Pope Francis held an emotional meeting with hundreds of children on Saturday, including a Nigerian boy whose parents drowned in a shipwreck, and told them migrants “are not dangerous, but in danger”.
The meeting followed a surge in migrant traffic this week between Libya and Italy, with more than 14,000 saved from overcrowded boats since Monday and three consecutive days of shipwrecks in which hundreds may have died.
Three infants were among 45 bodies recovered at sea on Friday, UNICEF Italy said.
Meeting the mostly Italian children who took a special train from southern Italy to the Vatican’s own railway station, Francis hugged the Nigerian boy, Osayande, who has been taken in by an Italian family.
He showed them an orange life jacket he was given by a Spanish rescuer working to save lives in the Mediterranean.
“He brought me this life jacket and, crying a little bit, he said: ‘Father, I failed. There was a little girl in the sea and I wasn’t able to save her. All I could reach was her life jacket’” the pope said.
“What was her name? I don’t know – a little girl without a name … She’s in heaven and watching us. Let’s close our eyes, think about her and give her a name.”
The influx of migrants and refugees into Europe in recent years has fanned popular fears of foreigners and prompted politicians to tighten border controls and limit the number of newcomers allowed to stay.