 hours before transferring them to the mainland for in-depth asylum screening. In fact, the quota of people has often been exceeded by the numerous immigrants, and houses them far longer than the intended 76 hours. The Italian bishops' “Migrantes” foundation estimates that from the beginning of this year, some 50,000 immigrants have already arrived in Sicily. The Salesians operate in this framework, searching for a dignified solution for the immigrants. Its groups launched an appeal to Italian institutions, saying it would be better to facilitate “smaller reception centers” where the migrants will be better welcomed “in a family-like way.” At the same time, they ask the institutions to accelerate the screening of immigrants in the mainland. Fr. Giovanni D’Andrea, president of Salesians for Social Issues, told CNA June 19 that “very often, migrants who get to Italy spend 10 to 18 months in the Italian reception centers, before being interviewed by territorial commissions which will decide whether or not to consider them refugees.” Even if praising the Italian government effort, Fr. D’Andrea says that “more commitment is required to accelerate the release of documents certifying the refugees status, thus permitting the migrants to get to the European countries they would like to go to.” Nico Lotta, president of the International Volunteering for Development, underscored that “reception centers for a sustainable number of migrants, from 20 to 50, should be supported and backed,” but “nowadays we are facing the building and establishments of huge reception centers with the capacity for hundreds and sometimes thousands of people, with no prospect of integration.” The Salesians' initiative comes as the U.N. announced that the number of refugees worldwide — 51.2 million — is at its highest figure since World War II. This represents an increase of 6 million people living as refugees since the year prior, with much of the increase fueled by the Syrian civil war and the conflicts in South Sudan and Central African Republic. Pope Francis himself drew attention to the situation at his June 18 General Audience, saying “millions of families, millions of refugees from many countries and of every religious faith are experiencing in their stories the dramas and wounds that can only with difficulty be healed.” “Let us make ourselves their neighbours, sharing their fears and their uncertainty and concretely alleviating their suffering," he said. "May the Lord sustain the people and institutions that are working with generosity to ensure refugees acceptance and dignity, and to give them reasons to hope.” The Holy Father pointed out that Jesus was refugee. Saint Joseph led the Holy Family to Egypt for protection.
"Let us pray to Our Lady, for the pain of refugees, that she be close to these of our brothers and sisters. Let us pray together to Our Lady for our refugee brothers and sisters," he said. “Mary, mother of refugees, pray for us.”