Pope Francis criticizes treatment of migrants as 'pawns'

The pontiff has made the defense of the poor and vulnerable a cornerstone of his papacy

Pope Francis condemned of "slave labor" and trafficking on Tuesday.
Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Pope Francis on Tuesday urged countries to welcome and respect migrants and refugees and not treat them as "pawns on the chessboard of humanity."

Francis's comments come at a time when immigration has become a divisive issue in Europe and Australia and one day after a report showed an increase in illegal immigration to the United States

The pontiff, who has made the defense of the poor and vulnerable a cornerstone of his papacy, said that there should be a change in attitude on the part of host countries.

"They are children, women and men who leave or who are forced to leave their homes for various reasons, who share a legitimate desire for knowing and having, but above all for being more," Francis said. 

The pope's own ancestors left Italy for Argentina in the early 20th century and lived through the Great Depression. 

Francis also repeated his condemnation of "slave labor" and trafficking, expanding his criticism of "throwaway culture." He has often used the term to denounce a modern society where people who are not productive, such as the elderly, are neglected and cast off as if they were useless.

Hot-button issue

Across Europe and Australia, immigration is an increasingly hot-button issue. France's far-right National Front party, which has an anti-immigrant platform, has been buoyed by improving poll numbers. Italy's first black minister, Cecile Kyenge, who was born in Africa, has been the butt of racist comments from the anti-immigrant Northern League party, because she supports automatic citizenship for immigrant children born in Italy.

In Australia, government policy toward the steady flow of refugee boats has also come under fire, polarizing voters during this month's election. The country's new Prime Minister Tony Abbott said his government will implement a new policy under which the Australian navy would turn back boats carrying asylum seekers.

In his message, Francis decried companies and businesses that exploited migrants and refugees, many of whom work for low day wages in agriculture and in illegal factories in Italy and elsewhere in Europe.

"Particularly disturbing are those situations where migration is not only involuntary, but actually set in motion by various forms of human trafficking and enslavement," said Pope Francis. "Nowadays, 'slave labor' is common currency."

In July, Francis visited Lampedusa, the tiny island off Sicily that has been the first port of safety for thousands of migrants crossing by sea from North Africa. It was his first trip outside Rome and coordinated to to draw attention to the plight of refugees.

"A change of attitude towards migrants and refugees is needed on the part of everyone, moving away from attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalization," he said.

Wire services  

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