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Pope Francis arrived at the French port city of Marseille on Friday for a lightning visit that will center on Europe’s migration crisis, lamenting that migrants today face “a terrible lack of humanity.”

Francis arrived in Marseille after a short flight from Rome and was greeted by French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne.

While greeting individual journalists on the plane taking him to Marseille, one of them mentioned that his trip was taking place in the wake of a new surge of thousands of migrant arrivals last week at the Italian island of Lampedusa.

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“It is cruelty, a terrible lack of humanity,” he said, referring to the situation of migrants in the Mediterranean in general.

Francis is making the 27-hour trip to Marseille to conclude a meeting of Catholic young people and bishops from the Mediterranean area.

Speaking to reporters on the plane, he also lamented that after migrants were held in terrible conditions in camps, specifically mentioning Libya, they were then put out to sea to meet an uncertain fate at the hands of unscrupulous human smugglers.

Nearly, 130,000 migrants have arrived in Italy so far this year, according to government data, nearly double the figure for the same period of 2022.

That, Italy’s right-wing Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni says, makes migration a problem for the entire EU, not just the burden of frontline receiving countries such as Italy, Malta and Spain.

While Francis has said often that migrants should be shared among the 27 EU countries, his overall openness toward migrants, including once calling their exclusion “scandalous, disgusting and sinful,” has riled conservative politicians, not least in France.

“He behaves like a politician, or the head of an NGO, and not a pope,” said Gilles Pennelle, general director of the far-right Rassemblement National party of Marine Le Pen, President Emmanuel Macron’s main challenger in last year’s presidential vote.

“I think that the Christian message is one of welcome on an individual level, but it (migration) is an immense political problem and whether or not to welcome migrants is for politicians to decide,” he told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Heroes and victims

Francis has said the visit is “to Marseille, not France,” and one of the first events will be a visit on Friday evening to a monument to the heroes and victims of the sea.

It will have echoes of Francis’ first visit as pope – in 2013 to Lampedusa, where he paid tribute to migrants who died at sea and condemned “the globalization of indifference.”

The French bishops deliberately chose the diverse port city for the week-long “Mediterranean Encounters” event. It has a long history of migration – particularly from Europe, the Middle East and North Africa – and the influences of these different cultures are still felt in its streets.

“It is a cosmopolitan city that has not completely embraced the French republican idea, where many keep their double-triple identities,” Cesare Mattina, a sociologist at the University of Aix-Marseille, told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Marseille is a rare French city where migrant populations still live in the center. Indeed, a former bishop of the city was fond of saying: “In Marseille you can go around the world in 80 hours, not 80 days,” a play of words on the title of the Jules Verne novel.

But Marseille is no immigration utopia. The city has many of the problems that plague most urban centers – crime, drugs, racism and indifference.

The city’s current archbishop, Cardinal Jean Marc Aveline, an Algerian-born Frenchman, said the meetings would also discuss social issues, economic disparities, the environment and climate change.

Macron is scheduled to meet the pope twice during the visit and is expected to attend a papal Mass on Saturday, which has landed him in hot water with left-wing critics who say it violates strict separation of state and faith, known as laïcité.

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